‘And the king and an innumerable armed host, fearless and ready for battle, came through the wood of Hawarden. And there Cynan and Dafydd, sons of Owain, encountered him, and there gave him a hard battle. And after many of his men had been slain he escaped to the open country’.
Brut y Tywysogion 1157
Beautiful and intriguing, Ewloe Castle is a mystery, raised within the fastness and once vastness of the Wepre woodland. There is very little documentary evidence regarding the castle, which makes even its dating a matter of some speculation. It was thought to have been the work of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (1223-1282) in or around 1257, but there is enough doubt to suggest that it could well be the work of an earlier generation of Gwynedd princes - it remains the matter of some considerable debate. But perhaps the most curious aspect of Ewloe Castle is its position - which is, to say the very least, very strange.
Odd as its placement may be, this should take nothing away from its ruined beauty. A small, compact castle not much more than 200 feet in length, hidden away in the Wepre woods, the remains of an ancient woodland that once encompassed much of the four cantrefs of Rhos, Rhufoniog, Dyffryn Clwyd and Tegeingl. It is surrounded by ditches, as you would expect, and overlooked in places by counterscarp, as already mentioned.. It has, as you would expect of a Welsh castle, an apsidal tower, which are to be seen in other castles built by Welsh princes such as Dinas Bran and Castell y Bere. On visiting the castle, you enter the ruins through the curtain wall in the lower or outer ward, a curtain wall that would seem to have been built after the completion of what is now known as the upper or inner ward, since the curtain walls of the two wards rather than being bonded together, rather abut each other. The impressive ruins of the inner ward are then accessible and can be explored in some depth. The idiomatic D shaped tower can be climbed through the original stairway and an impressive view of the surrounding woodland is gained. Within the lower ward, the remains of the round west tower are impressive.
In truth, the Castle resembles some kind of medieval themed playground, a huge broken stoned climbing frame, surrounded by dramatic ditches and banks, woodland, stone bridge, brooks and dingley dells. The setting is beautiful, of that there is no doubt. On visiting the castle during the summer of 2020, the choke hold of a pandemic lockdown temporarily eased, the place was pleasingly full of families, nippers running wild, hurling themselves about the place at near ballistic speeds, burning off pent up energy amongst the stones and along the trackways of the delightful Wepre Park.
The apsidal tower of Ewloe Castle - possibly built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth
There have been arguments that we are wrong to believe that the castle was ever militarily weak - that what we see today is not in fact, what we would have seen in the 13th century. The debate seems to centre on the scarp which overlooks much of the southern curtain wall, and is only some 20ft below the height of the apsidal tower. There have been suggestions that this scarp has been artificially raised, perhaps as part of some ancient siege works. The report of the Royal Commission in 1912 is curious in its argument that the reason for its position within the wood was, in fact it was,
‘doubtless the purpose of its builders to conceal its presence as much as possible.’
RCAHMC, Inventory: Flintshire, (1912) p. 39
These arguments are not particularly convincing, since there is actually no real evidence that Ewloe Castle played any direct role in any of the conflicts of the 13th century. And the wood, which is still impressive in its depth and difficult terrain, was far bigger in the time of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and that of his son and grandson - making a nonsense of Ewloe Castle being a fortress capable of withstanding any sort of determined attack. The idea of concealing a castle seems almost perverse - counter productive, in fact.
‘Given the way in which the castle is overlooked from the south and was located in a wood, it is best characterised as being lordly accommodation with a level of security rather than a castle designed to withstand serious assault.’
H. Brodie, Apsidal and D-shaped towers of the Princes of Gwynedd, p. 233
So, what on earth was the thinking in building a castle in the middle of dense woodland? As has been stated, it’s patently ridiculous, obviously, at least from a military standpoint. Not only do the trees provide an inordinate amount of cover to an attacking force, but as has been mentioned already, the castle is in places virtually overlooked by surrounding high ground. It is entirely doubtful Ewloe Castle would have been able to hold against a determined assault for any length of time.
This then has been the puzzle, squaring off the inherent military weaknesses of Ewloe Castle with the well known intelligence and competence of the Princes of Gwynedd. Would Llywelyn ap Gruffudd really have thought to build a defensive stronghold here? Would anyone? Compare the situation of Ewloe with any other Welsh built castle, Dinas Bran at Llangollen for example, with their often astonishing, ‘showy and prominent’ positions, and it’s a struggle to see the rhyme and reason behind the building of the Castle in this ancient woodland.
