There are some 26 mottes in north east Wales, and perhaps more yet to be found. Some are well known, well testified to - Twt Hill at Rhuddlan and the rather splendid Tomen y Rhodwydd at Llandegla leap to obvious mind. But others are ghosts in the historical record, mute witness to the turbulent and violent events that saw them raised. Bryn y Castell at Holywell, overlooking St Winefride’s Well in the valley below is one such silent sentinel in the north Walian landscape, hidden away in the trees. Even its name seems vaguely disappointed by itself - a shrug of a name.
The motte is easily recognisable, cleared of shrubs and trees - one can see its impressive size. The wall would seem modern.
Still, perhaps a little something can be teased from the past. Bryn y Castell is, as likely as not the castle mentioned in the Brut y Tywysogyon, described as, ‘the castle of Treffynnawn’, built by Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester in 1210. This gives us something of a context to place this motte and bailey. Tegeingl, which largely encompassed what we know of today as Flintshire, was in a state of almost perpetual warfare throughout the 12th and 13th centuries - sometimes conquered by the Normans, often retaken by the forces of Gwynedd, and so on and on. Between the lands of Gwynedd and Cheshire, the lands of Tegeingl, and other lands about, became known as the Perfeddwlad, the Middle Country, and became constantly fought over between the native Welsh and the English Crown.
In 1210, for some little understood reason, English forces launched an attack through the Perfeddwlad using the forces of the Earl of Chester, while King John of England attacked Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’s ally, William de Braose (perhaps the catalyst for the rupture of seeming cordial relations between England and Gwynedd) in Ireland. Llywelyn destroyed his castle at Deganwy in an effort to deny its use to the English, before retreating across the River Conwy. The Brut describes the Earl rebuilding Deganwy Castle while, interestingly, raising an entirely new fortification at Holywell. If the Brut is correct, and there seems little reason to doubt its veracity on this point, this would mean Bryn y Castell can trace its foundation as a motte and bailey to 1210.
Still, despite the Brut being clear that a new fortification was built at Holywell, that does not necessarily mean that there was nothing there before the Earl of Chester did so. There has been continued speculation that the site was the original llys of Tyfid ab Eiludd and Gwenfro, the parents of St Winefride. While this would make sense, if only for the geographical convenience and the ease with which it fits into the Winefride narrative, since there have been no known excavations of the Bryn y Castell site, speculation is all that it must be at this point.
During the 19th century, housing began to encroach upon the site - later cleared leaving the remains of the castle of Treffynnon.
It would seem fairly obvious that the reason a fortification was raised here, in 1210 was as a Norman effort to control this much fought over area. Consider the speed with which Ranulf set to rebuilding Deganwy, and the Norman ownership of Basingwerk Castle at nearby Hen Blas at Bagillt, and it seems Ranulf was intent on retaining the Perfeddwlad. Bryn y Castell was clearly an attempt to further enhance Chester’s grip on the area. Certainly, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth felt this was Ranulf’s intent, since the Brut makes clear that the Prince of Gwynedd conducted raiding operations in the Perfeddwladd, with presumably more intensity and organisation than was the norm. Incidentally, the suggestion that Bryn y Castell was the long thought lost Basingwerk Castle is unlikely - a matter of misunderstanding in light of the archeological excavations at Hen Blas in the 1950s.
However, if the Earl felt his work at Deganwy and in the Greenfield Valley would prevent a Gwynedd resurgence, he was spectacularly wrong. The Welsh princes that had supported John in 1210, returned to Gwynedd in 1211, a year which saw the vast majority of Tegeingl return to Llywelyn’s rule - though interestingly, not the castles at Deganwy or Rhuddlan. So, it’s likely that Bryn y Castell was within Norman hands for a year or so, before being taken by Llywelyn.
So, in truth, Bryn y Castell’s vaguely known history begins in 1210 and ends a year later in 1211. What came before, and what came after is largely an effort of historical speculation. What role, if any, did it play in the turbulent affairs of the later 13th century? We have, as yet, no idea. It’s likely that any role it enjoyed after 1211, came to a resounding end in 1277, with the first Edwardian stone massives raised at nearby Flint and Rhuddlan.
So, as for what remains, we are left with what often remains of these fortifications - nature annexed lumps and bumps. But, it’s a fascinating site, still. The castle occupied the tip of a natural promontory, overlooking Winefride’s Well and the Greenfield Valley, while its southern face was defended by a large ditch, effectively cutting off the castle from this direction. All is worn and smoothed low, now, and the hints of masonry to be found may actually be the remains of later cottages, now demolished. It is still possible, especially during the winter months when the foliage is less dense, to gain a sense of the place.
Have a wander and wonder.