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Coed Henblas Moated Site

Derwgwrt a phlas daeargylch,

Dŵr yn gaer i’w droi’n ei gylch.

Llyn perffaith fal llun pwrffil,

Llys o’i fewn, lle iso i fil,

Llys daear ynys Drunio,

Llys i holl Bowys lle bo.

Gwylan deg o lan y dŵr,

Gwawr ddydd yw’r gaer o Ddeuddwr.

Gorau man ar gwr mynwent,

Gwas Duw a ddengys ei dent.*

Guto’r Glyn. In praise of the new house of Sir Siôn Mechain, parson of Llandrinio, Edited by R. Iestyn Daniel

 

Hidden away in the brambled fastness of Coed Henblas on the outskirts of Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd is a curiosity in sodden earth - a moated site. These oddities were first recognised as such at the beginning of the 20th century and remain something of a mystery. They were known as moated homesteads, or sometimes homestead moats, but the name has fallen into obscurity, since it is clear that they were a little more complicated than these names suggested. They are rare in Wales, outside of the border areas of north east Wales, the south east of the country and along the southern seaboard. Maelor Saesneg is thickly buttered with them, while there are also a few examples within the Vale of Clwyd, including here a little south of Ruthin. But their purpose is still a matter of debate.

 

A mention of a moat will inevitably lead to a fairly frenzied feeling for a castle - perhaps a motte and bailey, possibly a stone massive. But moated sites were almost entirely devoid of such fortifications. Indeed, they had virtually no defensive buildings at all. The only exception to this rule in north east Wales, seems to have been Llys Edwin in Northop, with its gatehouse, towers, stone walls and, of course, its moat - features which have been described elsewhere as absurd. But the true nature of Llys Edwin is still a matter of conjecture, and its identification as a purely moated site is open to some doubt.

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The moat is still well defined - and wet under foot.

Interestingly, these sites were small, roughly a third of a hectare in the Maelor, one tenth of a hectare in Denbighshire. They were invariably square or rectangular in shape, with only one circular site known, that of Vicarage Meadow in Hanmer. As for the dates of these moated sites, Welsh examples seem to range from the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-83 through to the Glyndŵr Uprising in 1400. Thereafter, the numbers of new buildings drop away, though their use seems to have continued into the 15th and early 16th centuries, as Guto’r Glyn’s work quoted above can testify. The buildings upon the platform, defined by the moat would have likely as not been a farmhouse or outbuildings, accessed by a bridge crossing the moat. No remains of buildings upon the internal platforms have been found in any of the Welsh examples, and associated fishponds outside of the moat are rare.

 

Their purpose, as said, is a bit of a mystery. It is hardly a surprise that learned opinion varies, of course, and it may be that moated sites served many different functions - a one size fits all approach is ever to be avoided. Part of the problem is that there is very little contemporary literature regarding these sites. Guto’r Glyn is just about the best we can do, though doubtless there is more out there waiting to be discovered. Still, perhaps some light can be thrown onto the matter.

 

While defense against raiding cannot be considered a primary purpose, an attack in relative force would be hard to repel, it is entirely possible, if not likely that the moat was designed to protect animal stock from four legged dangers. To that end, one can see a moated site being very effective. The water of the moat, invariably filled from natural seepage or springs, would also have been a convenient source of water for stock, while also being a source of fresh fish and fowl. And let us not forget that timber buildings threatened by fire would be quicker to douse with water from the nearby moat.

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Looking north from the edge of the internal platform, the moat turning to the west.

Whatever else they were, moated sites were also status symbols, since it would seem that they were connected to established manors. And this may give us a clue as to their preponderance in the Maelor Saesneg (English Maelor), and less commonly within the Vale of Clwyd. Moated sites were of a particularly English orientation - and they appear wherever an English influence was felt in strength. The moats within the Maelor seem to correspond to the families there of English origin - the Hanmers, Ravenscrofts, Pulestons, Dymocks and so on. The same can be said of those in the Vale of Clwyd, especially those close to Ruthin and Denbigh. It has even been suggested that the moat in the field beneath Glyndŵr’s Mount in Glyndyfrdwy reflects the great man’s English leanings before his raging break with the English Crown in 1400. And the name of these moated sites often give more than a hint of their manorial foundations, with many plas, llys and cŵrt to be found within the landscape - including that at Coed Henblas, of course.

 

It is clear also that the lands upon which these moated sites were founded enjoyed some of the most fertile lands in the region - having been either directly sited upon rich soil, or the woodland and waste cleared for arable farming. Such an explanation would explain their popularity in the Maelor and the fecund Vale of Clwyd. The lack of these sites further west had been explained as being a consequence of the hardening terrain, especially in the few centuries after the Edwardian Conquest.

 

Coed Henblas would seem to fit the bill of many of these suggested purposes of a moated site. The Vale of Clwyd was an extraordinarily fertile area, renowned for its wheat crops, granted to Reginald de Grey and Henry de Lacy in 1282. But there is no contemporary literature relating to Coed Henblas, so reasoned speculation remains the order of the day.

 

The site itself is overgrown and hidden amongst the undergrowth, bramble and trees, just off the footpath leading through the woods. But once upon it, there is no mistaking the fact that you are within a moated site. The ditch is still terribly boggy underfoot and real care must be taken. It was drained in the 1960s, but one can see it filling with a decent downpour - an indication that these sites were more than often filled with water from natural sources. It is curious however that the Lidar image for Coed Henblas would seem to show a leat of sorts linking the moat to the north west to the base of a little high ground to the west - perhaps linking a spring to the moat.

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The Lidar image, showing clear definition and the curious 'leat' on the west side of the moat.

The platform defined by the moat is rectangular and some 38m by 25m, while the moat itself is about 56m by 46m. The platform is still significantly higher than the well-defined moat and there is a suggestion of a short stretch of stone wall on the east side of the platform may indicate the site of a bridge - but this remains unclear. Coed Henblas has never been excavated, as far as can be ascertained, and its potential to answer many of the questions we have as to the purpose of these curious sites is profound.

*

An oaken court and a palace on a circle of earth,

with water to be placed around it like a defence.

A perfect lake like the border of a garment in shape,

and a court within it, a place below for a thousand people,

a court for the land of St Trunio’s region,

a court for the whole of Powys where it is.

A fair gull from the water’s edge,

like break of dawn is the fort of Deuddwr.

The best spot on the edge of a cemetery,

the servant of God exhibits his tent.

Guto’r Glyn. In praise of the new house of Sir Siôn Mechain, parson of Llandrinio, Edited by R. Iestyn Daniel

 

Further Reading

 

Guto’r Glyn.net http://www.gutorglyn.net/gutorglyn/index/

Pratt, J. Flintshire Historical Society, Vol.21, 1964

Spurgeon. J, Mottes and Moated Sites, The Archaeology of Clwyd, ed. Manley. J, Grenter. S, Gale. F, Gwasanaeth Archaeoleg Clwyd, (1991)

Spurgeon. C.J, The Moated Sites Research Group, Report No. 6, 1979

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