The slighted remains of Denbigh Castle command a prominent outcrop of rock above the modern town, and one has only to view the Castle from Lon Llewelyn off the A543 to appreciate its intimidating power. One of only three Edwardian castles in North East Wales, Denbigh Castle is a considerable testament to the violence that consumed the area during the Welsh Wars of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Denbigh, of course existed for several centuries before the building of the Edwardian Castle, but the town as we see it today is largely the product of the Edwardian Castle. Like Conwy Castle, is was a fortress that incorporated a planned town, walled and largely exclusive to English immigrants, at least initially. The history of the town before the Edwardian annexation is discussed elsewhere.
'The gate house is a mervelus strong and great peace of work, but fastigia of it were never finischid. If beene, it might have beene countid emong the most memorable peaces of workys yn England.'
Leland, 'Itinerary of the Tours of Wales'
The magnificent stone fortress we see today was begun after the failure of Llywelyn’s and his brother, Dafydd ap Gruffudd’s rebellion of 1282, a tragedy for the Welsh since it saw the removal of any pretence of native control of the area. The llys, or court of Dafydd, and all his lands were confiscated and given to Henry de Lacy, who immediately began the building of Denbigh Castle.
Henry de Lacy took ownership of the Welsh provinces of Rhufoniog, Rhos and Dinmael, effectively creating the county we know today as Denbighshire, and of course centred on Denbigh. It is known that in October 1282, Edward was at Denbigh, with his master mason, James of St George, planning along with de Lacy this new, huge fortress. It is certain that the Royal exchequer was heavily involved in the initial operations, since records show great financial outlay by the crown. For a castle of this size, progress seems to have been swift, at least in comparison to other fortresses built in Wales. Slow progress in building stone castles is one of the reasons why there are so few stone castles, relatively speaking, in North Wales. A lack of political stability and peace meant there was not enough time to build these massive buildings. We know that de Lacy was concerned about peripheral issues within a couple of years of the foundation of the castle, such as stocking his deer park and granting charters to the newly formed town, something he would not have been that concerned about had security of the fortress itself been a worry. Yet, as we shall see, the building progress was not quite swift enough.
The building of the castle fell into two periods. In the first, the western and southern sides of the Castle were raised first, visible in the architectural differences with the northern and eastern sides of the building. It is probable that de Lacy would have brought in pressed labour from his lands in Yorkshire and Lancashire at this time, masons and carpenters. The second period of the castle building shows real differences in the speed with which the castle was raised, since clearly work at this time focuses on strength rather than haste, with impressive curtain walls, thicker walls and more elaborate hexagonal and octagonal towers built.
The mighty and highly elaborate gatehouse, built sometime in 1286 shows similarities with the mighty castle of Caernarfon, as does the Red Tower directly to the west of the entrance. The gatehouse still has the remains of a statue in a decorated niche directly over the entrance, and this is probably an image of Edward II (1307-27), and mirrors such decoration at Caernarfon. We also see changes in the type of stone used, from limestones to the distinctive red sandstones.
The mighty Burgess Gate, entrance into the walled town.
The architecture of the Castle is not in the purvey of this site, and the reader is encouraged to read the excellent guide available at Tourist Information booths and of course from the Castle itself.
Denbigh’s defences were first tested in September 1294 with the rise of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant cousin of the unfortunate Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, killed in 1283. The rebellion was a consequence not only of harsh English administration of the North Wales, but huge tax demands. Several unfinished castles, such as Caernarfon and Denbigh were captured by the rebels. Despite de Lacy’s best efforts to recapture his castle, they were defeated. That said, Denbigh fell to English forces in December 1294, and the rebellion had effectively collapsed by the spring of 1295.
From 1295, building at Denbigh was hastened, with a tremendous amount of work on a second entrance and a clever sally port achieved. The height of many of the walls were increased and a mantlet created. However, by de Lacy’s death in 1311, the Castle was still incomplete, with the great Gatehouse still lacking an intended final level and its turrets. There is a tradition that this work may have been hampered by the death of de Lacy’s eldest son, Edmund, who it is believed fell to his death in the castle well.
