Strategically, Denbigh and the area around the town has always been important. For several hundred years, this area of North East Wales was the front line in an ongoing war between the Norman Kings of England and the Welsh. To understand the history of Denbigh, an appreciation of the events which occurred the wider area is required.
Denbigh stands central to an area called, ‘Y Berfeddwlad’, the Middle Kingdom, so called because it lay within Rhufoniog, one of the Four Cantrefs, which also included the districts of Rhos to the west, Tegeingl to the east and Dyffryn Clwyd to the south.
These four cantrefs were strategically situated between the Welsh power of Gwynedd and the Norman encroachment into Powys. While it is easy to fall victim to the myth that the Normans advanced and the Welsh retreated, the reality is that for a very long time indeed, a much more evenly contested conflict was the truth. For several hundred years, Gwynedd and the first the Saxons followed by the Normans, exchanged bloody body blows over the future of these lands. Only following Dafydd’s rebellion in 1282 did events swing definitively in the favour of the Normans.
It is with this in mind, that one of the curiosities of North East Wales takes shape. Given the violence of the area, it may seem odd that there are not more Norman stone castles in the area. While it may boast the spectacular castles of Conwy, Rhuddlan and Flint, all built by Edward I, and indeed the mighty Chirk Castle, and the once frighteningly powerful Holt Castle, there really is a want of these mighty fortresses. The lack can be explained by the fast-flowing nature of the wars that were fought here. Stone castles can take decades to build, and one of the ironies is that building stone castles requires peace and stability. That peace and stability did not exist in North East Wales for several centuries. Even when stones castle were built, they remained in some cases unfinished. Marry this information with the number of quickly built motte and bailey castles thrown up in the old Clwyd area, and the difference is stark. There are certainly 14 motte and bailey sites, probably more, and another 13 or so mottes without attached baileys. These include those built by the Welsh princes. There are also at least 27 moated properties in the area, possibly upwards of 40. With this in mind you have a clearer picture of the drama of this area. And Denbigh was in the centre of it.
The four cantrefs bordered Powys, and this kingdom had been a battleground for centuries before the arrival of the Normans. The Battle of Chester circa AD 615, in which the Saxon, Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeated the British shows how keenly contested was North East Wales 400 hundred years before the appearance of the Normans. The building of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke show a slow and steady advance of English interests into Powys during the 7th century. In 1062, Harold Godwineson, fated to fall at Hastings two years later (unless you are inclined to believe the myth of his survival and reclusive retirement to Chester), led a lightning attack as far as Rhuddlan, which led to the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn escaping by the skin of his teeth into Snowdonia. English pressure remained through 1063, with a joint attack by the ill-fated Godwineson brothers, Harold and Tostig which led to Gruffydd’s own men killing their king.
The Normans arrived in 1066, of course, a tragedy inflicted on the English some time before the Welsh felt their fury. Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester and otherwise known as Hugh the Wolf, along with his cousin Robert of Rhuddlan advanced from Chester through Tegeingl as far as the River Clwyd, building an immense motte and bailey at Twthill. Remains of the motte can still be seen behind the mighty ruin of the later Rhuddlan Castle.
However, such timber fortresses did not prevent the powerful Welsh princes of Gwynedd pushing back the Normans as far at the River Dee during the 12th century. They more than held their own, as sharp engagements at Ewloe (1157) and in the Ceirog Valley (1165) clearly show.
However, by 1247, the Normans were once again in the ascendency, in no small part to the internal squabbling of the heirs to Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. It is during this time that Denbigh emerges from relative obscurity. It seems Denbigh had always held an important role in the affairs of this area, though material evidence is hard to come by. It seems certain that Denbigh was a royal residence or Llys. Denbigh, or more accurately, ‘Din Bych’ has been variously translated as ‘little fort’ or even, ‘rocky fort’, but certainly it was a seat of some power and prestige. Indeed, a representative of the Norman government visited Llywelyn ab Iorwerth at Denbigh in 1230.
