Monday, October 2, 2017

The Secrets of Anglesey Island, the Home of the Tudors

by Nancy Bilyeau


View from a cliff on Anglesey Island [wikimedia commons, photo by Eric Jones]

After the army of  Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, an effort swung into action to make Henry seem as kingly as possible. It wasn't enough that Richard must be seen as the blackest villain ever to draw breath. Henry himself, to hold the throne, must be venerated as royal.

But that wasn't going to be easy.

Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was descended from the great John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and while that gave him the right to call himself a Lancastrian heir, the Beauforts were the children of Gaunt's mistress, Katherine Swynford. True, Gaunt married her after the five children were born and Henry IV had them legitimized. Still, no less than an act of Parliament barred a Beaufort from ever succeeding to the throne. Serious obstacle, that.

Henry VII

So the Tudor propaganda machine got busy with building up the reputation of the last Lancaster king, Henry VI. In life he suffered complete nervous breakdowns, was led by his relatives and his wife, and would have been far better off as a monk than a king during the vicious family disputes later known as the War of the Roses. In 1471, defeated, he was murdered in the Tower of London by the triumphant Yorks. Some say that he was the worst king of the medieval era.

But Henry VI needed to look better that that and quickly. He was the half-brother of Edmund Tudor, father of the new King Henry VII. He was family. Some serious revision was in order.

So in the inaugural pageants of Henry VII, prominence was given to his dead uncle, the "Martir By Great Tormenting." Stories circulated of King Henry VI's miracles, such as curing the blind and saving children from fires. Strenuous efforts were made to persuade the Pope to make Henry VI a saint.

The new royal family was working with what they had. The Tudors' connection to Henry VI was not as straightforward as might seem at first glance. Henry VI's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, did not possess one drop of Plantagenet blood. Edmund's mother was Catherine of Valois--a French princess who was briefly married to Henry V and gave birth to Henry VI--and his father was Catherine's handsome Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. The legend goes that the young widow spotted Owen swimming naked in a river. Catherine secretly married Owen and they had four or five children.

Catherine of Valois marrying first husband Henry V

When he came to the throne, Henry VII's Welsh descent was honored, of course. After all, Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper (Edmund's younger brother) purposefully landed in Wales with their army and made a popular appeal for support as they marched toward England. The Welsh flocked to his cause, and his army flew the flag of the red dragon of Cadwallader,  the legendary Welsh ruler. After he won the battle, the new King Henry VII proclaimed himself as heir to the 7th century Cadwallader, a new king whose rise was foretold in the misty prophecies of Merlin.

As for the king's far more recent, undoubted Welsh background, not much was said about that. After all, when it was discovered years ago, the secret marriage was an embarrassment. Queens didn't marry their servants. Following the death of Catherine of Valois, her oldest child, Henry VI, committed the non-saintly act of sending his stepfather, Owen Tudor, to Newgate Prison (he was later pardoned and pensioned).

But the Tudor family--which did give its name to England's most memorable dynasty--should not be ignored pre-Bosworth. They were a family of genuine achievement and for centuries they lived on a remarkable island, Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales. It was a place of mystical power...and a spirit of ferocious independence.

The beautiful island [wikimedia commons, photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick]

We learn of Anglesey (its Welsh name is Ynys Môn) through the writings of Roman historians.  Roman rulers feared its occupants. That's right, feared. At its height, the Roman empire controlled land lived on by 50 million people. Yet Anglesey held a special place among the strategies of the caesars.

It was because of the Druids. Anglesey was the last Druid sanctuary.

The revival of the Druid religion in the 18th century confuses our understanding of the original. We may envision robed figures dancing in the moonlight, swathed in wreaths. That's Druids 2.0. The Romans encountered something else.

Julius Caesar fought the Celts for eight years in modern-day France. The Gallic Wars gave him fame and fortune but he didn't win easily. The priestly, educated class of the Celts in France, England and Ireland were the Druids, and he was fascinated by the mysterious spiritual leaders of his adversaries.  Julius Caesar wrote:

"The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions....The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing the druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man's life a man's life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent."

Whether or not Druids oversaw human sacrifice is hotly debated. Historians long dismissed it as Roman gossip, but recent findings suggest otherwise. "Lindow Man," found in the peat bog of Cheshire, was a young Celtic of high status who was strangled and then had his throat cut, during the first century AD.

