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Castell Dinas Bran

‘It put me in mind of some old king, unfortunate and melancholy but a king still, with the look of a king, and the ancestral crown still on his furrowed forehead.’

George Borrow, Wild Wales, p.281

 

Castell Dinas Bran is quite simply one of the most awe inspiring castles in the British Isles. The snap-toothed ruins of this 13th century Welsh built fortress overlook the astonishing Vale of Llangollen, dominating the valley and the town of Llangollen beneath. It rests atop a striking conical mountain beside the Eglwyseg Rocks, offering the most breathtaking views.  Approach the town along the A5 from Chirk or even better, the A539 from Ruabon and I challenge you not to be staggered back by the view of the fortress. And given its picturesque position, it is hardly surprising that it has gathered about it a wealth of myth, mystery and legend.

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Viewed from the north, the imposing slopes of Dinas Bran were a reason for the belief that the castle was impregnable.

The castle of which the ruins remain, is believed to have been built in the 1260s by Gruffudd ap Madog (d. 1269) ruler of Powys Fadog, to a Welsh design and by a Welsh architect. We know that his sons granted their English mother, Emma, land within the Maelor Saesneg from Dinas Bran in 1270 - strongly suggesting that a castle was present at this time. It is possible that an earlier medieval fortification was built upon the hill by Gruffudd’s father, Madog (d. 1236), ruler of the territories in northern Powys that became known, under his son, as Powys Fadog. He was also the founder of Valle Crucis Abbey in 1201. If an earlier fortification did exist here, and the evidence is at best scanty, at worst entirely nebulous, then there is nothing now to show for it. An even earlier medieval providence has been mooted, that it was the site of Eliseg’s court in the 8th century, a king remembered in the nearby pillar still standing beside Valle Crucis Abbey. Again, there is nothing to prove this, other than a belief that the hill could not be ignored by any warlord worth their salt.

 

What is certain, however, is that the castle stands within the confines of a much earlier hillfort - Iron Age, probaby, although the finding of two Bronze Age axes may well push its founding into that distant era. Likely built by the Ordovices, possibly the Deceangi, it was one of a very many hillforts raised in the area and north through the Clywdians. There are extant remains upon the slopes, to be seen and walked along. A large earthen embankment runs from the northern corner of the medieval great ditch, along the eastern edge of the plateau and along the southern face of the castle, swinging wide aways from the walls before turning in to what has been suggested is an inturned entranceway, common to hillforts. Further along, the remains become confused with the medieval earthworks.

 

There is a semi-circular feature, some 20m across some ways down the slope to the east and south, which many have suggested is an outlying earthwork attributed to the hillfort. Others are of the opinion that it is medieval in origin, possibly a temporary work raised in order to defend against attack whilst the castle was being built. Another opinion is that it is evidence of  siege works. Another interesting but curious feature is that of the apparent enclosure, stretching east from the great ditch to which it is attached. Again, opinions vary as to its origin, from Iron Age to Medieval. It would certainly seem to have been the area within which the Iron Age peoples built their roundhouses, evidence of which has been found. But, it is just as possible that it was the site of the camp and workshops for those building the castle in the 1260s, subsequently cleared with the completion of the fortress. Excavation would likely give us some further clarity.

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The Lidar image shows the ancient Iron Age (possibly Bronze Age) embankment of the hillfort. Note the curious enclosure adjoining the great ditch to the near east of the medieval castle, along with the semi-circular earthwork and bank further down the slope.

It is fair to say that Dinas Bran is exceptional, both in its building and its position. Of course, it is far from being the only powerful Welsh built castle, but there is much that points to Dinas Bran being something rather special. It is perhaps a surprise to find that the lords of Powys Fadog had the means to build such a fortress, but build it they most certainly did, and it points to the much envied wealth that was to be found in the fertile valleys of the north east of Wales. There is no doubt that Dinas Bran was a statement of power and prestige. Possibly not the most comfortable of castles to live within, although it was not without its flair, but most certainly projecting raw, naked power.

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The approach to the keep, a shadow of its former size and power, would have likely been by a timber bridge crossing the great, stone revetted ditch.

So, having been built in the 1260s, probably in the wake of the rise of Gwynedd to its position of real power in Wales by 1267, and in the quite reasonable understanding that the awesome siting of the castle made it well nigh impregnable, it is something of a surprise to find that by the end of 1277, less than twenty years later, Dinas Bran was an abandoned, burnt out shell. Why this was the case is still not entirely clear, the lack of good contemporary history of Powys, and Powys Fadog does not help, but the reasons would seem to lie somewhere in the politics of Powys Fadog after the death of Gruffud Maelor, and in the rise to power of Edward I of England, a man whose military teeth had been sharpened to feral points in the sands of Palestine.