With the rise to power in England of the extraordinary Edward I, the balance of power in North East Wales shifted decisively in the Normans favour. Edward’s invasion in 1277 was ultimately crushing. Norman forces had reached the River Conwy by the summer of 1277, while Anglesey had also been captured and the harvest taken. The result was the Treaty of Aberconwy of 1277, which while securing Gwynedd for Llywelyn, effectively denied him anything else. Llywelyn’s brother, the deeply untrustworthy Dafydd ap Gruffudd, a man who had defected to the Normans on at least two separate occasions, was given Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd. Dafydd made his princely capital at Denbigh, and was given aid by Edward in building Caergwrle Castle.
It remains unclear as to why, but on Palm Sunday 1282, Dafydd’s forces attacked the Normans at Hawarden Castle. Llywelyn’s hand was forced, obliged by blood and politics to support his brother’s rebellion. What followed was a tragedy for the Welsh. Edward seems to canny to have been entirely surprised, as is sometimes suggested, but his response was utterly astonishing. By the October of 1282, Edward had secured the whole of North East Wales, including Caergwrle, Ruthin and, after a month-long siege, Denbigh. Llywelyn was ambushed at Builth Wells and decapitated in the December. Dafydd became what he had always desired, the king of the Welsh on his brother’s death. Edward hunted him down, and in June 1283, Dafydd was captured at Abergwyngregyn. At Shrewsbury in October he was hung drawn and quartered for treason. Edward handed Rhufoniog, Rhos and Dinmael (traditionally part of Powys) to Henry de Lacy, and so came to an end any real native Welsh control of north east Wales. The area took its name from what became the administrative centre – Denbigh. Towns were extremely rare in Wales at this time, Denbigh being one of the very first.
It at this point that the history of Denbigh becomes largely that of the castle and walls, at least until the 14th century. By 1285, the date of the first charter, a number of English families had arrived at the newly created borough of Denbigh, probably immigrants from de Lacy’s Yorkshire estates. After the brief Welsh rebellion of 1294, the town continued to grow. While perfect for defence, the site of the castle on Caledfyn Hill was not ideal for commercial expansion. In 1305, there were some 183 burgages outside of the town walls, with some 52 within. By 1311 there was an annual fair, and by the 1334 ‘Survey of Denbigh’, the town was being referred to as the, ‘borough within the walls’, and a, ‘market town without’. Interestingly, there is also a curious mention of a now lost settlement of, ‘Neuburgh’. Was this perhaps a planned development in order to separate the military and commercial sites?
In September 1400, Denbigh was attacked by Owain Glyndwr, at the very beginning of his 14 year rebellion. Given the vast amounts of fertile land in the Vale of Clwyd that was being transferred from the native Welsh to English immigrants, it is perhaps of little surprise that Glyndwr’s rebellion was so popular. Denbigh Castle was held by Henry Percy, the ‘Hotspur Mars’ as Shakespeare named him, on behalf of Henry IV. During the first two years of Glyndwr’s rebellion, Denbigh was something of an island around which the maelstrom raged. In a startling development, the Hotspur defected to Glyndwr in 1403, but was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in the same year. Despite Hotspur’s defection, Denbigh Castle continued to hold out, possibly due to Glyndwr’s reluctance to attack it, since it was the inheritance of the Mortimers, to whom Glyndwr had become closely allied.
By the arrival of the Wars of the Rose (a name coined some four hundred years later), Denbigh had become a thriving town. The Earl of Pembroke had been granted the castle by the Lancastrians, but was unable to take ownership but for a few months, due to the inconvenience of it being held for the Yorkists. He laid siege to the castle in 1468, and ultimately unsuccessful, chose instead to burn down the town within the walls.
After the Act of Union of 1535, Denbigh was established as one of the four administrative capitals of Wales, a powerful indication of its importance. In 1563, Robert Dudley, the passionate Puritan, was granted the Lordship of Denbigh by Elizabeth I and became Baron Denbigh in 1564. Essentially, Dudley was in charge of North Wales at this time, and became known for his overbearing nature. Other than a few minor repairs to the Castle, Dudley is chiefly remembered in the town for the abortive possibly in an attempt to replace St Asaph Cathedral and now known as Lord Leicester’s Church.
