It’s not every day that one discovers an illustrious forebear in the annals of history or literature. But there he was, my ancestor Davy Gam, right there in William Shakespeare’s King Henry V, Act 4, Scene 8:
King Henry: “Where is the number of our English dead?”
Herald: “Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire; None else of name….”
Davy Gam was Sir Dafydd Gam ap Llewellyn ap Hywel (the Gam transitioning into the modern Gaines, which is the family line of my maternal great-grandmother). Dafydd, or David, was a native of Wales and a staunch supporter of the English house of Lancaster. He served with distinction under King Henry IV against fellow Welshman Owain Glyndwr in the latter’s uprising of 1400-13 (see Military History, December 2002), and again under Henry V during the renewed Hundred Years’ War in France, saving the king’s life at Agincourt in 1415. He was also the inspiration and model for the character of Captain Fluellen in Shakespeare’s King Henry V.
Dafydd Gam was born in 1351 in the town of Brecon, which was the seat of the Welsh borough of Brecknock. He was the son of Lord Llewellyn of Pen-pont and a member of the Welsh lower nobility, or uchelwr. His was a distinguished family that could trace its ancestral roots back to Cradoc of the Strong Arm, a 5th-century Romanized Celt and a trusted lieutenant/adviser to Lucius Artorius Castus, aka King Arthur (see Military History, April 2000). Dafydd was a short, red-haired man with an unprepossessing appearance, but an affable—if outspoken—personality. His unflattering nickname, “Gam,” meaning “squint-eyed David,” suggests that he was nearsighted.
During his early 20s, Dafydd became embroiled in a violent feud with his kinsman Lord Richard Fawr of Slwch. The origin of the quarrel is unknown, but it culminated in a duel on Brecon High Street. Richard was killed, and to avoid capital punishment, Dafydd paid a large fine, or weregild. Even then, with vendettas rumored to be brewing against him, he fled to Herefordshire. There, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose Welsh holdings included Monmouth and Brecknock, accepted Dafydd’s oath of fealty and placed the fiery Welshman in his retinue of household troops.
Dafydd first saw action as part of an armed escort for the religious reformer John Wycliffe, who was being provided protection by the duke. He helped fight off hostile London rioters during that controversial figure’s trials for heresy in 1377 and 1378. Dafydd was also among those chosen to go to Spain in 1386 on John of Gaunt’s three-year crusade against the Spanish Moors. Having proved himself in battle, Dafydd was appointed an adviser to Henry Bolingbroke, the duke’s eldest son and heir. He joined Henry on his own crusades aimed at infidels in Eastern Europe—forays into Lithuania in 1390 and Prussia in 1392. Wounded during the fighting, Dafydd returned to Wales to convalesce after the duke’s triumphant return to England. Though 20 years had passed since his self-imposed exile, Dafydd remained too apprehensive to go back to Brecknock just yet, settling instead in adjacent Monmouth, near Henry’s residence.
According to later family tradition, it was during this time that Dafydd Gam became friend and confidant to Bolingbroke’s son, Henry of Monmouth, the future Prince Hal. The boy looked up to the older Welshman, who spent much time with him and helped to tutor him. When Bolingbroke was banished to Ireland by King Richard II in late 1398, Dafydd was one of the few entrusted with the guardianship of the younger Henry. John of Gaunt died in February 1399, and his estates were confiscated by King Richard soon after. Incensed at this repudiation of his rightful inheritance, Bolingbroke invaded England in July and usurped the throne at the end of September. Now Dafydd found himself affiliated with a royal household.
The early years of King Henry IV’s reign were beset by internal disorders, the most notable being a nationalist rebellion in Wales, fomented by disaffected Welsh landowner Owain Glyndwr. Many commoners flocked to Glyndwr’s banner, but the allegiance of the gentry was divided. The aging Dafydd Gam was in a state of semiretirement by then, but as the war with Glyndwr dragged on, with repeated invasions of Wales failing to subdue the rebels, the king recalled Dafydd into active service as an adviser to Prince Hal. With Dafydd’s help the adolescent prince led a series of successful raids into North Wales throughout the spring of 1403. That summer, the influential Henry Percy of Northumberland, aka Harry Hotspur, defected to Glyndwr’s side, and King Henry moved quickly to prevent the two factions from joining forces. Hotspur’s army was intercepted at Shrewsbury in July, and a fierce battle ensued on the 16th (see Military History, August 2003). At a critical juncture, Dafydd advised the prince to send in his division of men to attack Hotspur’s exposed flank, resulting in a decisive victory for the crown.
