‘David filio Griffine, as construendum castrum suum de Kaicrgvill’
Caergwrle Castle, CADWs 43rd and most recent acquisition was founded sometime in 1278 by Dafydd ap Gruffudd. The newly recognised lord of Dyffryn Clwyd, within which lay the lordships of Hopedale and Rhufoniog had rebelled against his older brother and current King of Gwynedd on several occasions, slighted by his brother’s refusal to grant him the rights of inheritance under Welsh law. An assissination plot against Llywelyn of 1274, in which he had been heavily involved led to Dafydd fleeing into the protection of Edward I. Angered by the protection afforded to his rebellious brother by the King of England, Llywelyn refused to do homage to Edward. Irked by this perceived slight, and perhaps ill at ease with Llywelyn’s rise in power in North Wales, Edward acted swiftly and decisively, as he was wont to do. In the subsequent Welsh War of 1277, Edward’s goals were largely realised, and this with the direct aid of Dafydd, his loyalty with the English King in an effort to gain his rightful inheritance.
From a Welsh perspective, Dafydd’s siding with the English against his brother is troubling, especially for those who choose to see these things through eyes brightly blinded by nationalism, but the truth is simply that Dafydd was an angry man - angry that he had been denied his rights under Welsh law to land he considered his. Dafydd saw Edward, not so much as an English king and avowed enemy, but a means of gaining that which he believed was his by right and law. That his older brother, the eldest brother and ally at the Battle of Derin, Owain had been imprisoned for some 20 years must have also seasoned Dafydd’s sense of betrayal. But then again, before criticism is instead levelled at Llywelyn, because after all this internecine warfare effectively ended up losing Wales any real hope of independence, it should be understood that his actions were from an entirely logical understanding that a divided Gwynedd was likely to be an easier target for a rapacious Norman aristocracy, as it had been from the end of the 11th century.
The remains of the North Tower viewed from across the courtyard
With the Treaty of Aberconwy of 1277, a defeated Llywelyn was forced to release his older brother, Owain and see Dafydd come into the possession of Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd. Crucially, however, the Treaty of Aberconwy did not give to Dafydd those lands in Gwynedd that he believed were his by right. This was undoubtedly an intended tactic on Edward’s part, to maintain a distance between the brothers, to create a buffer between Gwynedd and the Marcher lands, a role undertaken in an earlier generation by Powys. It is likely that both Edward and Llywelyn were aware that Aberconwy was merely the latest round of a much bigger game, though the war of 1282-3 came as something of a surprise to both of them, instigated by the mercurial Dafydd.
It is easy to see the stone remains of Caergwrle Castle as the beginning of the story of the hill, but that is patently not the case. An interesting thought experiment here is to consider what it was the English architects, carpenters, diggers and masons actually saw as they arrived at the summit of the hill at the beginning of the building season in 1278 - what was already there? Because it would seem that there was in fact a structure or structures already there. The year 1278 was not the beginning of the story.
Caergwrle as an area has a prehistoric, Bronze Age past - obviously. The astonishing Caergwrle Bowl dated from around 2000BC is clear evidence of that. But the discovery of the bowl in the marshy waters by the River Alyn at the base of the hill is evidence, probably of a votive offering and suggests a presence in the area, but more concrete evidence of settlement is lacking. The Iron Age hillfort of Caer Estyn, just across the river seems not to have had a twin on the hill - at least as far as can be discerned at present. What of the Romans then? It has long been thought that they had a presence on the hill, but that remains problematical. The Romans were certainly operating in the area, most notably at Ffrith. And Camden’s, and later Pennant’s assertion that a hypocaust had been discovered at Caergwrle confused the issue. Subsequent study seems to point to a simple mistake on Camden’s part, repeated by Pennant, switching Caergwrle and Ffrith. There was likely a Roman road through the area, possibly following the same route as the packhorse bridge through Caergwrle and Ffrith, but any significant evidence of a Roman presence in Caergwrle is lacking, and that includes on the hill.
