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A Welsh Conspiracy in Medieval Louth

By Alex Keyes

In 1405 while imprisoned in the dungeon of Huntingdon castle, John Veyse of Holbech made a surprising confession. Hitherto a common thief, Veyse claimed to have acted as an intermediary between several powerful figures in the English church and the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr.

Among the figures named was William the Abbot of Louth Park Abbey, who along with the Abbots of Ramsey, Thornley and Crowland and the Priors of Spalding and Huntingdon, were alleged to have jointly contributed £350 to Glyndwr’s cause. This was a significant amount of money and would have represented a serious investment in Glyndwr’s war effort.

Veyse’s confession is made more credible by the testimony of another informant, also imprisoned in Huntingdon during 1405. John Oke, a thief who operated in Essex, accused 27 people, including several more eminent churchmen, of raising £6,870 for Glyndwr; a truly monumental sum which the historian Terry Breverton values at £4.8 million in today’s money. Oke also identified John Scudamore, a Shropshire nobleman, as the receiver of the cash for the Welsh side. Oke and Veyse perhaps hoped their confessions would spare them, however their testimony failed to win them a reprieve and the pair were hung in Huntingdon during the winter of 1405.

The remains of Huntingdon Castle

The remains of Huntingdon Castle where Oke a and Veyse spent their last night.
Photo courtesy of CastleUK.net

Did the accusations have any truth to them? To begin with the confessions of Oke and Veyse present a number problems. During his trial Vesey failed to identify an Abbot he claimed to have dealt with, while both men retracted parts of their testimony completely. Other facts contradict them entirely, the most obvious being that Scudamore was outwardly loyal to King Henry IV throughout Glyndwr’s rebellion. As Ralph A. Griffiths points out in his essay Secret Supporters of Owain Glyndwr “the sole evidence for the treasonable activities of the English ecclesiastics and layman comes from statements made on the same day by two criminals imprisoned in the same time at Huntingdon Castle… John Oke and John Veyse can almost be imagined languishing in the castle gaol, feverishly concocting between them a plot to secure their own reprieve”. That said while the men’s past conduct and circumstances do not suggest Oke and Veyse as being particularly honest, their statements were enough to prompt six separate royal enquiries. Several of the named clerics were arrested and brought to trial, the results of which were inconclusive, all the persons named were probably found innocent (one record is incomplete, denying us the court’s final ruling). Surprisingly the supposedly loyal Scudamore was heavily implicated, though it seems unlikely he had met directly with Oke as had been claimed. The clandestine nature of the conspiracy, as well as the premature executions of the only witnesses meant that evidence was severely lacking. In the end Scudamore was not charged, though the suspicion aroused by the commissions led to his fall from royal favour. Some years later in 1432 he was discovered to have been secretly married to Glyndwr’s daughter Alys for at least two decades, a fact which further suggests his loyalties were, at the very least, divided.

The Great Seal of Owain Glyndwr as Prince of Wales

The Great Seal of Owain Glyndwr as Prince of Wales

Over 600 years separate us from the events of 1405 and the evidence (or lack thereof) prevents us from gaining any further insight into the nature of the alleged conspiracy. However, it remains intriguing; why would monks in far off Lincolnshire provide financial assistance to a Welsh rebel?

Since 1284 when the last native Prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Griffith was deposed by Edward I Wales had been ruled by Englishmen. In the north and south two principalities had been carved out of the captured territories and were governed, in theory, by the English King’s eldest son: The Prince of Wales. The rest of the country was divided into marcher lordships, lands held by the descendants of those Norman and English families who had seized or been granted Welsh holdings in the two centuries after the Norman conquest. Native barons still held sway in much of Wales, though in every case they were beholden to the authority of foreign lords. One of these lords was Owain Glyndwr, whose family had survived the conquest largely unscathed. Glyndwr had spent his youth in the service of King Richard II but his career had stalled when Richard was deposed by the new King: Henry IV. In 1400 a disagreement with his English neighbour, Reginald Grey, led Owain into revolt, and for the next fifteen years Wales was rocked by widespread rebellion as popular resentment against English rule turned to violence. In 1404 Owain styled himself Prince of Wales and at his most powerful during 1405 controlled much of the country and was recognized in his title by the king of France. Though his war effort eventually floundered, Owain was never captured. He may have died and been buried in secret or spent his last years in quiet retirement. One chronicler of the revolt concludes his account with a rather cryptic comment, suggesting that Owain’s supernatural return was just around the corner: “very many say that he died; the seers maintain that he did not”.

