The battle of Pilleth, also known as the battle of Bryn Glas, was fought on the 22nd June 1402 between a Welsh army led by Owain Glyndwr and an English army led by Edmund Mortimer and is notable, not only because the Welsh actually won, but also because it was one of the few occasions in history when the English found themselves at the wrong end of the longbow.
A Welsh nobleman by the name of Owain Glyndwr had fallen into a dispute with Reginald de Grey, the Lord of Ruthin regarding some land. Unable to get justice from Parliament (which simply refused to hear the case), Glyndwr therefore raised the standard of revolt at Glyndyfrdwy on the 16th September 1400 and launched an attack on Ruthin. Glyndwr's supporters proclaimed him as Prince of Wales, and so what began as a private dispute over a parcel of land turned into a Welsh national revolt against English rule.
This was a particularly opportune moment to launch a revolt as it was only a few months since king Richard II had been overthrown and deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke now Henry IV. Despite the unpopularity of Richard's regime, Henry's hold on power was by no means secure. The rebellion thus proved to be surprisingly successful and King Henry's own attempts at suppressing Glyndwr ultimately proved fruitless. So Edmund Mortimer, uncle of his namesake the young Earl of March, who had become fed up with Welsh raiding his family estates in the Welsh Marches decided to do something about it. Hearing that Glyndwr was on his way into Maelienydd, close to the border with Herefordshire, Mortimer raised an army of some 2,000 men and marched into Wales to seek out and destroy Glyndwr and put an end to his rebellion.
Now up to this point, Glyndwr had made rather a point of avoiding battle and instead concentrated on hit and run guerilla tactics to disrupt his enemies. But having successfully harassed the English for a good few years
he now had the confidence that his men had amassed the experience and discipline to challenge a English army in open battle. The two armies therefore approached each other and met at the village of Pilleth, within the commote of Maelienydd in what later became known as Radnorshire.
The Battle of Pilleth
Just outside the village of Pilleth lay a steep hill known as Bryn Glas. It was on the slopes of this hill that Glyndwr placed half of his 1,500 or so men, whilst the remainder were secreted in a wooded valley on his left flank. Bryn Glas was a particularly steep hill, with a one in four gradient, and so Glyndwr was counting on the fact that the advantage of this high ground, would counteract the numerical superiority of the English army now marching towards his position.
When Edmund Mortimer's army appeared in Pilleth they were confronted with what appeared to them to be a much inferior force of Welsh rebels sitting on top of a hill waiting to be attacked. Naturally Mortimer marched his army up the hill to engage his enemy.
The battle began with the customary exchange of missile fire. Had the English been fighting anyone else during the fifteenth century they would have been confident of scoring a decisive advantage at this point as their longbowmen rained death on the enemy. However the Welsh also possessed the longbow (some argue that the longbow was invented by the Welsh) and because Glyndwr's archers were on the high ground, their arrows could travel much further than Mortimer's who were having to shoot uphill. This meant that the Welsh longbowmen could happily rain down arrows on their enemy whilst remaining out of range of any retaliatory fire.
The English army thus took heavy casualties without being able to make much of an impression on their foe. Rather than simply stand around getting killed they now decided to charge the Welsh lines and thus broke ranks to struggle up the hill to engage the enemy.
As it happens Mortimer had engaged a detachment of Welsh archers and placed them on his left flank. They now decided to switch sides and began firing their arrows into the flank of their former comrades. No one knows whether this was part of some pre-arranged plot by Glyndwr or whether Mortimer's archers simply got fed up being shot at and decided that their chances of survival would be much improved by a change of masters, but whatever the reason, this minor betrayal was a serious blow that disrupted the English charge.
Seeing this development Glyndwr's men charged down the hill at Mortimer's army. The two sides engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand combat for a while until Glyndwr delivered the coup-de-gras, and gave the signal for his reserve to charge out of their position hidden in the valley and fall upon the rear of the English army. Now beset on three sides, those members of Mortimer's army still standing took the logical option and fled downhill as best they could. This was probably a wise decision on their part as there were later rumours that some of the Welsh women accompanying Glyndwr's army had "obscenely mutilated" many of the bodies of those that remained.
Thus Owain Glyndwr emerged as the victor at Pilleth, demonstrating to his followers that it was possible for the Welsh to defeat an English army in battle. according to the Annals of Owain Glyn Dwr "Sir Robert Whitney and Sir Kinard de la Bere were slain and Sir Edmund Mortimer and Sir Thomas Clanvow were captured and most of the English host slain." Glyndwr followed up his victory and moved south burning and Abergavenny before arriving at Cardiff which he burnt as well.
The captured Edmund Mortimer was held for ransom, but unfortunately Henry IV was short of money and so refused to pay. This refusal rather annoyed Edward who thought he deserved better and so he changed sides and joined Glyndwr. A few months later in November, Mortimer and Glyndwr entered into pact, agreeing to cop-operate in the restoration of Richard II to the throne (who was still widely believed to be alive) or failing him Edmund's nephew the Earl of March. To seal the bargain Edmund even married Catrin, one of Glyndwr's daughters. The defection of such a powerful nobleman to Glyndwr's cause was a serious threat to Henry IV, as Mortimer had family connections with the powerful Percy family from the North-East of England and had their own reasons to be disillusioned with Henry's regime.
The Glyndwr Revolt therefore became the main focus of the anti-Lancastrian forces within the kingdom culminating in the Tripartite Indenture of 1405 when the three interested parties agreed to remove Henry IV from the throne, and divide up the country between themselves.
Local tradition has it that a group of Wellingtonia trees planted at Bryn Glas mark the site of the battle, but there is certainly a burial mound on the hillside where all the English dead were buried.
- John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
- Peter Snow, Dan Snow Battlefield Britain (BBC Books, 2004)
- Pilleth: the battle of Bryn Glas, 1402
- Annals of Owain Glyn Dwr