But there was something on the hill when the train of workmen arrived early in 1283, and today it remains in the aspect of a curious outer bank and enclosure. It has been the subject of a variety of suggestions in the absence of excavation. Did the bank significantly pre-date the castle, originally running continuously around the hilltop, its southern, western and northern sections subsequently quarried away? Was the bank contemporary to the 13th century build, perhaps as Cathcart believed in 1974, thrown up by the English in the process of repairing the slighting of the castle carried out by Dafydd’s men before his departure? Or perhaps it was built much later than the castle, during the years when the fortress was used as a source of ready dressed stone and quarried to ruin.
The curious remains of the embankment predating Dafydd's Edwardian castle
John Manley’s investigations of the castle between 1988-1990 were focused on the 13th century castle but addressed the curious enclosure. His work discovered that the bank was considerably older than the Edwardian era castle - older by some 500 years at the very least. Amusingly problematical then, since clearly the bank is not Bronze Age, which would have been helpful, the Iron Age, which would have been understandable or Roman, which would have been a little tedious, I dare say. In fact, Manley’s investigations would seem to place the enclosure soundly within the age once known as the Dark Ages, that period of time following the departure of the Romans when the written sources dried up considerably. The stubbornness of that term is irksome, given the profound progress made in enlightening those years, but as a torch will often make the darkness without its beam that much denser, in answering certain questions of this time, further questions are revealed - and they challenge our understanding of the nature of the relationship between the native Welsh and the Saxons.
Radiocarbon dates are helpful, but often infuriating since they can never give a precise date, of course. In the case of the bank, these radiocarbon dates rest on a piece of oaken charcoal upon which the bank was built. The siting, and the nature of the find (how old was the tree when it was cut down and burnt?), give us a potential date for the bank of 250-800AD, a period of about 500 years. An awful lot happened in North East Wales in that 500 years. But of those 500 years, it is more likely that we are working at the later end of them, perhaps 700-800 AD, and this then raises some fascinating questions.
Interestingly, the structure atop Caergwrle Hill was thus built some little time before the raising of nearby Wat’s Dyke, which then asks the question as to its relationship to the earthwork, or rather vice versa. Did the Dyke somehow incorporate the structure into its function? Manley’s investigations raised the possibility that the structure was of a defensive nature, given his discovery of rough dry stone walling, and that would suggest there was an enemy to defend against. It has long been suggested that Caergwrle’s origins as a settlement were Mercian, based largely on the etymology of the name Corley, in the absence of any other archaeological evidence. Was this hilltop enclosure the original Mercian settlement, or did it look down upon Corley, the Meadow of the Crane? What was it defending against? Indeed, what was its relationship with the Welsh religious community that resided at nearby Hope, with which it was likely contemporary? Did the Mercians of Corley frequent the Celtic church there? Questions, questions and all fascinating if presently unanswerable.
And with that, in the absence of any further archaeological and historical evidence, we must leap forward 500 years to the establishment of the Edwardian castle, the sundered remains of which are still such an evocative sight as one approaches the village. Its history rests with the awarding of Dyffryn Clwyd, within which lay the lordship of Hopedale to Dafydd after the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277. While it was clear that Edward was attempting to maintain a distance between Dafydd and his brother, Llywelyn, it was also the English intention to create a buffer state between Gwynedd and the Marcher Lordships. As far as Edward was concerned, this tactic had some military and political justification, but it is likely that Dafydd felt betrayed in not regaining his Gwynedd lands, angry at both his brother and now his patron, Edward. It is also possible that as Dafydd took possession of his new territories, lands populated largely by a disenfranchised Welsh people, beholden to an English overlordship which explicitly discriminated against them, Dafydd recognised, possibly for the first time, what Manley called the, ‘officious and overbearing behaviour by the English authorities’ - which was likely describing the situation mildly. It is possible then that Dafydd’s rebellion of 1282, quite the surprise to Edward and Llywelyn, was as much a consequence of Dafydd recognising the burden of his people within his new lands, as a response to his dynastic disappointment. In becoming the lord of Dyffryn Clwyd and Rhufoniog in 1277, it seems the scales fell from Dafydd’s eyes and he became a true leader of his people.
