Pennal Letter: Wales’ important role in European politics

Collections / Story of Wales - Posted 29-03-2019

This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

The Pennal Letter is one of the most striking documents produced in Wales during the Middle Ages. It reveals a confident Wales that played an important part in European politics at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

By March 1406, when the letter was written, Glyndŵr had experienced incredible success. After a disappointing start in 1400 the rebellion had swept throughout the country winning military victories, capturing a number of Edward I’s main castles and attracting support from the French king. Glyndŵr was crowned prince of Wales and he held a parliament with representatives from every corner of the country. He had succeeded in creating a Welsh principality that was free from the control of the king of England.

But by 1406 the tide had begun to turn against the rebellion. In the months before the letter was written Glyndŵr lost battles, his brother was killed, his son was captured and some parts of the country began to waver in their support. He had therefore to regain momentum by ensuring further support from France.

At the time of the rebellion major events were happening in Europe’s history. European kings were divided by the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and the Church was split in two by the Papal Schism when two popes were elected in opposition to one another. France supported the Avignon pope while the Roman pope was supported by England. The purpose of the letter was to strengthen the alliance between Wales and France by transferring Wales’ allegiance from the Roman pope to the Avignon pope. The letter made Wales an independent player in Europe’s political games and placed the nation at the centre of the greatest events of the day.

What we also see in the letter is Glyndŵr, as in many other aspects of the rebellion, following a policy that was at the same time both traditional and radical.

An alliance with France made political sense, but Glyndwr was also following in the footsteps of other important Welsh rulers. In the 1160s an alliance existed between Owain Gwynedd and Louis VII while in 1212 a similar relationship developed between Llywelyn the Great and Philip Augustus. Only a few decades before the Glyndŵr Rebellion the king of France had supported Owain Lawgoch, a descendant of the princes of Gwynedd, in his attempt to become prince of Wales.

What was new about the letter is the comprehensive vision that it includes. While supporting the Avignon pope Glyndŵr outlines his plans for the country:

  • a Welsh Church free from the authority of Canterbury, under an archbishop of St David’s;
  • two universities, one in the north and another in the south, to train the clergy;
  • clergy should be able to speak Welsh, rather than the non-Welsh-speakers from England often appointed to the highest positions in the Church;
  • the revenue of the Church in Wales should stay in Wales rather than, as often happened, going over the border to England.

This vision wasn’t fulfilled in Glyndŵr’s day, but modern-day Wales – with its parliament, universities, national institutions and emphasis on the importance of the Welsh language – in many ways resembles the vision outlined by Glyndŵr in the Pennal Letter.

Dr Rhun Emlyn

Medieval Historian

University of Aberystwyth

This post is also available in: Welsh

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