 

The phrase, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ could well have been fashioned for medieval Powys. With Gwynedd to the west, and the English Marches and the English crown to the east, the rulers of Powys Wenwynwyn and Powys Fadog trod a careful path between the two. It is easy, and has been, to point the finger at the rulers of Powys and cry traitor, for their often very close relationship with the English king. To do so is somewhat unfair - but it is just as likely that they saw Gwynedd as just as much of an enemy as the English, if not more so. It has been said that Powys suffered as much from the ambitions of Gwynedd as it did from the English. Gruffudd ap Madog married Emma, daughter of Henry de Audley, thus cementing his English connections, and it is thought that he fought with the English against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1257.

 

However, the continued ineffectiveness of Henry III at this time, which as far as Gruffudd was concerned meant a lack of support, military and otherwise against the revenge attacks of Llywelyn on his territories, meant that by the end of September, he had gone over to the Welsh side.

 

‘About the feast of S. Michael [September 29th] Griffin of Bromfield having deserted our lord the king, returned to Llewelin, and with him laid waste the marches of Hereford and Salop.’

Annales Cestrienses, 1257

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Harsh winters would have been hard for the occupants of Dinas Bran - a view across the Vale of Llangollen from the keep.

The suggestion that Gruffudd Maelor was confined to Dinas Bran until his death after his return to Llywelyn does not seem to have any historical credibility, and as the Annales Cestrienses makes clear, he was apparently active in the field alongside Llywelyn. Whatever the politics prevalent at the time, with Powys Fadog on side, Gwynedd was a stronger foe for the English Crown and Dinas Bran, built in the 1260s at the high point of Llywelyn’s power in Wales, was a truly awesome buffer against English invasion. Maelor remained true to the Prince of Wales until his death in 1269 and was interred at Valle Crucis Abbey.

 

However, on Maelor’s death, Powys Fadog was divided amongst his four sons, Madog, Llywelyn, Owain and Gruffudd. His daughter, Angharad outlived them all. Together they granted their mother, Emma much of Maelor Saesneg, which included the now lost castle at Overton. While it is likely that Madog, as the senior brother, kept Dinas Bran, it is possible that all the brothers kept apartments at the castle. However confused the rule of Powys Fadog may have been in the years to the outbreak of war with Edward in 1277, it would seem the brothers remained loyal to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the Prince of Wales, although the worth and perhaps the level of their support has been questioned.

 

‘The lords of Powys Fadog kept to Llywelyn’s side; but there was little they could do, perhaps little they cared to do. Certainly they did not attempt to defend their impressive castle.’

D. J. Cathcart-King, Two Castle in Northern Powys: Dinas Bran and Caergwrle, Archaeologia Cambrensis (1974) p. 117

 

Is Cathcart-King’s opinion a little harsh? Perhaps. It does seem that the literature, both contemporary and present, finds it difficult to speak well of the lords of Powys Fadog. The Calendar of Patent Rolls for 1276, suggests that the second son, Llywelyn surrendered to Edward’s power as early as December 1276, and may not have taken an active role in the war at all. Having said that, Madog is said to have been killed in the war of 1277, probably resisting the English invasion from Chester determined to remove Powys Fadog from the grip of the Prince of Wales. It may be that opinion will change in time, possibly worsening, possibly improving. Time will tell. But Cathcart-King is right to say that Dinas Bran was not defended.

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A plan of the castle from, 'An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire' (1912) - notice the curious lack of detail to the western end of the courtyard, and the strange absence of the well at the estern edge of the ditch.

It is possible that with the death of Madog and the surrender of Llywelyn, the remaining sons of Gruffudd Maelor felt the situation was hopeless. But rather than surrendering Dinas Bran to the English unsullied, they set it aflame, causing an unknown amount of damage to the castle. Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln was aware that the castle had been razed before his arrival at the head of an army on the 12th May 1277, and it is possible that it was his advance out of Oswestry that spurned the brothers to badly damage their stronghold. Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, Richard Fenton claims to have seen the remains of badly burnt and vitrified masonry.

 

Still, de Lacy was impressed with Dinas Bran, and in correspondence with the King, he was clear that he felt the castle could be repaired, indeed should be repaired and garrisoned with it, since, as he claimed, the fortress was,

 

‘still so good and strong. For there is no stronger castle in all Wales, nor has England a greater.’