The likely site of the drawbridge connecting the North Tower to a what is believed to be the remains of a barbican
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The record of 12th November 1278, quoted at the beginning of this article makes clear a donation towards the building of ‘Kaiergvill’ castle. The date of the donation is important. Since November would have been at the very end of the building season, with the thatchers being brought in to cover and protect from the elements the partially built walls. And 100 marks, roughly the equivalent of £66, would have been a drop in the ocean in regards the overall cost of the building of the fortress, truly a donation rather than a significant investment. The Edwardian castle of Builth cost some 25 times Edward’s donation and took 5 ½ years to build, and was in truth the least costly of Edward’s major castles. So, November 1278 would have been the end of the first season of building at Caergwrle. In all, Dafydd had three seasons of building before making his fateful decision to rebel against Edward. And when he marched his forces from his castle at Caergwrle on the early morning of Palm Sunday 1282, the fortress was undoubtedly unfinished, largely a shell, and on his orders slighted also, the well blocked and the great south tower damaged beyond repair, this last act probably as much a symbolic act as military, since the tower was of English design. In Caergwrle’s short life, just the five years between 1277 and 1283, it was largely a building site, either in the initial building or in the repairs of 1282-83. However, the remains today are a far cry from what they would have been in 1283. By the time of the catastrophic fire of August 1283, an event which ended any pretence of actually finishing the castle, the fortress would have been a shell, with curtain walls, gates, both large and small complete and with internal fittings to be installed.
Dafydd’s rebellion brought an extraordinary response from Edward. The records of the time display an enormous gathering of military and workmen at Chester, a deadline given to be present at the city by 31st May 1282. This was nothing short of a determination on Edward’s part to end the line of Aberffraw and the bring the whole of North Wales entirely within his influence. And while the size of the army was quite something, it is the sheer volume of workmen that staggers. The impressive castles at Rhuddlan and Flint had been founded in 1277 to maintain Edward’s conquests, but the army of carpenters, diggers and masons, along with the very best masters of their trade that arrived in Chester in 1282 were about to embark on the final stage of the notorious ‘Ring of Steel’, the building of the castles at Conwy, Caernarvon, Harlech and, a decade later, Beaumaris. While Edward awaited these forces at Chester, Reginald de Grey had been ordered to Caergwrle and took possession of the castle without resistance on 16th June 1282. Repairs were undertaken immediately, with 340 workmen organised into 17 teams of 20, under the organisation of masters of their respective professions such as Peter Morell and Manasser de Vaucouleurs of Champagne, the latter of whom became a burgess of Caernarvon after working on the castle there. The detailed account left to us by John of Lincoln of the work undertaken at Caergwrle is fortunate, since it gives us an idea as to what was there, what was repaired and what was added to the fabric of the castle. The sum of £1466 was spent in the 19 weeks that de Grey was at Caergwrle, though only some £300 of that was spent on repairs - which still goes to show the paucity of Edward’s donation of 1278. The rest was spent on maintaining a military force in the field - there was a war on, after all.
Of the £300 spent on repairs, the majority, interestingly enough, went on the hiring of diggers and carpenters, with masons coming in a poor third, in terms of the monies spent on them. This tells us much about the priorities of the work at Caergwrle in the summer of 1282. For instance, it took two months for the diggers, under the supervision of Manasser de Vaucouleurs to clear out the blocked well - a job so important, that on its completion, two barrels of its water were sent to Edward and Eleanor who were staying at Rhuddlan Castle at the time. Until the well was cleared, water had to be brought up the hill in a tank, bought for the purpose. The diggers were also employed in clearing the trenches outside the castle, and possibly extending them to the point where the addition of a barbican could be built in front of the north wall, the likely siting of the main gateway. The masons under Henry of Turvey (under the overall direction of the great Master James of St George) pulled down the heavily damaged south tower and as likely as not rebuilt it, using the same Cefn y Fedw sandstone that was originally used in 1278. As suggested, the accounts give us some idea as to what was already at the castle at the time of the rebellion. Other than the curtain walls, keep, well and gates, it seems the internal fittings were sparse, though a chapel was present, it seems, a chamber over the main gate and a rather splendid bakehouse. By the south tower is the well preserved remains of the bread oven, which would have fed the workers during the summer and fall of 1282.