Overlooked by higher ground...quite the contrast with another Welsh castle, Dinas Bran...
...which fairly dominates the Vale of Llangollen.
The answer, it seems to me, is that Ewloe Castle was never meant to be a Dinas Bran or Criccieth, never meant to be a fortress of their ilk, their inherent and obvious power. The answer to this riddle is by not seeing the woods as the problem, but rather the motivation for the build. These ancient woodlands were, after all, thought to be the site of the justly famous Battle of Coleshill of 1157, in which Henry II and a sizeable part of his huge invading force were ambushed by the sons of Owain Gwynedd and almost destroyed, Henry II escaping with his life through a mixture of luck, his own bravery and that of his most experienced men-at-arms.
In fact, Owain Gwynedd’s victory in the ‘wood of Hawarden’, changed little - he was still required to give up much of his territory in the Perfeddwlad, the middle country. Yet his success at the Battle of Coleshill was extraordinary, in any way you wish to look at it. It seems Owain sought the opportunity for battle, despite being considerably outnumbered, and the sheer audacity of this Prince of Wales in squaring up to the King of England, and coming close to killing him, has quite rightly been held as a great victory, and was recognised as such at the time by Welsh chroniclers and poets. And worthy of a memorial.
‘In arms against Angles in Tegeingl’s lands,
Blood spilling in streams, blood pouring forth.
A prince’s heir, red their precious wine.
In strife with the Dragon of the East,
Fair Western Dragon, the best was his.
Ardent the lord, sword bright above sheath,
Spear in strife and outpouring from sword,
Sword-blade in hand and hand hewing heads,
Hand on sword and sword on Norman troops’.
Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, In Praise of Owain Gwynedd
It is possible, probable in fact, that Ewloe Castle was built not as a fortress to hold a frankly unholdable area, but as a statement of resistance, a fierce cry of independence amongst the trees of the Perfeddwlad. And there are records that the area, ‘apud Weperespol extra Cestrium’, was used to host high level meetings between Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and English envoys in November 1259 and December 1260. What delicious irony in meeting with the traditional enemy in a place renowned amongst the Welsh (and perhaps even the English) as the site at which the English took a sound thrashing. As a statement of authority and ambition it fits neatly with the confidence enjoyed by Llywelyn at the end of the 1250s and 60s. Ewloe’s significance was fleeting, however. With the death of his ally, Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Llywelyn took advantage of the chaos at the English court and swept through North East Wales, retaking huge swathes of territory, including the castes of Hawarden and Mold, the latter being hugely symbolic to the Princes of Gwynedd. Ewloe’s importance waned as Llywelyn began to use these traditional venues instead, and little else is heard of the castle in the woods until 1311. It is likely that the castle became something of a luxurious ‘hunting lodge’, a centre for the exploitation of the wealth of resources in the area, including coal, iron and of course, timber. There is also a possibility it became a prison of sorts, for the political opponents of the Princes of Gwynedd. What it was not, what it could not have been, is a fortress of the likes of Dinas Bran and Castell y Bere.
The steps leading into the D Shaped Tower
So, when was it built and by whom? This is a matter of continued debate. The document of 1311, a report for Edward II by Payn Tibetot, the Justice of Chester, suggests at first viewing to identify Ewloe Castle as being wholly built by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in or around 1257. And this fits neatly with the events of the time, the rise of Gwynedd in North East Wales. And of course, we cannot avoid the convenience of the 13th century date, it being exactly one hundred years after the Battle of Coleshill. Nice and neat. But, unsurprisingly, there are doubts.
The matter largely rests on a question of grammar. The Payn Tibetot report of 1311 is seen for a number of excellent reasons to be unimpeachable. So his declaration that Ewloe Castle was built by Llewelyn ap Gruffudd would seem to put the matter beyond question.
‘that the said Thlewelyn ousted the said Roger [de Montalt] from the said manor and attached the same principality as it was before, and built a castle in the corner of the wood, which was in part standing at the time of the inquisition.’
PRO Plea Rolls, Chester 29/23 m48 (1311), q. Hemp (1928) p.9
Here Hemp’s translation renders the verb, ‘affirmare’ as ‘built’. However, Brodie and Stephenson have both made the compelling case that this is, in fact, a mistranslation, and that we should be reading the verb as, ‘strengthened’ or ‘restored’. This, of course, would radically change our understanding of Tibetot’s report, suggesting that, in fact, the history of Ewloe stretches further back than 1257 and Llewelyn ap Gruffudd.