With de Lacy’s death, Denbigh came under the ownership of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster through the marriage of de Lacy’s eldest daughter, Alice to the Earl. This placed Denbigh Castle in the middle of the unhappy rule of Edward II, but it at least meant that building work would continue on the Castle, since Lancaster had the necessary funds to do so. However, Earl Thomas was executed for treason in 1322, and the lordship of Denbigh became something of a prize to be awarded by Edward to those he considered worthy. As a consequence, Denbigh came under the ownership of Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester until 1326, when he was also executed for treason. Edward II joined Thomas and Despenser in death in 1327, and Denbigh came under the power of Roger Mortimer, who went the way of all flesh in 1330. William Montagu, later Earl Salisbury, took power in that same year and managed to stay alive for an impressive 12 years. Salisbury’s death brought back the Mortimers, a family whose history is indelibly stamped upon the Marches of North East Wales. During this time, money was spent on essential repairs and refurbishments.
In 1400, Owain Glyndwr rose up in rebellion against the Crown, his grievances against his neighbour Reginald Grey of Ruthin and Henry VI drawing in most of Wales into a firestorm which ended finally, only with Glyndwr’s mysterious disappearance in 1415. The town burgesses fled from the new emerging town outside the walls, into the Castle grounds themselves. The Castle was held on behalf of the Henry IV against the rebellion by Henry Percy, the famous Hotspur and son of the Earl of Northumberland. However, the Percy’s had grown unhappy with Henry IV for several reasons, largely relating to the favours paid to other courtiers and the King’s failure to ransom Sir Edward Mortimer (even though Henry IV had paid the huge ransom for Grey, one of the architects of the uprising). Hotspur defected to Glyndwr’s side, but was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, though it was a mightily close run thing.
The aforementioned Edward Mortimer had also defected to Glyndwr, probably in retaliation for Henry’s failure to pay for his freedom, and this is the likely reason for Denbigh’s survival through the dangerous years of the Glyndwr Rebellion. Denbigh was, of course, the inheritance on the Mortimers, who had now married into the Glyndwr family. Despite initial successes, albeit at an indecisive level, Glyndwr’s rebellion was suffering badly by 1407, and Denbigh was largely safe from capture and destruction. The damaged parts of the town were rebuilt, and the fines and other punishments began, bringing in vast amounts of cash to the Crown.
The elaborate defences of the Postern Gate were designed to protect the Castle at its weakest spot.
During the War of the Roses (a term coined much later than the 15th century), the Castle was nominally under Lancastrian ownership during the reign of Henry VI (1422-61 & 1470-71), who placed his brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke in charge. This was a largely an empty gesture, since the Castle was actually in the hands of the Yorkists. Jasper did attempt to take the Castle on two occasions, and even took the Castle for a short while in 1460 before the fluid state of English politics brought the Yorkists to the throne. On the second occasion in 1468, Jasper Tudor failed to take the Castle, and instead decided to burn the town to the ground. This may be the reason much of the town itself began to make its way down the hill, and some of the cellars in the present town show work from this period. Perhaps the townsfolk had grown tired of being in the middle of the near constant violence of the 15the century.
After the upheavals of the 15th century, the 16th century was largely a period of peace. The Castle itself was Crown property, and many audits were laid down by the Tudors to assess the cost of repairs and improvements, possibly with the intention of coming to a conclusion as to the relative worth of keeping the Castle against tearing it down and reusing its stone. We do know that in 1532, the Bishop of St Asaph was using one of the towers of Denbigh Castle as a jailhouse. A revival of Denbigh’s fortunes came in the Tudor reorganisation of the counties, of which Denbighshire was one, its centre being, of course Denbigh. A courthouse, prison and records office were created in the Castle, and its role had become much more an administration hub, rather than a military strongpoint.
