The recorded history of Caergwrle begins during the upheaval of the wars against the English during the late 13th century. In 1277, Edward I gathered an enormous army with the explicit intention of removing the troublesome Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. In this he was aided by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llywelyn’s brother and enemy. The Treaty of Aberconwy stripped Llywelyn of all but a sliver of his previous power, and for his help, Edward awarded Dafydd the lands of Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd. The Welsh prince began the building of Caergwrle Castle in 1278, possibly a year earlier.
However, the history of Caergwrle stretches far further back than the 13th century. Prehistoric flint tools found locally suggest that hunter gatherers roamed the area, and the 1823 discovery of the Caergwrle Bowl, an immensely impressive middle Bronze Age (1500 – 1000 BC) artefact suggests a presence of some importance. Nearby Caer Estyn is a univallate hillfort of the late Bronze, early Iron Age and it seems self-evident that a Roman presence was likely with the discovery of substantial Roman workings at Ffrith. There is the possibility, if not a distinct probability of a road crossing the River Alyn at Caergwrle, linking Deva (Chester) through Ffrith and on to the castrum at Llanfor, near Bala, and thus to Dolgellau. There is also the suggestion of a late-Roman enclosure on the site of Caergwrle Castle. Wat’s Dyke, the early 9th century Anglo-Saxon earthwork runs between Caergwrle and Hope and would suggest the area was at the front line of Welsh, Anglo-Saxon relations.
There is some evidence that a Mercian settlement existed on the banks of the Alyn in the area of modern Caergwrle, with the very English name of Corley. The etymology of this name renders ‘crane’s meadow’ or something similar, which would possibly explain how the area became known as, ‘Caergwrle’, which with the addition of ‘Caer’ gives us, ‘crane’s meadow by the castle’. It should be said, however, that any trace of said Mercian settlement has proven so far entirely elusive. Certainly, by 1327, some fifty years after Dafydd’s foundation of the Castle, we have the name, ‘Caergorlei’, which transforms to ‘Caergwrlai’ between 1450 and 1490.
Much of what we know with any certainty of Caergwrle’s early history comes after the foundation of the Castle and with its history. Caergwrle is one of only five planned settlements in Flintshire (the others being, Caerwys, Flint, Holywell and Mold), and even today shows quite clearly the grid pattern beneath the Castle which attests to its creation as such. That settlement was largely the doing of Edward I, who took ownership of the Castle and indeed all of Dafydd’s lands after the Welsh prince’s rebellion of 1282, which ultimately led to his being the most high-profile victim of being hung, drawn and quartered to date.
The town enjoyed four annual fairs and a weekly market. The Castle was extensively damaged by an accidental fire in August 1283, and its strategic importance dwindled. It was described as a ruin in 1335. The town, however, continued, having some thirty-five taxpayers in 1292 and being described as a borough in 1347 and later. The town seems to have had a fairly even mixture of English and native Welsh burgesses before 1351, but a charter of that year confiscated the Welsh holdings, which created much anger in the surrounding area.
In 1403, Owain Glyndwr laid waste to the town, along with nearby Hope, as part of his great uprising (1400-1415). The damage, along with the decline in the importance of the Castle seems to have led to a dramatic fall in the prosperity of the town. By the time of John Leland’s ‘Itinerary in Wales’ (1536-39) Caergwrle is described as, ‘now decayid’, and the lack of further mention by later writers goes someway to suggesting the effect of Glyndwr’s attack was far reaching. A pack horse bridge was built over the Alyn in the 17th century, linking Chester and Bala, just as perhaps an earlier Roman road had done some 1500 years earlier, and John Ogilby, in his 1675 Britannia Atlas includes Caergwrle on the main Wrexham to Mold road but its seems these roadways had little long term effect on Caergwrle’s prospects.
The slump was likely to have continued for some time, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution. A variety of paper mills, collieries and iron works in the town and nearby were built, including the enormous Ffrwd Iron and Coal Works at nearby Cefn-y-bedd. The population of the town slowly increased through the 19th century, as a consequence of this industrial growth. However, as the 20th century wore on, the decline in heavy industry and the closure of the mines and mills saw Caergwrle return to its rural past.
As the railways made tourism possible, Caergwrle became a popular destination for day trips, for workers from as far afield as Merseyside. The introduction of bank holidays led to a further increase in visitors, and a variety of work was done on extending the platforms of Bridge End Station (renamed Caergwrle Castle Station) and the various branch lines that served the collieries, mills and breweries, in order to meet the demand.
‘At Caergwrle Castle (formerly Bridge End) Station the ruins of the Castle seen on a mound to the left; and Caer Estyn an ancient British camp, is to the right. From here the pedestrian can explore Hope Mountain.’
Gossiping Guide to Wales (1902), Askew Roberts & Edward Woodall
The town did well from these visitors, though there are reports that there was trouble within the inns at times. It is worth noting at this point that there was a popular temperance movement within Caergwrle during the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Temperance Tea Rooms being opened opposite the Bridge End Inn and The Queen’s Temperance Hotel opened to accommodate those visitors that did not wish to sample the locally made ales. Nearby Rhyddyn Hall became a notable spa, attracting visitors from all over Britain.
The town has a smattering of 17th century buildings. The Derby Arms is thought to date from this time, and there is a possibility that Plas-yn-bwl house contains 16th century, perhaps even earlier work.
Today, Caergwrle tends to be a place driven through on the way to somewhere else, but remains well worth a visit. After all, it is possible to experience near enough 3000 years of North Wales History within a mile of the Castle hill.