Are these lumps and bumps within the wood at Hen Blas the site of the long lost Basingwerk Castle? The matter is confused and the answer obscured by hundreds of years of history, the complicated nature of the politics of the cantref of Tegeingl and, of course, its relationship with Basingwerk Abbey, some little distance further to the west in the Greenfield Valley. But in short, given the evidence to hand, it probably is.
The relationship between Basingwerk Castle and the Abbey is crucial, since it was in the Castle that the origins of the Abbey are to be found. And there are several contenders for the site of the Castle, including, of course the castle mound at Holywell, overlooking the famous St Winefride’s Well and Shrine. It’s all a bit of a mess, in truth. But the Hen Blas site is beginning to assert itself as the more likely candidate.
We should start, of course, at the beginning. Bagillt itself is a fascinating place, in no small part because it mirrors in miniature the complicated history of Tegeingl, an area which became in large part the county of Flintshire, and the always fraught and very often, very violent relationship between the Welsh and English, before in fact either side readily knew themselves by those names.
Whatever was here before the Mercian Saxons arrived in the area somewhere in the late 6th, early 7th century is largely unknown, but Bagillt has a Mercian origin - the name renders to, ‘Bacca’s Lea’ in the Saxon tongue. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Hen Blas site was the original location of the Mercian fortress known as Dinas Basi, but it was somewhere closeby, in all probability. In fact, it could be at any of the sites attributed over the years to the later Basingwerk Castle, or indeed at none of them.
Coenwulf of Mercia is believed to have died at the fortress in 821, as he was preparing for another assault on Gwynedd across the River Conwy, which does rather sum up the early history of Tegeingl in a nutshell. It would not be until the conquests of Edward I at the end of the 13th century that the matter of Tegeingl was resolved - to a point, of course.
In the gentle afternoon sunlight, a sense of the bailey of Basingwerk Castle is clear.
Whatever the English origins of Bagillt, Hen Blas was in all probability the llys of Coleshill, the administrative centre, which together with Prestatyn and Rhuddlan made up the three commotes of the cantref of Tegeingl. Given the findings of G.B. Leach in the 1950s (of which more will be said), this seems the least of the probable roles of the site, and of course the nearness of the farm called, ‘llys’, a little to the north west of Flint, suggests a memory of the role of the site in the landscape. The question remains as to whether this llys was also the site of Basingwerk Castle. The answer to that question rather depends on who you ask, and since you’re asking me, I rather fancy it was.
There is, of course, no reason to think that the llys and Castle should be mutually exclusive - both Prestatyn and Rhuddlan had motte and baileys. The complication here, of course, is that all three motte sites have Norman DNA (although, of course Twt Hill at Rhuddlan can claim a connection to Llywelyn ap Seisyll), but given the fluid nature of the politics of Tegeingl, the appropriation of native sites by the Normans were likely a stated aim, including the established llys of a commote.
Very little is known about Basingwerk Castle until it veritably explodes onto the scene with the events of 1157. Effectively, Tegeingl had been under Norman control and heavy influence since the late 11th century, and under Saxon control before that, a reality reflected in the entries in the Domesday Book of 1086. Undoubtedly, however, the actual reality was more complicated, and the events of the first half of the 12th century brought Tegeingl back into the Welsh sphere of influence, and ultimately into Welsh ownership. By 1124, Gwynedd had reclaimed the cantrefi of Rhos, Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd, all with relative ease, in fact. It cannot have gone unnoticed by Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, that despite numerous historical setbacks, the day-to-day reach of the Normans in the Perfedwladd was relatively nominal - rather, the real concern was in not provoking them into an organised campaign.
Owain Gwynedd succeeded to the primacy of Gwynedd on his father’s death in 1137. His younger brother, Cadwaladr inherited the commotes of Aberffraw on Anglesey, the recently conquered Merionydd and northern Ceredigion, according to Welsh law. Predictably, the relationship between the brothers, which had been highly productive for Gwynedd during their father’s reign, promptly fell apart on Owain’s elevation to power. But while this internecine warfare threatened disaster, as it had in the past, with the Marcher Lords seeking to take advantage of the situation, Owain and Cadwaladr managed to reconcile themselves to a united front against the rapacious, ever ambitious Normans. Indeed, the stunning capture of Mold Castle in 1146 was a hugely important and symbolic victory, the forces of Gwynedd taking advantage of a English civil war, known as the Anarchy (1135-53). The victory at Mold was part of a successful push to capture Tegeingl, which was duly completed between 1148-51. Thus it was that by 1154, Owain,
‘had brought his men within sight of the red towers of the great city [Chester] on the Dee.’