 

An English garrison is reputed to have been placed within Dinas Bran, suggesting it was still considered to be something of a threat, but little is known of the practicalities of this, and it is unlikely that any repair work was done. On the surrender of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in November 1277, it would seem that the brothers were allowed to return to their lands, which included the burnt shell of Dinas Bran. However, they were no longer subject to the Prince of Wales, but to the English Crown directly. Whether they stayed at Dinas Bran or lived elsewhere is unknown, since it is not entirely clear as to whether the damage to the castle was such that it was uninhabitable - the English garrison of 1277 might well have made best use of whatever facilities were available to them, but the lords of Powys Fadog might well have baulked at living in a castle they had been forced to burn. And it’s possible they had no wish to repair it, given the circumstances of its slighting, and that they were now under the power of the English Crown.

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A view from the northern wall of the castle - the mighty Eglwyseg Rocks, the realm of peregrine.

This last point follows from the likelihood that when the war of 1282-83 erupted, after Dadfyd ap Gruffudd’s astonishing attack on Hawarden Castle on Palm Sunday, the lords of Powys Fadog were still in Llywelyn’s ranks. Edward’s swift forfeiture of the lands of Powys Fadog suggests that he was clear that the brothers were to be foes not friends in the oncoming maelstrom. What role Dinas Bran played in the war is unknown, but that in itself is likely evidence of its silence in the conflict. The probability is that it was in no condition to offer credible resistance.

 

On the 7th October 1282, some two months before the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, and many before his brother, Dafydd’s capture in the Snowdonian fastness and his gruesome execution in Shrewsbury, Yale and Bromfield, including Castell Dinas Bran, were granted to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. However impressive Dinas Bran had been, it did not serve de Warenne’s purposes. Instead he chose to build a new castle at Holt, some 20 miles further down the River Dee, probably in order to control the crossing there - a strategic decision.

 

Had Castell Dinas Bran been in a serviceable condition, it is almost unfathomable that it would not have served as a base, perhaps the base for Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising which engulfed much of Wales in 1400. Situated a stones throw from the centre of his power at Glyndyfrdwy, it would have made an obvious stronghold.   However, there is no evidence that Dinas Bran played any part in Glyndŵr’s war against the English Crown, and there are a number of contemporary sources that would have probably made it plain had he done so. It would seem then, that Castell Dinas Bran was left to ruin after 1282, and what we have today is what remains from near enough 800 years of windswept wear and tear.

 

‘Before the wars and weather had their will of Castell Dinas Bran, this was surely one of the most splendid of Welsh castles.’

D. J. C. King, Two castles in northern Powys: Dinas Bran and Caergwrle, p.121

 

Cathcart-King is clear that Dinas Bran, while certainly a Welsh built castle and following a Welsh design, was a little different. Its size, some 300 ft long and 130 ft wide is impressive and unusual, and having, along with its keep another important, and typically Welsh D-shaped, apsidal tower and what would have been a deeply impressive gatehouse marks Dinas Bran as out of the ordinary. It is an extraordinary castle, in fact, and given that it was within the means of the lords of Powys Fadog to build, suggests that there was a considerable amount of wealth in the area.

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The mighty rampart of the Iron Age, possibly late Bronze Age hillfort runs to the south of the medieval castle.

What we have left is a shadow of its heyday pride, of course. It is an arduous but bracing trek to climb the mountain upon which the castle sits, whichever direction you come to it. Climbing from the Panorama Walk to the north east is a real effort, but quicker. This approach will see you cross through the old hillfort embankment which runs away from you to the east. Still clear and impressive, it is possible to trace and walk the bank to the south of the castle until it becomes confused in the medieval workings to the south west, possibly terminating today in the remains of an inturned hillfort entranceway. If climbing from the south west, it is here that you will arrive as you make the summit. Faint traces of the curious enclosure to the east of the castle abutting the great ditch are apparent. The strange and mysterious semi-circular earthwork further down the eastern slope is not readily apparent, hidden away amongst the bracken - but it's there.

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The ancient embankment ends in what may be an inturned entranceway, common to hillforts. The great medieval ditch is in front of the apsidal tower and south wall.

The astonishing great ditch is genuinely impressive, defending the eastern and southern approaches to the castle, considered, amusingly you might consider, a weakness. The great slopes on the northern and western sides of the hill were considered, probably rightly, as too steep to climb by an attacking force, and were relatively lightly defended in comparison to elsewhere. It is believed that a timber bridge crossed the great ditch to the near north east to the gatehouse - timber since there is now nothing at all to show for it. The ditch is hugely stone faced and intimidating, projecting raw, unfettered power.