Both the remains of the castle and the English repairs of 1282 show Caergwrle to have been an interesting build. Dafydd has been described by A.J. Cathcart King as, ‘at once un-English and un-Welsh’, which can be fairly reflected in his castle at Caergwrle. It seems more than likely that English workmen built Caergwrle to largely English specifications, since the enormous curtain walls are typically English, as is the round south tower. The Welsh D shaped north tower is an idiosyncracy of Welsh castles, such as at Dinas Bran and Ewloe, and is likely to have been insisted on by Dafydd, probably to the disapproval of his English workforce. Yet, it seems clear that Caergwrle was designed to be a ‘lesser’ castle than Edward’s fortresses at Rhuddlan, Flint and so on. Edward trusted Dafydd to a point, and the granting of a castle to a Welsh prince was quite something, but he was not going to give him a Harlech or a Conwy. The English workmen were at Caergwrle as much to ensure that the castle did not exceed Edward’s desired limitations as to provide an ally with a fortress.
The scanty remains of the East Tower, connected by a short passage of wall to the English South Tower, slighted by Dafydd in probably as much a symbolic as military act.
After Dafydd marched from Caergwrle at Easter 1282, the castle was lost once and for all to the Welsh. By the June of 1283, with the appalling execution of Dafydd at Shrewsbury as a traitor, the line of Aberffraw was either dead, in captivity, hidden away in a nunnery or living the quiet life in Surrey, about as far from Gwynedd as one could get and still be in the British Isles. The castle was by this time in the possession of Edward’s wife and consort, Eleanor of Castile, giving her,
‘All the land of Hope, which David son of Griffin, the King’s enemy and rebel formerly held’.
Edward was in the habit of gifting his wife lands and, predictably and rather tiresomely, this gave rise to a belief that Eleanor was overly ambitious and greedy. In truth, Edward was purely trying to ensure that his wife and her needs were independent to the State. Eleanor’s acquisition of the castle in the February of 1283 roughly coincided with the building season for that year, and it seems to have been the point at which Caergwrle became a true Edwardian town. By standing on top of Caergwrle Hill and looking down on the modern village, it is still possible to see the Edwardian street plan, with its three parallel streets running north - south and its connecting streets running east- west, including Fellowes Lane. In the June of 1283 a charter was awarded to the town for a weekly market to be held on a Tuesday, and a four day fair held annually and centred on the Feast of St Peter ad Vincula, which was August 1st. And August was a fateful month for Caergwrle Castle, since it was on the 27th of that month that,
‘The castle of Hope burned down by mischance, when the King and Queen were in danger’.
Annales Cestrienses (1283)
Not only did the fire almost do for the royal couple, but it certainly ended Caergwrle Castle as a going concern. What the English inhabitants of the fledlging town made of the sight of the castle on fire, Edward and Eleanor, their entourage and staff streaming down the hill, has not been recorded, but one imagines their feelings were significantly different to those of the excluded Welsh beyond the town limits watching from afar. If the castle had been a building site for the length of its short life, its future as a ruin began with the demise of the flames. It would seem the damage was severe, since there is no evidence that Eleanor, or anyone else of note, was in attendance subsequent to the fire.
On Eleanor’s death in 1301, the castle was conferred on Edward of Caernarvon, heir to the throne as the future Edward II, though nothing was done to repair the fortress. The castle came into the ownership of John of Cromwell on Edward's ascension to the throne in 1307, on the clear understanding that any restoration of the castle was to be undertaken at his own expense - no royal donations for John, it seems. Again, there is no evidence that any work was undertaken and in around 1335, the castle was back in royal hands with Edward the Black Prince. On taking ownership, Edward’s surveyors saw,
‘Only a place called Hope, whose walls and towers are largely thrown down and there is no housing there’.