J.E. Loyd, ‘A History of Wales’ (1911)
Protected on three sides by a steep stream cut ravine, the motte and its bailey enjoyed an impressive natural defense.
So, we can be certain then that by 1154, the Hen Blas site was in the hands of the Welsh. The question which then arises is, what was there when they arrived? A clear answer is almost impossible to know with our current levels of knowledge, but there are, as you would expect, several possibilities. The sources, in shining a light on the past, often throw anything not in the direct path of the beam into shadow. Thus the Brut y Tywysogyon, in its entry for 1157 and the invasion of Henry II, states that,
‘Owain, prince of Gwynedd, after summoning to him his sons and his leading men, and gathering together a mighty host, encamped at Basingwerk. And he raised a ditch there to give battle to the King.’
Brut Y Tywysogyon, ed. Thomas Jones (Cardiff 1952)
The entry is problematic. The Chronicle is not actually telling us anything of the history of Basingwerk Castle, but rather the events leading up to the Battle of Coleshill. Any information about Basingwerk Castle is incidental to the greater narrative. And in this entry, we could infer that in actual fact, there was no structure at all at the Hen Blas site before Owain ‘raised a ditch’. We could assume that it was solely Henry’s movements along the coast road that were the motivation of gathering at Hen Blas to directly confront the English - which was in itself, something of a departure. But we could also interpret the source to mean that an existing fortress at Hen Blas was hurriedly reoccupied and perhaps refortified in haste to meet the oncoming challenge. There is also the chronicle of Roger of Wendover to consider - but perhaps a little background is required first.
The Battle of Coleshill is discussed elsewhere in these pages, but suffice to say that Henry’s invasion of Tegeingl in 1157, a response to Owain’s growing power and Henry’s ambitions to reclaim the lands he believed were his and which were lost to him during the Anarchy, did not go entirely as planned. At the Battle of Coleshill, the site of which is still hotly debated, Henry’s forces, led by the King himself were ambushed within the woods of Hawarden Forest and badly mauled - Henry surviving through a mixture of luck and the very real bravery of those under his command. But despite this victory, Henry’s survival and the overwhelming size of his forces required Owain to retreat and cede the road to Rhuddlan. Once again, Tegeingl was in the hands of the English. Roger of Wendover writes of the event, that Henry,
‘recovered all the fortresses which had been taken by his ancestors, rebuilt Basingwerk castle, and when he had reduced the Welsh to submission, returned in triumph to England.’
Roger’s entry shows the difficulties encountered in relying on such chronicles for historical information. They lack depth, obviously, they are biased, obviously, but they are also often so open to a multitude of interpretations that they can leave one scratching one’s head. The crucial phrase in Wendover’s account is that he clearly states that Basingwerk Castle was rebuilt. This suggests, of course, that there was something here to rebuild - a castle, in fact. But it tells us nothing of the castle. Was it built by the Welsh after the return of Tegeingl to native hands in between 1148-51? Was there something there before 1148, hurriedly refortified in 1157, and subsequently rebuilt by the English?
Worn away somewhat, the motte hidden away in the woods of Coed Ffrith still shows the challenge these immense eathworks would have presented an attacking foe.
The archaeologist, G.B. Leach, was intrigued by the local tradition of Hen Blas being the location of a castle, and clearly had read the 1912 entry in The Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire: Flint ,which stated that,
‘The whole place presents the appearance of a site that had been hastily rendered defensive and quickly evacuated, possibly in connection with the battle of Coleshill.’
In 1954 he began to excavate the site. His findings were, in short, sensational, given the interpretations possible from the discoveries. They were, however, not really given the respect they deserved until recently.