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The quite awesome great ditch, running south here before the keep.

There are the remains of a well, probably the original water source for the castle, close to the turn of the great ditch as it runs to the south. Today, this is barely perceptible, a shallow, stony depression. But it would seem its demise was fairly recent, certainly within the last hundred years. The well was open, its water used by the proprietors of the refreshment hut (of which a little more will be said later) at least until the late 1930s.

 

‘The supply was maintained even during the dry summers of 1933 and 1934. The hill is traversed by numerous joints which allow a high degree of percolation of rain water, and as the rainfall is high the water-supply is constant.’

E. Neaverson, Medieval Castles in north Wales, p. 37

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The castle well, barely noticeable now, but used until fairly recently for the refreshment hut that served visitors to the site.

The keep stands proud of the walls and the gatehouse to the east of the fortress and would have directly overlooked the great ditch that protected it. The remains are largely on its western flank, along which a small passageway can be traced. It’s likely that this was where the staircase to a first floor entrance was situated. A small chamber lies at the end of the passageway, which Cathcart-King has suggested indicates the presence of an entranceway across the inner ditch, which remains to the west of the keep. The keep is believed to have been raised as part of the first stage of building - most likely the reason for the inner ditch, and possibly, just possibly the curious semi-circular earthwork further down the slope. On completion, the gatehouse and curtain walls were immediately undertaken. 

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The passageway on the western flank of the keep - there was probably a set of stairs to a first floor entrance into the keep.

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The inner ditch facing the Vale of Llangollen to the south. Probably dug to secure the 1st phase of construction - that of the keep.

The gatehouse remains are extensive, and suggest a level of decorative stone work which points to Dinas Bran being something really rather impressive. It stands below the level of the keep which overlooks it to the north and which is connected to it by a short length of curtain wall. Cathcart-King is of the opinion that the gatehouse, ‘is a very remarkable building for a Welsh castle’, fancying it to be almost a caricature of an English work. The towers are hollow and very narrow, as shown clearly to the north which has been worn down to its foundation. The barrel vaulted southern tower is gated off from investigation, used now for storage, largely due to the fact that it is the best preserved section of the castle. Here then is evidence that Dinas Bran was built not just to project military strength, but to dazzle and impress guests that had made the arduous ascent.

 

‘It is clear that we have here the remains of a remarkably ornate vault, one which would have been impressive in most castle chapels. What, one must wonder were the state-rooms like?’

D. J. C. King, Two castles in northern Powys: Dinas Bran and Caergwrle, p.125

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The exceptional barrel vaulted passageway - part of the impressive gatehouse.

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The northern passageway of the gatehouse - now just foundations, but showing the curious hollowed build.

The curtain walls facing north across the Panorama are heavily ruined and hugely breached in three separate places, affording astonishing views of the Eglwyseg Rocks.  The thickness of the walls are impressive, without being unusual. It is unlikely that there were any buildings along the inner wall, facing instead the courtyard.

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A view looking east along the northern wall - note the sheer drop beyond the wall.

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A view to the west along the northern wall - note the great breaches in the wall.

The western curtain wall has virtually entirely disappeared, a victim of wind and weather and footfall of visitors arriving from the south. Still, there are traces of foundation and evidence that at least two impressive buildings stood against the inner face. A large fragment of one of these buildings used to have a more modern building against it which can be seen in a number of photographs taken in the 20th century - the groundings of the building are still visible. This then was probably the refreshment hut for visitors, It would seem it was originally raised as a shed, of sorts, during the middle of the 19th century, since Tregellas, writing in 1865 describes it as ‘recently erected’. At the south west corner of the courtyard is another fragment of walling, probably part of the large medieval courtyard building of which the more northern fragment served as a support to the modern hut.

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A victim of the prevailing west winds - not much is left of the western wall, but enough to beg some questions.

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The remains of what was perhaps a large courtyard building abutting the western wall - note the remains of the foundations of what was likely to have been the 19th and 20th century refreshment hut in front of the wall.

This corner was also the site of the rather wonderful camera obscura that was present until the middle of the 20th century - and indeed the views afforded from this vantage point would have been superb. Both the refreshment hut and the camera obscura are visible on OS maps until at least the 1940s. They both seem to have gone by the mid 1950s, however.

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An early 20th century postcard showing both the refreshment hut and the camera obscura.

The south curtain wall from the south east to the apsidal tower is badly worn, though the postern gate is clear and impressive. The voussoirs of the postern arch remain and suggest that the builders used an especially good mix of mortar here. The gate would have allowed access into the great ditch, or indeed vice versa, allowing the defenders atop the great ditch to retreat into the courtyard.

