There are a lot of castles in Wales. Of all the places I’ve been in the UK, for not that big a country Wales has more castles than pretty much anywhere else. This is partly because it was subdued by the English at the height of large castles being used for military oppression and domination. Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the late 13th century, led to the extraordinary (but also incredibly in your face reminders of domination and suppression) castles like Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Conwy. These were statements of English power on Welsh soil. They were deliberately built in places of significance to the Welsh, to enforce English rule and as a way of destroying Welsh identity and heritage. You can see all three below.
I have written about all three castle before and more information can be found here:
The incursions of the English in the south of Wales and the development of the lordships in the Welsh Marches led to even older castles like Chepstow, which dates to the 11th century, and more ‘modern’ late 13th century castles like Caerphilly. You can see both Chepstow and Caerphilly below.
These were English (Norman French) lords building their own dominance onto the landscape, as they carved out their own lordships, and influence.
Again I’ve written about Chepstow and Caerphilly before
These are only a fraction of the 600 castles you’ll find in Wales. I’ve written about others before so have a rummage around the rest of the blog, and see what you can find. I’ve also added some other websites to explore in the references if you want to know more.
It is fitting that the majority of castles found in Wales today are run by Cadw, the Welsh heritage authority, and over the years the Welsh have certainly added to, over run and controlled many non Welsh built castles. For example Owain Glyndwr took Aberystwyth Castle in 1404, though he didn’t hold it for that long. You can see some of what’s left of Aberystwyth Castle in the photo below.
The Welsh also built their own castles. There are fewer of these that are purely Welsh, and I wanted to focus on two, both in North Wales and built by Welsh princes. Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. They don’t have the scale of some of the more dramatic castles, but they are definitively Welsh built, and each has their own story to tell. I have written about both before as part of my advent calendar of castles, but this post will examine them in a bit more detail.
So to begin: Dolwyddelan.
Dolwyddelan castle stands imposingly on a hill guarding the Lledr Valley. It stands on a private farm, but it is open to the public. It was most likely built by Llywelyn the Great Prince of Gwynedd (North Wales) in roughly 1200 CE, there is not a lot of surviving early evidence. There is a local tradition that that Llywelyn was born in the castle, but other locations are more likely. Llywelyn was the Welsh Prince who came closest to ruling over all of Wales after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. Unfortunately his triumph was predominantly personal and Wales was largely conquered by Edward I little more that forty years after Llywelyn’s death. You can find out more about Llywelyn here, he was married to Joan of Wales the illegitimate daughter of King John, and you can find out more about her here.
But to return to Dolwyddelan itself. The castle was part of Llywelyn’s ring of castles to protect the passes through the mountains. It was built in the English style, though what you see now has been added to. The original keep was two stories and the third story and the wall walk were added later, possibly by Edward I.
There is also the remains of a second tower at Dolwyddelan, which again was most likely built by Edward I. There would have been a curtain wall between the two towers.
The battlements and the wall walk were rebuilt later under Lord Willoughby de Eresby. The castle came into his hands as a ruin in 1848. You can see the battlements and the wall walk in the photos below.
But that is the end of Dolwyddelan’s story. Let’s go back a little bit and find out more about the beginning. The castle very much commands the high ground
Dolwyddelan Castle stands near Dolwyddelan village. There is debate as to whether there was a settlement on this site before the castle was there, or if the castle gave rise to the settlement. There is also discussion about the meaning of the name. It most likely comes from Dol meaning meadow and Gwyddelan which meant little Irishman and refers to an Irish missionary who came over and preached Christianity in the area in roughly 600 CE.
Dolwyddelan was never a castle that was used for domination or attack, its primary purpose was to guard the ancient road from Conwy to Ardudwy and to protect the nearby summer cattle pastures. It was also a statement of Welsh authority, that Llywelyn was master of this wild landscape. Ironically, for a castle built by Llywelyn the Great and intended as a defence against the Anglo-Normans, the first we really see of Dolwyddelan playing a role, as far as records are concerned, is when it was taken by Edward I in January 1283. By taking the castle Edward I cut off communications and defences from the south. Edward I garrisoned it with his own men, who were camouflaged by dressing in white, and then gave command to a local loyal Welshman Griffith ap Tudor, he was later appointed constable for life. Edward I strengthened the castle, and little else is known of it, until it was sold in 1488 to Maredudd ap Ieuan and it stayed in his family. By 1848 it was a ruin and came into the hands of de Eresby.
Like other Welsh built castles Dolwyddelan isn’t elegant, it’s a functional keep built for a specific purpose, it is very much of the landscape.
The other Welsh castle I wanted to examine, is part of the same protective ring as Dolwyddelan. Dolbadarn Castle.
Like Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn commands an ancient mountain pass. In this case the Llanberis pass, as well as two other passes through Snowdonia. The landscape you see around Dolbadarn now is drastically altered by mining in the area
But there are remnants of oak groves, that give you an idea of what the natural environment may have been like when the castle was first built.
The round keep at Dolbadarn was built in roughly 1230, again most likely by Llywelyn the Great. The striking round keep had a first floor entrance that would have originally been reached by timber stairs, you can see the beam holes for the two main floor levels, and both of the main chambers have fire places. The basement would probably have been reached by a ladder, but the upper floor and the roof had a spiral staircase that reversed its spiral half way up. The style was probably modelled on Marcher castles that Llywelyn would have seen in the south. You can see the remains of the interior of the keep in the photos below
The keep didn’t stand alone though. There were several buildings surrounding it, interestingly some of which were built of stone as there are surviving remains, outbuildings were usually wooden. These may have been a defensive tower, a great hall and a curtain wall. Some of which were probably added by Llywelyn the Last.
Dolbadarn actually played a key role in a couple of parts in Welsh history. It is most likely the castle where Llywelyn the Last held his brother Owain captive for more than twenty years from c. 1255 until Llywelyn was defeated by Edward I in 1282. Dolbadarn continued to play a role in Welsh history even after Llywelyn’s death. His younger brother Dafydd attempted to keep fighting the English, unsuccessfully. He probably issued his last documents as Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdon from Dolbadarn in 1283. He was captured soon afterwards and was taken to Shrewsbury where he was arguably the first man to be hanged drawn and quartered.
Edward I took over Dolbadarn, but made few changes. He refortified it, but didn’t expand it. Dolbadarn largely passes out of history, as it was slowly let to fall to ruin. There is some evidence that Owain Glyndwr held prisoners in the keep in the 15th century.
So that brings us to the end of the story of Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. Both Welsh built castles, part of a ring to protect Wales from the Anglo-Normans. Although they ultimately failed in the purpose, they still stand sentinel over the landscape they are so much a part of. A testimony to the history of Wales.
Site visits 2012
Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307
Castles in wales: 9781847710314
The Kings and Queens of Wales 978144560958
Medieval Wales 97805213115333
2 thoughts on “Welsh Castles: Well two of them anyway”
Very interesting and educative. I tumbled across your marvellous site, in search of the meaning of the name Dolbadarn to explain it to a Brazilian friend of mine who “inherited” a keep in that style :).
Before I ever knew this structured existed, I fashioned a “love keep” out of poplar tree bark and gave it to my friend Priscilla as a leaving memento from Wales. She still cherishes it.
Thank you for the excellent historical account about these edifications and surrounding landscape. It brings life to a bygone era and makes appreciating a ruin site more enjoyable than ever. Take care.
thank you- I’m really glad you found it interesting, they’re such wonderful castles. That sounds like a lovely gift too