An appeal by the ‘men of Hope’ in 1351 for a tower to be built within the grounds of the castle, to be used as a prison was summarily dismissed by Edward with the words,
‘As to building a tower or anything else in the castle the Prince will consult his own wishes’.
The Black Princes Register June 13th 1351
If no repairs were undertaken subsequent to the fire, this still does not explain the extent of the ruin that is evident today. Essentially, parts of the castle have vanished - the entire western curtain wall, much of the north wall, including the main gatehouse, and most of the south tower. Caergwrle’s ruin was largely a result of its position on a hill of Cefn y fedw sandstone, which was used to build the castle itself at the end of the 13th century. Not only did the castle become a source of ready dressed stone, ever the fate of these neglected fortresses, but the hill upon which the castle sat was a source of the stone necessary to cut millstones, several of which can still be seen about the village and within the wall of St Cynfarch and St Cyngar’s at Hope. During the first half of the 16th century, Leland describes,
‘Ther stonde yet greate walles of a castle set on hylle, where be digged good mille stonis of a blew girthe’.
Leland’s Itinerary in Wales (1535-39)
Those ‘greate walles’ in Leland’s description were to come down in the years following. Manley’s investigations have established that the entire western curtain wall was destroyed by quarrying on an industrial scale, and much of the northern and southern walls also. This quarrying was no fly-by-night, smash and grab operation, rather an organised and likely above board industry. Manley believed he had found chisel marks and perhaps even the remains of work huts used by the quarrymen. There is even on record a dispute in the early years of the 19th century between the Yonge Family of Bryn Iorcyn and George Hope who was tenant of Castle Hill, and thus the ruins of the castle. It would seem that Hope had been quarrying millstones from the hill, much to the indignation and financial harm of the Yonges, whose properties on Hope Mountain were also a source of Cefn y fedw sandstone. Hope was trying to break the monopoly held by the Yonges, and it is likely that this was a time when the Napoleonic Wars were hampering the sourcing of French sandstone. The quarrying of Cefn y fedw sandstone is also the reason why some 25% of nearby Caer Estyn Hillfort has been destroyed.
After the years of heavy exploitation of the sandstone on Castle Hill, what was left of the fortress became something of a source of local recreation, which seems entirely right. The castle ended up in the hands of the Stanleys in the late 15th century, with much of everything else it seems, and by the 19th century was still in the hands of their ancestors, the Earls of Derby. In 1895 the landlord of the Derby Arms, curiously enough, one Henry Eccleston rented the castle and grounds and promptly made them private, much to the anger of the locals. He even went as far as to threaten prosecution of some children caught playing football on the hill. The lease was subsequently taken back by the Earl, who then, in August 1896 offered it to the Parish Council for £2.10 a year. With the arrival of the railways in the middle of the 19th century, Caergwrle Castle became something of a tourist attraction, through a new influx of tourist guides, including ‘A Gossiping Guide to Wales’ (1902), one of many written with the ever improving rail network which allowed workers to travel further on their days off.
The Parish Council allowed a variety of public events to take place at the castle, much to their credit. In his excavations at the end of the 20th century, Manley noticed evidence of early 20th century repairs to the castle, probably as a means of ensuring access to the ruins for locals. In September of 1962, the Earl of Derby gave the castle and grounds to the community. Finally, in 2018 the castle came into the care of CADW, reflecting its importance to the history of Wales and specifically its role central to the cataclysmic events of 1282.
Visit in the summer and you will be rewarded with the view of orchids amongst the castle ruins
Today, the remains of Caergwrle are an inspiring sight, the view of them on the approach to the village giving a sense of its strength of position. In climbing the hill, keep an eye out for an example of a millstone on the side of the path, an example of the source of the castle’s strength and its ultimate ruin. And in wandering the ruins, be mindful that it was here, at Caergwrle Castle that the circumstances that led to the end of the Aberffraw dynasty began.