By 1610, John Speed’s map of Denbigh shows that the town within the walls was essentially deserted, and everyday life has transferred beyond the wall. The Castle was in a ruinous state, and by the start of the English Civil War (1642), Colonel William Salesbury, ‘Hen Hosannau Gleision’ had to spend heavily of his own money to secure the Castle for the King. Charles I was defeated by the Parliamentarians at Rowton Heath outside of Chester on 24th September 1645 and fled to Denbigh Castle, where for three days he was told some direct truths by the loyal and indominable Salesbury. At Denbigh Green 2000 strong Royalist army led by Sir William Vaughan was utterly destroyed by a Parliamentarian army led by Sir Thomas Mytton and Sir William Brereton. Mytton then laid siege to Denbigh Castle, which held on for 6 months, eventually surrendering on honourable terms, and with Charles’ directions to do so. The slighting of the castle and walls is discussed elsewhere in these pages.
Edward Lhuyd describes some 330 buildings in the 1690’s, a substantial number, and by 1750, the population of the town beyond the walls is said to have in excess of 2000 souls. Streets such as Love Lane, Henllan Street, and Lower Lane (Vale Street today) show Denbigh to have been a careful laid out town, as well as an ever more prosperous. John Ogilby in his famous 1675 Britania Atlas claims Denbigh as, ‘esteemed the best in North Wales’.
As might be expected given its age and importance, the town beyond the walls is littered with medieval and later remnants.
The 13th century Abbey Cross of Denbigh is discussed elsewhere. An old wall behind the Crown Hotel has attached to it the legend that it is the remains of the pre-Edwardian Castle, possibly the remains of Dafydd’s fortress. However, investigations during the alterations undertaken at the Hotel in 2003 did little to substantiate this tale, unfortunately. An unknown vaulted cellar was found, but is probably 16th century or later.
There is possible evidence of the earlier settlement at Denbigh to the north east of the current town (101813), where irregular platforms were discovered. Edward Lhuyd mentions a Ffynnon Farcel, but nothing now remains of this holy well. A rare late 14th century or early 15th century tile kiln was discovered in 1938.
St Anne’s or Fleming’s Chapel, possibly a guild chapel was probably no longer in use by the 16th century, and an undercroft below nos. 15-17 Bridge Street is all that now remains. Friesland Hall House, or Bryn Awelon is cruck framed and has a 14th century doorway on its southern side, and The Plough in Bridge Street owns a medieval rock cut cellar.
Plas Clough House was erected by Sir Richard Clough in 1567 and 19 High Street is clearly shown on John Speed’s map of Denbigh (1610) and is dated 1566 – 1602. Grove House on Vale Street was one of the first brick built houses in Wales, using materials imported from Antwerp. It seems that the land opposite, now nos. 52-54 Vale Street was for centuries an open space, kept to ensure a view for the occupants of the house.
Galch Hill House (102592) was certainly in existence in the 16th century. 24 Bridge Street (26066) is also 16th century and retains much of that century, despite extensive 18th century remodeling. Other 16th century buildings include Bryn-y-parc (3-5 Park Street) and 27-31 Vale Street, which could well be earlier still. The Eagle Hotel is also 16th century, and the 18th century Golden Lion has an earlier 15th century frame. No. 2 Love Lane and no.33 High Street are early 16th century, while no.22 High Street has recycled 13th or 14th century dressed stone from the Castle. The Town Hall (102597) is dated 1572, refurbished in 1780, and next time you venture to Cardiff, visit St Fagans Museum which has Denbigh’s 17th century circular and thatched cock pit.
As at Chester, it is possible to still see the remains of Civil War siege works. A crescent shaped bank by the Goblin Tower (102598), and probably the adjacent earthwork (102591) were used to bombard the Castle defenses, focusing on ‘The Bloody Well’. There is the possibility that the latter earthwork, however, is a Bronze Age earthwork, but this will require further investigation. It has been suggested that another earthwork running downhill between the Castle and the North Wales Hospital is of the Civil War, and finds of musket ball and the like are promising.
Certainly, previous to the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Denbigh was the pre-eminent town in North East Wales and retains a central place in the ever changing fortunes of the area.