On the surface there is little here which should have concerned the monks of Louth, however looking a little deeper there are a few factors which may have attracted them to Glyndwr’s cause. Louth Park Abbey formed part of the Cistercian order, a monastic organisation noted for its devotion to hard work, asceticism and frugality. The Cistercians arrived in Wales in the wake of the first Norman incursions but quickly formed a friendly relationship with many of its native dynasties. This friendship led to the founding of fifteen Cistercian communities in Wales by both native and foreign patrons and the granting to them of vast upland farms. It was the Cistercians who began the association of Wales with the sheep (before their arrival cattle were far more common) and the revenue from wool made the order very wealthy. The 13th century writer Gerald of Wales suggested that if you “settle the Cistercians in some barren retreat which is hidden away in an overgrown forest: a year or two later you will find splendid churches there with fine monastic buildings, with a great amount of property and all the wealth you can imagine.” The affable relations between the Cistercians and native princes also ensured that their houses had a far higher proportion of Welsh members than other orders. A situation which led to the (probably correct) assumption that the order was inclined to support Welsh over foreign interests, a trend which continued long after the English conquest. At the outset of Glyndwr’s rebellion several Cistercian houses, including the largest, Strata Florida, declared their support. The monks of Strata Florida paid heavily for their act of rebellion and in 1401 Henry IV and his son, the future Henry V, looted and burned the monastery, turning out the surviving monks. For the remainder of the war it would remain a garrison for the King’s troops. The same fate befell many other Cistercian houses throughout Wales and by the end of the rebellion the order was a greatly diminished force. In aiding Glyndwr, it is possible the Abbot of Louth Park was seeking revenge for Henry IV’s attacks against the Cistercians, however, while this is certainly motivation enough for his alleged financial support, the situation is complicated further by Cistercian support for the deposed King, Richard II.

The Remains of Strata Florida Abbey

The Remains of Strata Florida Abbey

In 1399 Richard was betrayed, imprisoned and usurped by his cousin and erstwhile ally, Henry of Bolingbroke. The following year he disappeared from his prison at Pontefract castle, never to be seen alive again. Unlike his successor, the King was an enthusiastic patron of the Cistercians and the historical accounts left by members of the order (including the Louth Park Chronicle) are some of the most positive treatments of his reign. The somewhat murky circumstances of Richard’s removal from power and subsequent disappearance led many people to believe, often more out of hope than conviction, that he remained alive. If Richard had survived and was living in hiding, the possibility remained that he could be restored and Henry IV removed from power. Between 1400 and 1405 several rumours of Richard’s survival circulated, particularly around East Anglia and the midlands, letters were even produced, ostensibly from the King, telling his followers to prepare for his return. In Scotland a false Richard appeared, while in Wales Glyndwr declared that Richard or his heirs were the true kings of England. Some of his allies even began an erstwhile search for Richard in the hopes of restoring him to power. A group of Franciscan friars, another monastic order largely loyal to the old regime, even instructed their followers to travel to Wales in order to seek out the King. In 1404 the Cistercian Abbot of Revesby suggested that there were at least 10,000 men in England who believed Richard was alive and a cause worth fighting for.

Whether the excitement about the impending return of Richard II was responsible for Louth Park’s possible contribution to Glyndwr’s cause is impossible to say, however Glyndwr’s notional allegiance to restoring Richard made him one of the few people with the power to achieve such a feat. By 1404 the acceptance that Richard almost certainly dead led Owain to form a new policy toward England. In 1405 he concluded a treaty known as the tripartite indenture with the Percy and Mortimer families, agreeing to a division of Henry IV’s realms between them. Though both families had supported Richard’s deposition, their rebellions were galvanised by an appeal to his memory alongside loose family connections. The time had clearly come to bring down King Henry and the potential for restoring Richard or placing someone else on throne, alongside a desire for revenge against the king who had so violently attacked their order may go some way to explain why the monks of Louth believed channelling money to a Welsh rebel represented a sensible course of action.

In the end we are still left with the distinct possibility that Louth Park Abbey was not involved in the conspiracy of Oke and Veyse, however by examining the situation the Cistercian order found itself in during 1400-1405, we can see that the contribution of money by Abbot William to Glyndwr is not an entirely implausible course of events.

*Unless stated all images are courtesy of Wikipedia

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© Alex Keyes 2017

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