Leach’s findings, of a small motte and bailey, no more than a half acre in size, seemingly wedged into a triangular area in the crook of two interconnecting shallow ravines, showed phases of building and occupation from the 11th to the 14th centuries and are utterly fascinating - and also frustrating. His findings suggest a motte and bailey was first raised here in the late 11th or early 12th century, but obviously cannot pinpoint exactly when. So, given the extremely fluid nature of the politics of Tegeingl, we cannot say for certain if the site was originally Welsh or English. The buildings, of which Leach excavated several, straddle the entire history of the site, before its abandonment sometime in the 14th century. If its precise foundation is a mystery, its end is not, with the final conquests of Edward I in 1282-83, and the foundation of Flint and Rhuddlan Castles earlier in 1277 initiating the beginning of the end for an obsolete Basingwerk Castle, or indeed a llys for a cantref that effectively no longer existed.
But there is more. Part of the confusion regarding the siting of Basingwerk Castle at Hen Blas, is the belief that the original siting of Basingwerk Abbey was, on its foundation in 1131 in the chapel of the castle, before its translation to the Greenfield site in 1157. If the Hen Blas site was indeed the site of Basingwerk Castle, that would suggest that the castle was there in 1131 - which is entirely within the timeframe unearthed by Leach, and would bring the castle within the English sphere of influence, since Tegeingl was in English hands at that time, and Ranulf II, Earl of Chester was the founder of the initially Savigniac Basingwerk Abbey. But what of the chapel believed to have been the site of the original Abbey?
In 1957, Leach received a letter from the medieval historian and expert on Edwardian castles, A.J. Taylor which suggested that one of his earlier architectural discoveries, a voussoir (a wedge shaped stone used in the construction of an arch),
‘May have come from the ‘capella de Colsul’, and that its foundation may yet come to light in the outer bailey of Hen Blas.’
Within the bailey is likely the original site of Basingwerk Abbey before its relocation to the Greenfield Valley. The scattered remains of stone foundations are now the only reminder that buildings once stood within this precinct.
Given the huge historical ramifications of the discovery of the ‘capella de Colsul’ at Hen Blas, Leach immediately abandoned his work in the inner bailey and transferred all efforts to the outer bailey. Not long after, a suitable building was identified, aligning east/west and 13m by 6.5m. It was a single celled affair, an altar by the east wall, as you would expect. Originally around 4.5m high, the discovered remains of the south wall had collapsed outwards, but still contained the dressed stones which originally surrounded a window, and which were identified by Leach as being 11th or, more likely 12th century - thus falling within a timeframe for the original foundation of Basingwerk Abbey. Was this then the chapel within which Basingwerk Abbey was founded in 1131? In the absence of evidence from elsewhere, it would seem so. The monks of Basingwerk Abbey then moved from Basingwerk Castle at Hen Blas to the nearby Greenfield Valley in 1157 - a momentous year, all told.
However, just to confuse matters further, the Brut y Tywysogion claims that in 1166, Owain Gruffudd destroyed Basingwerk Castle, a few years before retaking Tegeingl in around 1169. In actual fact, this may actually work within the timeframe Leach established for the site, since it does seem to coincide with a period of abandonment that was evident in the archaeological record. The Hen Blas site again seems to have been substantially repaired or indeed, rebuilt soon after, since there was something present at the site in 1212.
Tegeingl was lost again to the Welsh in 1211, as a result of a massive English invasion by King John (1177-1216), working in concert with most of the other Welsh kingdoms. It was a low point for Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (1195-1240), rightly considered one of the most, if not the most successful Princes of Gwynedd. He recovered from this blow almost immediately, regaining Tegeingl in 1212. And it is in 1212 that Basingwerk Castle becomes the scene of a hugely important but very much overlooked event. In 1305, in the course of a dispute regarding the practice of divine service at the chapel of Coleshill, the abbot of Basingwerk Abbey announced that Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’s wife, Joan, daughter of King John of England,
‘Gave birth at Colsul to a certain boy, named David on the occasion of whose birth Llywelyn had a chapel built there.’
