‘At the junction of the vales of Nannerch and Bodfari, I ascended to Caerwys; a town mouldering away with age.’
Thomas Pennant ‘Tours in Wales’ Vol II
Evocative stuff from Pennant, certainly, and in no way descriptive of the beautiful little town of the 21st century. The history of Caerwys centres on its foundation by Edward I, while the romanticists and antiquarians that followed made much of its name and suggestions of an association with the uncertainly placed Roman town of Varis. It is undoubtedly older, however. It is impossible to ignore the Bronze and Iron Age barrows, cairns and hillforts that surround the town, or the Roman finds which continue to be found. There can also be little doubt, that the neighbourhood of Caerwys was a Welsh llys, centred on a likely palace at nearby Maesmynan.
The name is problematic, certainly, and has lent itself to the imaginings, both thoughtful and wild, of historians for some centuries now. What we do know is that Caerwys is named in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Cairos’. In 1242, at the time of the first charter, the town was named as ‘Kayroys’, with further mutations until we have the familiar sounding, ‘Kaerwys’ in 1297, seven years after Edward I had granted the town a charter and the splendid street plan was laid down.
A glance at a modern Ordnance Survey Map shows clearly this astonishing medieval organisation, far more so than other Edwardian boroughs that have evolved with time to hide their cartographical origins beneath swelling populations, thoughtless development and random acts of God. Indeed, the legacy of Caerwys’ town planning can be seen, it is rather deliciously believed, in the 17th century foundation of Philadelphia and its famous grid of streets. William Penn’s personal physician was a Dr Thomas Wynne, who was born in nearby Ysceifiog, and worked as a barber surgeon in Caerwys. Wynne sailed to America on the ‘Welcome’ in 1682 and built the first brick building in the settlement. For a while one of the main streets in the new city was named ‘Wynne Street’, but Penn changed it in 1684. The physician built his estate in 1690 and named it ‘Wynnestay’, after, it is believed, the Wynnstay Estate in Ruabon. Caerwys is a tad smaller than Philadelphia, to be certain, but the grid system of both, and the connection of Wynne to Penn lends itself to the possibility that the 6th largest city in the United States is based on the Edwardian borough of Caerwys. What of the dissenting cry that Philadelphia was actually planned by Penn’s surveyor, Thomas Holme? Shhh, now, don’t be a bore…
It is likely from the documentary evidence to hand that nearby Maes Mynan was the centre of a native Welsh llys, a court. There has been continued speculation that the palace here was the residence of the ap Gruffudd brothers, largely on the assertion of Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, but what is more certain is that it was a owned by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and granted to his daughter, Gwenllian de Lacy on the occasion of her marriage to William de Lacy. As to whether it was a palace or a castle (again, the use of ‘Caer’ proves a distraction), it’s likely that the difference at the time would have been minimal, though there is so far, no evidence of a motte and bailey in the area. A palace then, a llys, a seat of power in an area which was a centre of Welsh power and influence until the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and the conquest of the late 13th century.
A charter of 1242 in the name of Henry III would suggest an Anglo-Norman influence in the area, which may have been temporary, but does confirm the standing of Caerwys as a traditional seat of Welsh power. This conclusion is further enhanced by the directions in 1244 by Pope Innocent IV that two Welsh abbots, based at St Michael’s Church in Caerwys, should adjudicate on a dispute between Henry III and Dafydd ap Gruffud. The incumbent at St Michael’s was also named as, ‘Jervase rector capelle de Kerwys’ in 1284, the year after Dafydd’s execution and essentially the end of native rule in Wales. Clearly, Caerwys and its immediate environs were well established. Edward I, ever practical in these matters, thus made Caerwys his focus after the end of the Welsh Wars and issued a charter in 1290, making the place a town and, as stated earlier, laid down its plan. While known as, ‘Kings Town’ in this charter, from the very beginning, Caerwys was largely Welsh, rather than made up of English immigrants. In 1292, of the 43 taxpayers in the town, 39 of them had Welsh surnames, making it fairly unique in North East Wales.
