The Battle of Pilleth: a talk by Anthony Rich. May 15th 2017.

Anthony Rich, secretary of the Battlefields Trust Shropshire division, gave us a lively talk on the Battle of Pilleth which took place on 22nd June 1402. He claimed that on this one day a few thousand Welshmen and a few thousand Herefordshire men changed the way we see Britain and the concept of Welsh identity. And that it was the start of the Wars of the Roses. (The real end of that War, Anthony claimed, was the Armada in which Philip of Spain was the last Lancastrian, White Rose and Elizabeth I the last Yorkist, Red Rose.) Without Pilleth there would have been no Tudors, no Henry VIII and all that followed.

The basis of kingship in the Middle Ages was unclear; it needed royal blood but also the support of nobility and church, of trade for finance and of military service. Edward III, modelling himself on Arthur, held the throne against all-comers, until old age and senility took him.  He left a family tree of warring contenders. To begin with Richard II succeeded him, but was deposed and killed by John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, who took the throne, as Henry IV,  with support from the Percy and Mortimer families, who were allied through Harry Hotspur’s marriage to Elizabeth Mortimer.

Anthony then considered the armour of the period which consisted of chain mail and plate mail, with weapons of swords and poles. These however were no defence against arrows which could reach 250 yds, and be fired at the rate of 12 per minute. Arrow heads and chain mail were handed round to demonstrate this point. Battles were fought on foot, with horses often put aside, since their principal purpose was to carry the armoured Lord to the battle site.  Archers were a major force, and were particularly significant in this battle.  Some of them appeared to have been recruited by the English army on the way, as a local mercenary force to add to the numbers.  Not a particularly good idea, since the forces on the flanks of the English army changed sides during the battle and added to the firepower of Glyndwr.

Glyndwr was of the ancient Welsh aristocracy, married to the daughter of an English judge and he had served as a soldier in the English army. His battles began with a land dispute with the Lord of Ruthin, which he won, but the decision was overturned when Henry became king. He then proclaimed himself Prince of Wales and started fighting for the liberty of his people. He successfully attacked the castles in North Wales which were occupied by the English using tactics of ambush, raid and surprise. The Welsh were encouraged by his successes and flocked to him. His Tudor cousins, by a ruse, captured Conway Castle, embarrassing King Henry who then raised levies of Herefordshire men who assembled in Wigmore to march to central Wales to subdue Glyndwr.

The battle at Pilleth, or Bryn Glas, was a catastrophe for Henry’s side. The site is still much as it was for the battle.  The Welsh were on top of the hill, with more soldiers hidden in a dip behind them. They lured the English up the steep hillside but it was impossible to progress with their heavy armour or to shoot their arrows upwards. The archers Mortimer had recruited in Welshpool changed sides and yet more Welsh spearmen appeared from the dip behind the hill. The army was routed and Mortimer captured. He was taken to Harlech where the King refused to pay his ransom, so in a not untypical deal he married Glyndwr’s daughter and changed sides. Percy too revolted and the Battle of Shrewsbury 1403 ensued, in which finally Henry succeeded, although there was confusion about whether he had been killed or not.  A not unusual messy, brutal battle, in which the principal protagonists, left alive, subsequently agreed to a power sharing arrangement.

Antony made the point that basic military tactics, still part of training today, were both used and ignored (also he thought true today), so what seemed a foolhardy attack by the English forces, on unforgiving ground, has been repeated many time over the centuries.  Underestimating the enemy and overconfidence in your own forces once again proved a disaster.  He did mention in questions that Custer’s Last Stand was quite similar to what happened at Pilleth.




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