The courtyard, the well clearly visible
Stephenson has also made the point that the cost of building Ewloe Castle was likely as not beyond the means of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd in the 1250 and 60s, given the enormous military expenditure that he had undertaken in prosecuting his strategic aims during those decades. His astonishing successes notwithstanding, they came at such a huge financial cost that the building a castle from scratch within dense woodland and amongst treacherous terrain would probably be seen as a pointless endeavour. Perhaps one should also consider the effect of several years of famine, that would have surely affected the ability to field a workforce of the size to effectively build a castle of Ewloe’s size in so short a time. Tibetot’s report, translated to suggest a restoration or a strengthening would make more sense, in this light at least.
Another matter to take into consideration are the series of meetings that were said to have happened between the Welsh and English at ‘Wapir’, which clearly renders to Wepre. The earliest meeting is said to have been in 1244. This would suggest, of course, that there was somewhere to meet at Wapir in 1244, and probably points to the existence of a building of some stature on the site. The meetings of 1259 and 1260 would not have been possible if the building of Ewloe Castle had begun in late 1257 (and probably later, if we are to suppose that the Brut y Tywysogion is exaggerating when claiming Llywelyn conquered the Perfeddwlad in a week). A restoration or strengthening is far more likely to have been completed by 1259, even if, as is likely, the castle was in a state of some disrepair by the time of Llewelyn’s advances in 1257.
There have long been traditions of a building existing here during the reign of Llywelyn ab Iorweth ( c. 1173 – 11 April 1240). The report of 1311, translated to suggest a strengthening or restoration would obviously support the suggestion that there was a building here of some substance and likely importance well before 1257 and probably several decades earlier. There are even some architectural features at the castle which could well point to an earlier build, the apsidal tower for one, and a shelf which projects from the bank at the south east corner of the upper ward. As has been said, the walls of the inner and outer wards abut each other, suggesting a later date for the outer ward. We should possibly also mention the persistent tradition of an earlier motte and bailey at the site, said to have been built by Owain Gwynedd (1100-1170).
Ewloe Castle disappears from written record after the 1311 report. It did not, as far as we know, play any part in the wars of 1276-77 or 1282-83 - Morris, writing in 1901 certainly could find no record of Ewloe being involved in those two titanic conflicts - and was once again in English hands by the end of the 13th century. The Castle’s heyday seems, then, to have been fleeting, and after the Edwardian conquest of 1282-83, Ewloe seems to have begun its slow descent to decrepitude - ignored by Edward in the building of the massives at Flint and Rhuddlan. Writing in the middle of the 16th century, Leland described it as,
‘a ruinus castelet, or pile, at a place called Castel Yollo.’
The Itinerary in Wales of John Leland in or about the years 1536-1539, ed. L. T. Smith, (1906) p. 93
The view towards the embankment which overlooks the castle walls
Ewloe Castle is an absolute delight. Compact, frightfully impractical as a fortress, and really rather wonderful in the entirely beautiful Wepre Park. And despite the unknowns, the image that remains for me is of a secretly amused Llywelyn ap Gruffudd meeting with English envoys in the ‘castle’ built to remember the sound spanking inflicted upon their compatriots one hundred years previous. There’s humour there, whatever your nationality.
R. Avent, Castles of the Princes of Gwynedd, Cardiff, (1983)
H. Brodie, Apsidal and D-shaped towers of the Princes of Gwynedd, Archaeologia Cambrensis 164, (2015)
W. J. Hemp, The castle of Ewloe and the Welsh castle plan, Y Cymmrodor 39, (1928)
C. O. Jones, Ewloe Castle: Further thoughts on Ewloe Castle, Archaeologia Cambrensis 170, (2021)
G. Jones, The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English, Oxford, (1983)
J. E. Lloyd, Ewloe, Y Cymmrodor 39, (1928)
ed. J. Manley, S. Grenter, F. Gale, The Archaeology of Clwyd, Clwyd Archaeology Service, Clwyd County Council, (1991)
J. E. Morris, The Welsh Wars of Edward I, Oxford, (1901)
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, London, (1912)
ed. L. T. Smith, The Itinerary in Wales of John Leland in or about the years 1536-1539, London, (1906)
D. Stephenson, A Reconsideration of the siting, function and dating of Ewloe Castle, Archaeologia Cambrensis 164, (2015)