The Edwardian borough of Caerwys was built as a commercial centre, rather than owning any military pretensions, despite the name. In 1356, John Trevor, the Bishop of St Asaph instituted a weekly market at Caerwys, and we know that there was a popular annual fair at that time. Still, the town generated less for the Royal coffers than the other Edwardian towns of Rhuddlan and Flint, but its continued importance remained, since there is a record of the Rhuddlan hundred meeting at the town on occasion.
The town was also an important centre of the judiciary, perhaps as a result of its importance as such under Welsh control, from nearby Maesmynan. Its importance as such, despite perhaps a temporary lull under Henry III, was re-affirmed by the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. While asserting English law in Wales, it did establish Caerwys, amongst other towns, as a seat of dispensing justice. Assizes were held at Caerwys until 1672, when they were moved first to Flint and finally to Mold. The Grade II listed Old Court House was likely as not the place where these assizes took place. Much of the building is of 17th century origin, though it was heavily renovated by the Mostyn family in the early 1400s. This was possibly due to Owain Glyndwr’s attack on the town during his revolt of the early 15th century, probably in 1400 at the same time as his attacks on Rhuddlan and Flint. It was used as a manorial court at that time. After the assizes moved out of the town, it fell into disuse until becoming a public house sometime in the 19th century. There is a tradition that the Court House was actually the site for the llys, but this remains unlikely and unsubstantiated by any real evidence.
Caerwys’ association with the recrudescence of the Eisteddfod requires special focus and is discussed elsewhere. Suffice to say here that Henry VIII commissioned an eisteddfod at Caerwys in 1523, to codify the bardic laws. It is probable that this was due to the town already having a long association with the eisteddfod, at least from the 12th century when Gruffydd ap Cynan commissioned a gathering at Caerwys. Elizabeth I followed her father’s decision by calling a further eisteddfod in 1568. The revivalist gathering at Caerwys in 1798 jump started interest in the event, and was the forerunner of the National Eisteddfod. In 1968, on the 400th anniversary of the Elizabethan gathering, Caerwys held another which was attended by the great and the good, including Princess Margaret, who had also enjoyed the festivities at the Royal International Eisteddfod at Llangollen in 1964.
It is thought that, as with other North Walian towns, Glyndwr’s attack at the beginning of the 15th century was the catalyst for a fall of fortune for Caerwys. It seems to have been maintained, however, as a centre for agriculture, fairs and markets, and did well from this. It was on the droving trail, stretching from North West Wales, through to the English Midlands and London. There are at least two sites in Caerwys which were formerly pinfolds, walled enclosures for straying livestock. The best known is the area on the corner of Drover’s Lane (unsurprisingly) and North Street, the second further north by the Piccadilly Inn. However, the era of the steam train does seem to have brought the popular age of the drover to an end, even though there are reports of drovers in the town well into the 20th century. The greater ease of transport seems to have enabled farmers in the Caerwys area to sell their goods further afield, and it is known that milk from Caerwys was being sold in Liverpool, such was the impact of the steam train on the ability to sell perishable goods far and wide.
Caerwys (and nearby Afonwen) was also the site of an enormous military exercise in 1909, of which records remain in the Flintshire Records Office. It was organised as a response to the growing political tensions in Europe in the run up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. The camp was centred at Croes-wain (122 737), and involved some 12000 soldiers of the West Lancashire Division of the Territorial Force and the Royal Engineers. It was, in effect, a huge tented encampment – ironic then, that part of the site is today a caravan park. It is thought that the Army returned to the site in 1910. Today, nothing remains of the Army’s presence, although there are hopes that archaeological investigations might unearth artefacts from the time. The general in charge of the business stayed in nearby Bryngwyn Hall (SJ 104 739)… no canvas for him, it seems.
Today, Caerwys retains its town status (re-affirmed in 1974), appointing its own mayor. Though the pace of life is that of a village, it remains proud of its town history. Enjoy your time in Caerwys, and be sure to visit St Michael’s Church. The present building is thought to date from the end of the 13th century (roughly from the date of Edward’s charter), and there are some wonderful 14th century sepulchral slabs in the church, along with an earlier effigy, which was thought to be that of Elizabeth Ferrers, the wife of Dafydd ap Gruffud, but more likely in fact to be that of Gwenllian de Lacy of nearby Maes Mynan.