Meanwhile, Glyndwr rebounded, reaching the zenith of his power by April 1404, when he became Prince of Wales at Machynlleth. There, he held his first Welsh Parliament, summoning representatives from all the leading families in Wales. As the nominal representative of Brecon, Dafydd was duly invited to attend. Dafydd journeyed to Machynlleth, planning to assassinate Glyndwr and end the revolt in one stroke. His plot was discovered, however, and his life was spared only by the intercession of some of Glyndwr’s friends. After months of imprisonment at Machynlleth, he was released on his oath as a gentleman that he would cease hostilities against Glyndwr.
For a time Dafydd honored that pledge, finally returning to Brecknock—after 30 years—and marrying the daughter of a fellow uchelwr loyalist. The strength of his fidelity to his liege bore him out, however, for in due course he rejoined Prince Hal in time to participate in the battles of Grosmont in March 1405 and Pwll Melyn in May, both defeats for Glyndwr. Afterward Dafydd took a brief paternity leave for the birth of his baby daughter, Gwladus.
By 1409, Glyndwr’s rebellion was all but over, and Dafydd returned to his family in Brecon. In 1412, however, Glyndwr raided Brecon for the express purpose of capturing Dafydd, in revenge for perceived treachery. He succeeded, and by then an infirm Henry IV was unable to do anything about it. Upon Henry’s death the next year, Prince Hal ascended the throne as King Henry V. One of his first acts was to ransom his old friend Dafydd.
As one means of ending domestic strife and unifying the kingdom, Henry V precipitated a war with England’s traditional foreign foe, France, in 1415. As one of Henry’s experienced and trusted captains, Dafydd accompanied his king on the campaign. The English expeditionary army landed in France in mid-August and marched on the port of Harfleur. During the ensuing siege, Dafydd openly criticized a fellow captain supervising the English mining efforts, offering his expertise in order to bolster the failing operations against French countermining. He was ignored, however, and English mining was subsequently neutralized. Like many of the English troops, Dafydd suffered from dysentery and fever from poor camp conditions, but as a seasoned campaigner he recovered in short order. Harfleur finally fell in late September, and King Henry turned north toward Calais, raiding the French countryside.
An admirer of the ancient Roman war machine, Dafydd was a harsh taskmaster who exercised similar iron discipline among his own men. He executed English looters during the march and refused to hear any pleas on their behalf. The English finally forded the Somme River on October 19, but on the 24th they found their way blocked by the massive French army near the village of Agincourt. Dafydd led a party of scouts to reconnoiter the enemy, and when informing the king of the French numbers, he reportedly said, “If it please your highness, there are enough to be killed, enough to be taken prisoner, and enough to run away.” That night he helped to enforce a strict code of silence in the English camp, to convey an image of timidity and encourage French overconfidence.
As dawn broke on October 25, both sides drew themselves up into battle formations. Dafydd held a command of 200 archers stationed on one English wing. As the French advanced across the muddy field between the two armies, Dafydd encouraged and chided his men to achieve maximum firepower (for the typical archer, about 10 arrows loosed per minute). But the French pushed on through the deadly hail of missiles until they closed with the English men-at-arms in the center, rendering the archers unable to shoot for fear of hitting their comrades. With French reinforcements on the way and the battle hanging in the balance, speculation has it that Dafydd made the monumental decision to order his archers to drop their bows and rush into the melee with other weapons, varying from short swords to axes or mallets. Other archers soon followed their example, and before long both English wings encircled the tightly packed throng of French soldiers.
It was many years since Davy Gam had seen personal combat, but the 64-year-old Welshman waded in and fought like a man half his age. King Henry was also in the thick of the action, coming under attack from a cadre of French squires who had foresworn to slay the English monarch. Seeing the danger, Dafydd led a few others to the side of their embattled liege. At one point a French ax struck a heavy blow to Henry’s helmet, badly denting it, lopping a fleuret from Henry’s crown and sending the king reeling into the mud. Henry was saved by an exhausted and badly injured Dafydd Gam, who leapt to his defense and held off the French while Hal recovered and regained his balance. Dafydd was mortally wounded in the process, and was subsequently knighted by King Henry as he lay dying on the battlefield. By his timely actions, not the least of which was defending the king, Davy Gam contributed to Henry’s victory at Agincourt, which is counted among the most lopsided in military history.
Historians have lauded Sir Dafydd Gam’s heroism at Agincourt—Sir Walter Raleigh went so far as to compare him to Hannibal. Although he is vilified in modern Wales for opposing Owain Glyndwr, there was no real sense of nationalism then as it is understood today. Sir Dafydd Gam left a legacy of loyalty that was passed on to future generations, even though his name is unknown to most Americans. His grandson William would later become the first full-blooded Welshman to join the ranks of English titled aristocracy.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.