Still, by 1561, when a full detailed survey was conducted, it seems only the great Gatehouse, Kitchen, Treasure House Tower, Red Tower and the Green Chambers were in good repair, much of the rest in a ruinous state. It was perhaps the great burden of upkeep that led Elizabeth I to lease Denbigh to one of her favourites, Robert Dudley, Baron Denbigh and Earl of Leicester. Under Elizabeth, Dudley effectively took control of north Wales, and his interests were looked after by a succession of Myddelton’s from nearby Galch Hill. Dudley is best remembered for his incomplete church within the Castle walls, believed to have been an abortive attempt to replace St Asaph as the cathedral of North East Wales.
Dudley died in 1588, and left the Castle in a poor state, and surveys of the early 17th century show the habitable parts of the Castle had reduced to the Green Chambers and a few towers. Much of the rest of the Castle was considered to be beyond further repair. By the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Denbigh Castle was in no fit state to be defended for the Crown.
However, such thoughts seem not to have been entertained by Colonel William Salesbury, ‘Hen Hosannau Gleision’ (Old Blue Stockings), whose determination to defend the Castle for the King was nothing short of inspiring. Salesbury himself was from a wealthy landowning family whose estates were centred around Corwen. One has only to visit his chapel at Rug to get a sense of Salesbury’s stubborn determination. Salesbury used much of his own private fortune in order to bring Denbigh Castle to a state to which it could be defended.
Denbigh and North East Wales avoided the worst of the battles of the War until 1645, when in an attempt to lift the siege of Chester, the forces of King Charles I were utterly routed at Rowton Moor and the King retreated to Denbigh Castle, where he stayed for three nights. Charles is said to have stayed in the Great Kitchen Tower, and during his stay the indomitable Colonel Salesbury spoke some plain truths to the King, who commented later that, ‘Never did a prince hear so much truth at once’.
Denbigh Castle under Salesbury held firm against a Parliamentarian siege for 6 months. Despite some considerable deprivations, Old Blue Stockings refused to surrender despite five calls to do so by the Parliamentary commander, Sir Thomas Mytton. Salesbury replied that he had vowed to serve the King, and would not surrender the Castle unless commanded to by the King. During this siege, the Castle and town walls held firm, and the Parliamentary efforts seem to have been focused on the Goblin Tower, which contained a reliable source of water, although Galch Hill was also used to site cannon in an attempt to break down the thinner walls to the south west of the Castle. Earthworks, known as ‘half-moons’, used by the besieging forces can still be seen beneath the Goblin Tower, and perhaps stretching out to the south. However, it was the isolation of the Castle and the apparent hopelessness of the King’s cause that eventually led to Salesbury being given instruction to surrender the Castle. This he did, on the 26th October 1646, when he marched out of the Castle with his remaining troops, with flags flying, trumpets sounding and drums beaten. Salesbury himself was sent a silk ribbon by the Charles on the eve of the King’s execution in way of thanks for his support. The Castle was then used as a prison for Royalist troops until the end of the War in 1649, after which a small garrison was housed there. In March 1660, the Castle was heavily slighted under the orders of General Monck, which took 6 weeks in total.
The rest of the 17th century passed peacefully, with Denbigh Castle sliding into ruin, with much of its stone being used for buildings in the town. Many of the town buildings of this date have some Castle stone within them. We have an idea as to how the Castle declined through engravings by the Buck Brothers (1742) and John Boydell, but it never really entered the romantic imagination of the 18th century to the extent that castles such as Conwy, Harlech and the Welsh castles such as Dolbarden.
In the mid-19th century there was a concerted effort to preserve these magnificent monuments, and alongside a tremendous refurbishment of churches throughout the Country, castles were taken under the wing of civic committees, Denbigh included. The castle we see today is largely the work of HM Office for Works and latterly, CADW in whose care the castle currently resides.
Built on a dramatically steep outcrop of rock overlooking the town, Denbigh Castle was built on the site of the original llys of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth