‘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 ridiculous, Ewloe Castle is a mystery. For a start, there is very little documentary evidence regarding the castle, which makes even its dating a matter of some speculation. It is 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. But the most curious aspect of Ewloe Castle is, of course, its siting - 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 woodland, 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. 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.
The D Shaped tower, an idiosyncrasy of Welsh built castles
In truth, it 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.
But what on earth was the thinking in building a castle in the middle of dense woodland? It’s patently ridiculous, obviously, 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 for example, with their often astonishing 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 power - obviously. 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 the site of the justly famous Battle of Coleshill in 1157, in which Henry II and a large 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 worthy of a memorial.
It is possible, probable in truth, 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 this 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 dynastic chaos at the English court and swept through North East Wales, retaking huge swathes of territory, including the castles 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 - at least in the traditional sense
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. There is a record of a meeting at ‘Wapir’, which clearly renders to Wepre, in 1244. This would suggest, of course, that there was somewhere to meet at Wapir, and could well point to an existing building on the site. There have long been traditions of a building of some stature existing here during the reign of Llywelyn ab Iorweth. And the report of 1311, the report which does seem to definitively attribute the castle to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, could in fact be alternatively understood to mean the castle was restored or rebuilt in around 1257. There are even some architectural curiosities at the castle which could well point to an earlier build - a shelf which projects from the bank at the south east corner of the upper ward.
The courtyard, the well clearly visible
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, which again does rather point to a recognition of its military frailties.
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.