That the town of Mold lies within a landscape of tremendous antiquity seems obvious, boasting as it does one of the most famous Bronze Age finds in the British Isles, if not Europe. The town itself may well attribute its foundation to the Lords of Moldsdale sometime in the late 11th, early 12th century, but its true origins of settlement are ancient, squint inducing distant.
Bronze Age tumuli abound in the fields about the town, and doubtless others have been lost beneath the urban sprawl. Some are known to us only from rumour and myth, perhaps a hint of something from the aged naming of fields, while others have disappeared entirely. But what remains – and good Lord, the finds – suggest that this particular area of Flintshire had some significance to the peoples of the Bronze Age, though the reasons can only be speculated on. As likely as not, is was probably to do with the fertile land that was formed from the remains of a vast glacial lake that dominated these lands some 18000 years ago, the Llyn Clwyd.
It is possible that the mound upon which the Normans eventually built their motte and bailey castle, in what is now the town of Mold was a Bronze Age burial mound, or maybe a large natural hill. The Normans named their settlement, ‘Montealto’ a derivative of ‘mont haut’ or ‘high hill’ and the Welsh name for the town, ‘Yr Wyddrug’ has been translated as, ‘the burial mound’, although more recent research suggests, ‘prominent mound’, which does rather reinforce the original Norman naming. It’s all rather confusing, because it is also entirely possible if not more probable that the name of the town is taken from the name of the Normans that controlled the area after the conquest, the Mohauts. Still, given the obvious importance of the area to Bronze Age peoples, it must remain a possibility that it was originally a burial mound of some size and significance.
Flintshire has more than its fair share of hillforts, certainly dating back to the Iron Age, perhaps even to the end of the Bronze Age, but they sit atop the hills and mountains overlooking the town. And despite the importance to the Romans of the lead bearing mountains around, there is little evidence of their significant involvement in Mold itself – a gold coin of Vespasian found on Bailey Hill notwithstanding. Mold’s prehistoric past is a Bronze Age affair, and it shines so very brightly that it’s hard to see much else for the glare.
The years of Roman occupation and those following their departure present us with something of a problem, one highlighted by the Domesday Book of 1086. From the Normans great survey of anything making money is clear that a settlement at Mold did not exist at the time of scribing. It details instead the Manor of Bistre, of which more will be said. This is problematic since the churchyard at St Mary’s is most certainly curvilinear, most assuredly so, which is almost certainly evidence of a llan enclosure – there is even the suggestion that this clas was a mother church, but the lack of any real evidence of a settlement establishing itself (as it did at Llangollen, for instance) about the enclosure means this is largely speculation. And then there is the tradition of the ‘Alleluia Victory’ of around AD 429, which is said to have occurred at nearby Rhual, in which early native Christian forces defeated a pagan force of Picts and Saxons. How this event came to be attached to Rhual is almost as interesting as the event itself, but the fact that it did, to the exclusion of elsewhere suggests that the Mold area was at the front line of native Christianity. The leader of the British victory, the one time general St Germanus of Auxerre was sent to Britain to combat the heresy of Pelagianism. St Germanus became known as St Garmon and features heavily in Welsh custom, especially in North East Wales. Was Germanus’ presence in the Mold area relevant to his anti-Pelagianist mission, and the vanished llan? Alternatively, it could be something a lot more prosaic, and simply that the inhabitants chose not to develop a settlement by the site.
In truth, it is hard to see a pre-Norman settlement here, recognisable as something that would become Mold. Rather, through the immediate post Roman years, this area of what became Powys, and eventually Powys Fadog in 1160 seems to have retained its Bronze and Iron Age appearance, that of a loose amalgamation of farmsteads in the fertile Ystrad Alun. They undoubtedly looked to the princes of Powys for protection and were governed accordingly, possibly from Llanarmon-yn-Ial, were a maerdref was likely to have been sited – and the Garmon connection cannot be ignored.
There is little evidence of event with regard to the always fraught, often violent meeting of the peoples of Powys (and Gwynedd) and the Mercian Saxons, but its unlikely that the area was entirely spared bloodshed in the years leading to the Norman Conquest. The proximity of the Mold area to the Saxon dykes, Offa’s and especially Wat’s cannot be ignored. It seems inconceivable that the farmers of Ystrad Alun were not somehow affected by the building of a gigantic earthwork nearby, through what would become Llong and northwards to Soughton. But, its not until the arrival of the Normans to North East Wales that Mold appears as something more certain than an academic frown.
As to when the Normans arrived, we cannot be certain. The Domesday survey of 1086 is entirely silent on anything we could interpret as a settlement, is indeed rather confusing. It does not mention a church, for example, though there is mention of a priest in Gwasaney. Instead, it details the manor of Biscopestreu – recognisable as Bistre and within it, the settlements of Legge, Mulintone, Sudfell and Wiselei under Hugh Fitz-Norman (otherwise known as Hugh Montalt) and the rather wonderfully named, Odin (a throwback to the Normans Viking past, no doubt), both under the overall control of Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester. Some of these Domesday entries for the area around Mold are recognisable. So, we have Risteselle, which is probably Rhos Ithel, Hendrebifa, which is obviously Hendre Biffa, Quisnan, which is thought to be Gwysaney, Legge, which could only be Leeswood and Mulintone, which is fancied to be our first mention of the settlement of Mold. However, even if we have an area in which the town of Mold originates, that of Mulintone, it’s clear that there was little there, because its from the name of the motte and bailey that is thrown up, possibly on an already extant mound, that the settlement takes its name. Of course, its complicated as perhaps you might expect.
The manor came into the hands of Hugh Fitz-Norman’s nephew, Robert Mohaut, sometime around 1130. And its from this time that a settlement becomes a reality for certain. The name of the town has already been discussed, and its confusing, since there are a variety of ways in which it could have taken its name, for a variety of different reasons. Still, a motte and bailey was built, probably sometime in the early 12th century, although a late 11th century date is also possible. The castle itself is discussed elsewhere, but its foundation is likely the date from which an established settlement at Mold originates. It’s not the only motte and bailey in the area, since there was one at Tyddyn, a little south of Mold and possibly another at Leeswood. All are discussed elsewhere. Clearly, the Normans expected trouble and indeed, trouble was not far behind. There can be little doubt that a town of sorts was laid out beneath the castle, although what that town looked like is impossible to tell.
If we know little of the area’s involvement in the conflicts between the native peoples of Ystrad Alun and the Saxons, we know more of the blood shed between the Normans and the peoples of Powys and Gwynedd. It is from the attack and capture of the castle by Owain Gwynedd in 1146 that we have the first definite mention of Mold, here as the castle at Monte Alto. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the settlement about the town did not suffer with its castle. And it is probable that the same fate was suffered again in 1199 when Llywelyn ab Iorwerth fell upon the castle, which had returned to Norman hands. Dafydd ap Llywelyn was next to attack and capture the motte and bailey in 1245. It is easy to see the early years of the town being spent waiting on the next attack, but consider that these events took place over a period of a century and it becomes probable that in between these violent episodes, the people of Mold ‘got on’, as ordinary people always do, buffeted by storms, leaning into the wind, picking up the pieces afterwards.
Dafydd ap Gruffydd’s attack on Hawarden on Palm Sunday 1282 brought down the considerable wrath of Edward I and before the year was at an end, so was any pretence of native Welsh independence. The Statute of Rhuddlan of 1284 changed everything, not least the name by which the area in which Mold resided. Hence forth it was to be known as Moldsdale, in the Marcher Lordships rather than the newly created Flintshire. The Normans being Norman, it was not just the name they changed, but as the English discovered, rather the practicalities of life, from the most noble to the swineherd who, looking at his pig in a pen wondered what to call it, mochin, pig or pork.
The Mohaut line died out in 1329 and the manor came into the hands of the Crown, before being awarded to the Montacutes between 1338-1399. The Stanleys took ownership of the manor in 1437 and maintained that control until their ability to successfully navigate the cutthroat politics of medieval England came to a crashing end in 1651.
But the Stanleys had a profound impact on North East Wales. It was Thomas Stanley, husband to Margaret Beaufort and thus stepfather to Henry Tudor, whose decisive and deliberately calculated intervention in the Battle of Bosworth led to his stepson becoming Henry VII and the first Tudor king. Stanleys actions at Bosworth brought him immense reward, effectively elevating him to the king in the north. The Stanleys, or more accurately Margaret’s patronage in North East Wales can be best seen in the extraordinary quality of church and chapel building and renovation throughout the area, including at St Winefride’s Well and St Mary’s in Mold.
With the Laws in Wales Acts of 1536 and 1543, Moldsdale finally became part of Flintshire, and came under the framework of the English legal system. It was also at this time that John Leland paid a visit to Mold, declaring the town, ‘a decayed town’, with a ‘token of an ancient castle or building here’ and suggesting a, ‘scarce 40 homes’. If so, then things had moved on a little by the time of Edward Lhuyd’s enquires in 1699, which registered a town of, ‘6 score homes’.
