. . .at my birth,
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men. King Henry IV, Act III, scene 1
Nor was he.
He was the great Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr, who fought against the English crown almost from the cradle, a giant of a man both of body and spirit, the last Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. Today we know him mostly for those very Celtic boasts that Shakespeare–who anglicized his name to Owen Glendower–gave him in the first part of Henry IV, but back in the day he was one of the reasons the crown sat uneasily on Henry’s usurping head.
Historians will tell you that Owain vanished without a trace somewhere around the year 1412, after his last defeat. However, if ghostly evidence is to be believed, Owain lived out his last days right under the noses of Henry IV and his successor Henry V.
Croft Castle stands not far from the Welsh border, near Leominster. Outside, it still looks like a castle from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, at which time it was built; much of the interior, however, dates from the eighteenth century.
Stories say that Croft is home to several spirits, one of whom is a giant of a man believed to be Owain Glyndwr.
The most sensational sighting of this man, who stands seven feet tall, has the bobbed hair of the early fifteenth century, and wears a leather jerkin, dates to the period 1920-1926.
Among the friends of the contemporary Lord Croft were several members of the Oxford boat race crew; Sir James himself was the cox of the team and coxed them in the annual race against Cambridge in 1926. Among the members of the crew, the “stroke”, a very tall, very muscular man, was coming through Croft’s portrait gallery on his way to supper one evening, when he was startled to see, in the dim light of the gallery, a man even taller and bigger than himself. The ghost–if ghost it was–seemed as startled as he was himself, and faded away in a few seconds–but not before the stroke noted his bobbed hair and leather jerkin.
Nor was he the only one to see the huge man that evening. After dinner, the party was setting out to attend a hunt ball when one of the Oxford oarsmen realized he had left his cigarettes in the Oak Room. He dashed back into the castle and, at the door to the Oak Room, almost collided with a man he described as “enormous”, who wore a leather jerkin and must have stood a good seven feet tall. The man vanished, as he had before the startled stroke.
Members of the party would say later that the oarsman, after his encounter, was “green and shaky all evening.”
So there remains one question: is there, in fact, a possibility that the Giant of Croft Castle is, indeed, the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who boasted he could “call spirits from the vssty deep”?
Indeed there is. Owain was the father of many children, and one of his daughters–Janet–was married to the early fifteenth century lord of Croft Castle. Owain could have taken shelter in his daughter’s home, living out his last years (most historians say he probably died in 1416) practically in plain sight of the English crown, which had placed a gigantic bounty on his head.
He would have hated the quiet life he was forced to lead in those last years, but no doubt found it a wonderful joke that the Crown never knew he was living on its soil.
Owain was never betrayed, never captured, and he never applied for pardon: a rebel to the very end.
This account of the ghost of Owain Glyndwr comes from Peter Underwood’s This Haunted Isle (1984).
Odd factoid: it seems that all the great rebels against the English crown have become, in legend, phenomenally big men. Another example is the Scotsman William Wallace–better known, in our day, as Braveheart–whom, the stories say, stood six feet six in a time when most men weren’t much over five feet six, if that. Literalist that I am, I therefore have a bias against Mel Gibson’s performance as Braveheart in the movie of the same name; he was convincing in other ways, but DANG, he’s way too short! 😉