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The elborate and soundly made postern gate.

In the middle of the south wall, overlooking the great ditch and the Vale of Llangollen is the apsidal tower - distinctive to Welsh castles. The plan of the tower is clear enough, though much has been lost. Enough remains to show that it was a powerful building - its projecting, flanking walls some 7 ft thick. While the frontage has entirely gone, it is unlikely that the wall there was any less thick than its flanks. The tower is thought to have been about 45 ft long and 34 ft wide. It would have been at least a ground and first floor, and there is a possibility that there may well have been a second - though the suggestion of a stairway to a higher level may well indicate access to an open air tower head overlooking the weaker, southern side of the castle.

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From the apsidal tower across the great ditch - the hillfort embankment in the middle distance.

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The impressive remains of the southern curtain wall run west towrds the apsidal tower. The curious hall would have abutted the tower. The site of the death of Myfanwy Fechan, perhaps.

The curtain wall linking the apsidal tower to the keep is sizeable thing, the two large breaches evidence of windows, though their current size is no real indication of how large they were originally, and it’s clear that an awful lot of damage has been suffered. It is unlikely that they would have been built to be weak, especially on the southern front. The wall is high here, perhaps close to its original height, and it is thought that a hall was here, abutting the inner wall between the tower, to which it was attached and the keep, to which it was separated - evidenced by differences in foundation and walling. A separate, stand-alone hall here is a curious thing, since they were fairly rare in Welsh built castles - more likely found in the tower or keep. But a hall it likely is, though a further argument suggests that it might well be a chapel - canonically orientated east to west as it is. Of course, it could well be both, with the chapel built on the first floor, above the hall itself.

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The great ditch, the keep, southern curtain wall and apsidal tower are here clear.

Altogether, Castell Dinas Bran is astonishing, a place of raw, cold stone power - with perhaps a little flair. As Welsh castles go, its placing overlooking the beauty of the heart-hollowing Vale of Llangollen cannot be matched. The views from the summit are jaw dropping.  To the east, the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is clear stretching across the Vale of Llangollen, the A5 Chirk bypass viaduct visible further on.  Below the castle, nestled between the A5 and the A539 is Llangollen and the Royal Pavilion of the International Eisteddfod.  The Berwyns stretch towards Corwen to the west and south.  Hang gliders and microlights set out from the Vivod hills above Llangollen and can be seen in the valley. The magnificent River Dee can be seen winding its way silently through the valley, the more direct Llangollen Canal making its way to the Trevor Basin and across the Aqueduct to Froncysyllte.  To the north is the silent mass of Eglwyseg Rocks, Ruabon mountain further on with its many cairns and standing stones.  Look out for peregrine falcons swooping down the side of the mountain at breakneck speeds.

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Richard Wilson's painting of Dinas Bran and Llangollen (1770/71)

Castell Dinas Bran has and continues to be an inspiration to artists, poets, musicians and ordinary people like me. Visit. You’ll leave with an ache of a smile on your face, I promise you. A little bit of heaven on Earth.

Further Reading

Annales Cestrienses, ed. Richard Copley Christie, The Record Society, Vol. XIV (1886)

 

George Borrow, Wild Wales, London (1862), Wrexham (2009)

 

Hugh Brodie, Apsidal and D-shaped towers of the Princes of Gwynedd, Archaeologia Cambrensis 164 (2015)

Calendar of the patent rolls preserved in the Public ... 1272-1282

Richard Fenton, Tours in Wales 1804-1813, ed. John Fisher, London (1917)

J. Forde-Johnston, Fieldwork on the Hillforts of North Wales, Flintshire Historical Society Publications, Vol. 21 (1964)

The History of Fulk Fitz Warine, trans. Thomas Wright, London (1855)

W. B. Jones, Medieval Earthworks at Dinas Bran, Llangollen, Archaeologia Cambrensis 147 (1998)

D. J. C. King, Two castles in northern Powys: Dinas Bran and Caergwrle, Archaeologia Cambrensis 123 (1974)

John Leland, The Itinerary in Wales of John Leland in or about the years 1535-43, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith, London (1906)

J. Y. W. Lloyd, The History of the Princes, the Lords Marcher and the Ancient Nobility of Powys Fadog, London (1881)

Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales, Vol I (1778) ed. John Rhys (1883)

RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire: Denbigh, London (1914)

W. T. Simpson, History of Llangollen and its Vicinity, Llangollen (1853)

 

Walter H. Tregellas, Castell Dinas Brân Near Llangollen Denbighshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis 3rd Series (1865)

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