The growth of Mold in the intervening years is as likely as not to do with the growing exploitation of Flintshire’s great natural resource – namely lead. While the Romans were the first, as far as we know to mine the lead of Flintshire on an industrial scale, the Mold area remained untouched by them in this regard, which probably explains the lack of a Roman footprint. However, by the 16th century, Mold and the townships thereabouts were beginning to be opened up to exploitation. Lead smelting at Y Ddol on Milford Street was underway by 1597, a successful business for the Grosvenors of Eaton until around 1683, when the growing success of the smelting firms on the North Wales coast, notably at Bagillt made the process at Mold uneconomic – though it returned at the end of the 18th century for a time.
The Stanleys ability to dance through the morass of English politics and come through to the other side in better order than at the start came to a brick wall end with the execution of the 7th Earl of Derby in 1651. He had, unlike his ancestors failed to choose the winning side, and his support of Charles Stuart and the assistance he provided the future king in escaping the Battle of Worcester led to his beheading at Bolton. The manor of Moldsdale was split between Captain Andrew Ellis, Colonel George Twistleton and Sir John Trevor. You might be forgiven for believing that despite the 7th Earl’s execution at the hands of the Commonwealth, the restoration of the Stuart line in 1660 would have restored the Stanley line to greatness, especially since that restoration was due in no small part to the 7th Earl’s actions in 1651. But for reasons unclear, Charles refused to return the lands of Moldsdale to the 8th Earl. Through sheer bloody-minded persistence, however, Argoed was returned to the Stanley line in 1668. The new lords of Moldsdale were quick to exploit the industrial resources of their new estates, as were all the gentry of the manor. For some, the return of the revenues from the lead brought about a recrudescence of fortune, including the Mostyns, for whom the lead enabled them to emerge from their frugal retreat, blinking at the light. And coal began to become more and more important, though never to the extent of elsewhere in North East Wales. With the appearance of steam engines at the end of the 18th century, coal was needed in vast quantities to power these machines – ironically, at least in the Mold area, to pump out the overwhelming quantities of water that consistently threatened the worked seams of coal and veins of lead. Indeed, even the mighty engines of Victorian Britain could not overcome the subterranean rivers of North East Wales, and despite vast reserves of coal remaining beneath the town, there was little that could be done to retrieve them, even with the cutting of the enormous Milwr Tunnel between 1897 – 1958. The deluge would not be denied.
The rise of heavy industry, the mining of lead and coal and the conditions of those that worked beneath the ground brought discontent. There were riots throughout the 19th century, and while its often tempting to see these problems along nationalistic lines, and one cannot or should ignore that those issues were there, to do so obscures the true story of the working mans growing confidence in asserting his rights to better recognition of his worth to the prosperity of the mine owners and indeed, that of the nation, Britain being the powerhouse of the world, through the industry of the workers. The Mold Riots of 1869, and with them industrial action in general are discussed elsewhere, but any discussion of those dark days of 1869 are likely to lead one to a recognition of the genius of Daniel Owen, quite the most extraordinary man.
While the heavy industry of lead and coal is difficult to ignore, one should not forget that Mold was known for its acquiring one of the earliest examples of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, that of a cotton mill. In water colours of the town, notably those painted by J.Ingleby in around 1795, the Mold Cotton factory appears like a lonely palatial retreat at Rhyd y goleu, a little north of the town. It played an important role in the lives of the townspeople, providing work of course, but also an education to the children of its workers. When it burnt down in 1866, its loss was keenly felt, and not just because jobs were lost.
While the fortunes of agriculture and industry waxed and waned throughout the 19th century, Mold’s people would, like many in Britain have felt that the advent of the 20th century promised much. Britain was undoubtedly at its most powerful (though other nations were bridging the gap), and regarded itself as the beacon of modernity, promoting the virtues of liberal democracy throughout the world. But, as the fates are wont to do, such optimism was cruelly dismissed by the cataclysmic war of 1914. Mold lost many of its young, as did almost everywhere in Britain, but the almost existential shock was to reverberate through the decades to come, and it wasn’t long before a wounded Mold found itself giving up its young to another world war, one created from the smouldering ashes of the first.
Mold’s role in the war of 1939-45 was deeper than the first, and another 48 names were added to memorial at Bailey Hill, joining the 370 inscribed after the First World War. At Rhydymwyn, Project X was the culmination of an extraordinary story that is only now coming to public knowledge. Most strangely, if not weirdly the Black Lion Hotel played a role in Operation Mincemeat of 1943.
Post war, Mold’s role in North East Wales was enhanced when it became the headquarters of the new county council of Clwyd in 1974, in the rather interesting county buildings in County Hall Fields, built on the site of Llwynegryn Hall. It was joined there by Theatr Cymru, formerly Theatre Clwyd – a superb centre of culture in the area.
Mold abounds in interest and is well worth spending a good amount of time in investigating its wonders.