What cannot be disputed is that when the Romans struggled to conquer Britain, they targeted the Druids as those who fomented rebellion.  They were 1st Century freedom fighters. The Romans could not subdue the people for long; frustrated, they decided to wipe out the Druids to break the people's spirit. To do that, they must march on Anglesey, the Druid stronghold.

What do we know about the lives of the Druids? Very little. The Druids left no written records. Researchers believe it took twenty years for a student to become a Druid. They honored the winter and summer solstices. The conjecture is that the Druids believed in the immortality of the soul and that after death it found a new body. According to the Museum of Wales, between 300 BC and 100 AD, chariots, weapons, tools and decorated metalwork were cast into a lake at the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Whatever the Druids were doing, the Romans set themselves to wipe it out. Tacitus wrote vividly of the slaughter of Druids on Anglesey, some of them women, led by Roman commander Suetonius Paulinus in 61 AD:
"On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames."
Menai Straits, where the Romans crossed
[wikimedia commons, photo by Mark Chambers]

Little more is heard of the Druids. Rome did its horrific job. Moreover, as Wales accepted Christianity, the Druids as a priestly class were bound to become extinct, probably by the 7th century.

But for the people who remained on the island, the defiant spirit of Anglesey was not broken. After Rome fell, waves of invasion by Saxons and Vikings took their toll across England. Wales for the most part stayed true to its Celtic origins. (Anglesey was taken by Irish warlords for a time, before throwing them off.) The "Kingdom of Gwynedd" rose in Wales, its rulers declaring themselves "Kings of the Britons," and for several centuries the town of Aberffraw, on Anglesey Island, was this kingdom's power base.

Then came Edward I. 

As far as Anglesey was concerned, the kings of England, first Norman and then Plantagenet, weren't English at all. They spoke French, for starters. The Welsh maintained their independence throughout the rules of families based in far-away London, until Edward I launched war, using strategies nearly as horrific as the Romans. When the last king of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, died in battle in 1282, Edward I sent his severed head to London to be displayed, mockingly, with a crown of ivy and then mounted over the gate of the Tower of London. 

It's during this turbulent time that the Tudor name first appears in historical record. For four centuries, the Tudor family served the independent Welsh kings of Gwynedd in high positions, resisted English attempts at subjugation and, even after Edward I's brutalizing wars, continued to support revolt.  Henry Tudor's known ancestor was Edynyfed Fychan ap Cynwrig, a seneschal of Llywelyn the Great in the early 13th century. The Tudor seat on Anglesey was the village of Penmynydd, which means top of the mountain in Welsh. They were undoubtedly a leading family.

The rocky coastline [wikimedia commons, photo by Lesbardd]



So how did Owen Tudor end up working as a servant for a widowed English queen? By the time of his birth, the island of Anglesey was worn down by generations of fighting the English. The Tudors were on the front lines of the latest struggle. Owen's father, Maredudd ap Tudor, and uncles were key combatants in the Glyndŵr Rising, also known as the Last War of Independence. The Tudors were fierce guerrilla fighters during that long revolt, and were left impoverished at its end in 1415. The victorious English crown fined the defeated rebels and seized their land. Seeing no choice, Owen's father took his family off the island.

There is some speculation Owen Tudor fought under Henry V as a soldier at Agincourt and won royal notice that way. After the death of the wife they shared, Catherine of Valois, Owen supported the rights of Henry VI. He was descended from men who rebelled against the English kings for decades. Now he was the stepfather of such a king.

Owen was fighting in the army of his own son, Jasper, when the Lancasters lost to the future Edward IV at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross and he was captured. The Yorkists decided to execute Owen immediately. Shortly before he was beheaded on February 2, 1461, Owen Tudor said, "That hede shalle ly on the stocke that wass wonte to ly on Quene Catheryn's lappe."

When, more than a century later, Queen Elizabeth defied Spain and roused England to defend itself from the Armada, historians see the character of her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, in the Queen's courage and eloquence.

Elizabeth said to her soldiers:

"Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust."
And maybe, just maybe, we can hear in her words an echo of the spirit of the many freedom fighters of Anglesey Island.


Island of Anglesey [wikimedia commons; photo by Lesbardd]


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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in 16th century England featuring Dominican novice Joanna Stafford: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.  The books were published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and are on sale in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense at RWA in 2016. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.

The Chalice is priced at $3.99 for the month of October.

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