Of course, the David referred to by the abbot, possibly William, was Llywelyn’s heir, Dafydd ap Llywelyn. You would be forgiven for thinking such an auspicious event would be better known, and the reason behind its relative obscurity is probably more to do with a historical confusion as to the whereabouts of Basingwerk Castle. Another problem confronted is the assertion that Llywelyn, ‘had a chapel built there’, which is an issue given that the archaeological record would suggest that a chapel at the Hen Blas was already in existence, and had been for near enough the 100 years previous to Dafydd’s birth. However, this should not vex us overmuch, since if the castle was destroyed in 1166, which there is no reason to doubt overmuch, the 13th century works on the Castle could well have entailed a complete rebuild of the chapel, in its original position and utilising the original materials as far as was practical.
Steve Griffiths' commemoration of the birth of Dafydd ap Llywelyn at Hen Blas in 1208.
Unsurprisingly, Dafydd retained a close connection to Hen Blas, and after spending the first few months of his reign as Prince of Gwynedd in England, on high level diplomatic efforts to stabilize his succession, his birthplace was his first port of call on his return to Wales. It was here that he issued a charter to Basingwerk Abbey, granting them St Winefride’s Well and Shrine.
However, another English invasion in 1241 by Henry III culminated in Dafydd having to sign the Treaty of Gwerneigron, which once again brought Tegeingl back into English ownership. In 1244, Henry III ordered the justiciar (the kings administrator) of Chester, John Lestrange to strengthen, ‘castrum de Coleshill’, with, ‘optimo garillo et iii bretachiis ad minus’, possibly referring to the emplacement of wall mounted balconies, not unlike hoardings, and a garillum, which at its most basic could be nothing more than a palisade - neither of which are incompatible with Leach’s findings in the 1950s. These new fortifications were doubtless a recognition that Welsh forces would attempt a recovery to Tegeingl, which after some savage fighting was completed by the time of Dafydd’s sudden death in 1246.
Leach’s unfinished investigations of the inner bailey discovered a series of buildings dated from the 13th and 14th centuries. The fluid nature of the events in Tegeingl make it almost impossible to be clear as to who was responsible for these buildings, or indeed their purpose, but it seems likely that the site remained a viable concern during its time in Welsh hands - the hands being those of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, nephew and sometime rival to Dafydd ap Llywelyn. And yet, by the end of 1277, Tegeingl was back in English hands and would remain so - Llywelyn pushed back into Gwynedd beyond the Conwy. His brother and rival, ally to Edward I, Dafydd ap Gruffudd was established by the English in the cantrefi of the Perflwladd. Crucially, however, Tegeingl remained in English hands, its coastal position vital to Edward’s long term plans for further conquest.
Edward famously also ordered the building of a series of huge stone castles, including at Rhuddlan and Flint, the latter a stone’s throw from Hen Blas. Where these stone enormities left Basingwerk is not known from any source, but it is likely that whatever role the complex played before 1277, it held a purely civil function after the completion of Rhuddlan and Flint castles. Leach’s findings, of a filled in ditch about the remains of the motte, would seem to support this. Clearly with the castles at Rhuddlan and Flint, and especially after the searing events of 1282-83, which saw the end of the Aberffraw dynasty, and the dismantling of the independent Welsh kingdoms, Hen Blas was surplus to requirements. While excavations suggest the complex continued in some fashion into the 14th century, with some building work evident, it seems to have reached the end of its useful life some time in the early part of the century, allowed to molder into ruin - becoming quietly forgotten in the centuries that followed.
There remains a debate as to whether Hen Blas was the actual site of Basingwerk Castle, or rather a llys of Coleshill. But the evidence available would suggest that indeed this quiet and long overlooked site in an area that provides a fascinating cross-section of the long history of Tegeingl, was the location of Basingwerk Castle, site of the original Basingwerk Abbey, the charter that brought St Winefride’s Well and Shrine under the Abbey’s ownership, and the birthplace of Dafydd ap Llywelyn, a King of Gwynedd. It turns out that Hen Blas could well be one of the most important sites in Welsh history.
When visiting, please be mindful that while there is a right of way to the field within which Hen Blas resides, the wood is private property. The owner is, however, an absolute gentleman and is happy to allow access, but do call at the farm to ask permission. He’ll as likely tell you a bit about the Castle while you’re at it.