‘My next visit was to Flint. I took the lower road, by the shore, blackened with the smoke of smelting houses…’
Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales (1778)
So announces Thomas Pennant on his journey into Flint, his county town. It is an image a town of industry and graft, which its curiously problematic name somehow enhances. It is a name that those from outside the area, looking in from a distance perhaps, struggle to fathom. Those, ‘off Flint', know full well what it means, since the town is a place of graft, unashamedly so, and always has been.
Flint first enters recorded history in 1277 with the commencement of the building of the castle by Edward I, his first in Wales and named as, ‘Le Flynt’. Pennant, Samuel Lewis and many other antiquarians have looked for the meaning of the town’s name in the geology of the area – in vain. Others have given up on even attempting to understand its current name, and have sought an older Welsh name – in vain. It means, in Middle English, quite simply, ‘hard rock’ – obviously.
When Edward began his titanic castle building program here in North Wales, he brought to bear his wealth of knowledge gathered not so much in his years on Crusade in the Middle East, where the creating of structures which acted as force multipliers became something of an art form, but rather on his journey through Europe towards Sicily, and in particular his rather languid return journey to England on the death of his father, Henry III. With him to this rocky outcrop into the Dee Estuary came the engineers and architects that he had brought back with him from Europe, and who revolutionised the business of fortification. One can only imagine the impact it had on the native peoples of the area – ‘hard rock’, seems entirely appropriate.
While the Flint we know of today has its origins very much in Edward’s first Welsh campaign of 1277, we can trace a presence here many centuries earlier. Thomas Pennant was certain that the area had been a sizeable Roman encampment, stating that there,
‘is a tradition, that in very old times stood a large town at this place, and its said the foundations of buildings have been frequently turned up by the plough’.
He was, it seems, focusing on an area just outside of Flint called, Pentre Ffwrndan, which he translated as the, ‘place of the fiery furnace’. The name would accurately reflect the nature of this place, a sizeable Roman industrial complex, ironically mirroring Pennant’s description of his approach in Flint many centuries later.
In fact, Pennant’s assertions of a Roman presence here were not the first observations of an ancient past. John Dee, the famous Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and occult philosopher mentions the discovery of remains in 1574, which he believed were of an ancient town. Edward Lhuyd talks of gravestones in the area in 1699. Pennant continues to give some considerable detail of these Roman discoveries, stating that, ‘multitudes of Roman coins, Fibulae and variety of antique instruments’, were found, and correctly asserts that the Roman presence here was focused on the lead mined on nearby Halykn Mountain.
Discoveries and subsequent excavations at Pentre Ffwrndan throughout the 19th and 20th centuries continued to uncover more and more detail of an extensive complex. It is thought now that Pentre Ffwrndan represents the earliest evidence of Roman mining operations in Wales, circa 60 AD, around the time of the first Roman military campaigns into Wales. Current research suggests the enterprise was initially private but later workings would seem to have a military bearing, so would have come under centralised control. There is even evidence of a possible quay on the nearby stream, from which the refined lead would have been shipped to Deva (Chester). A high status house discovered at Pentre Farm adds further prestige to this site. In fact, pigs of Pentre Ffwrndan lead stamped, ‘Deceangl’ (Deceanglicum plumbum – Deceanglian lead) have been found as far afield as South Staffordshire and in the discovered remains of shipwrecks. The finds discovered by Pennant would not be out of place in this context. Ornaments of gold, necklaces and rings – jewellery of all sorts, childrens knick-knacks, ear picks and keys (a sure sign of a domestic presence of importance), stylus and ubiquitous samian ware have all been found. In the mid 19th century skeletons were found, some described as being of a, ‘gigantic proportions', in the grounds of the Ship Inn on the Chester Road, and it must be supposed from the archaeological context that these represent peoples of the 1st century – supposed since much of this evidence has been sadly lost.
But why did the Romans site such a large industrial complex at Pentre Ffwrdan? No doubt, for the same reason that the peoples of countless generations since have done so. The route of the modern Chester Road near enough follows the Roman road from Deva, on to St Asaph and the likely site of Varis, Caerhun and finally Segontium. Its nearness to the sea was doubtless important, as was the nearby resources of woodland, used to produce Charcoal – logistics and resources which are still being exploited to this day. As investigations continue on this increasingly important Roman road, our understanding of how essential this coastal area was to our ancestors continues to clarify, and will doubtless continue to unearth surprises.
Very little is known about Flint and its locality after the Roman era, and why this is so remains a topic of debate. The period of time between the acknowledged date of the Roman withdrawal (around 410 AD) and the arrival of the Norman in the late 11th has been called the Dark Ages – a neat enough if increasingly spurious parcelling up of some 600 years of the history of these islands, as if the Romans all got on a ferry on some assigned day in 410 AD and switched off the lights as they left, not for them to be switched back on again until the Normans, a generally thuggish group of pseudo Vikings arrived in 1066 and thought to switch them back on again. That said, the term does seem to make more sense in this area of North East Wales than elsewhere, and the reason is probably due more to the growing political tenseness in the region. In the years after the general Roman withdrawal, the area around Flint had become something of a buffer zone between the growing power of Gwynedd and the steady advance of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Throw in some regular raiding by the Norse out of Dublin and a volatile situation becomes evident. Indeed, one can find an ancient echo of this tension in the name given to the area by the native Romano-British – ‘Perfeddwlad’, which translates roughly as, ‘the middle country’, conjuring images of a sort of no-mans-land between the powers of Gwynedd and Mercia.
By the 8th century it seems certain that the area around Flint had come under the control of the Saxons, sited at it is on the English side of the impressive dykes built by the Saxons, Wats Dyke and the more famous, Offa’s Dyke. Both were built for reasons which remain unclear, but would certainly seem at the very least to mark a territorial boundary, whatever else they functioned as. By the 920’s Rhuddlan, some 14 miles further west of Flint, was a Saxon frontier post, though possibly, if not probably functioned to the mutual advantage of both the English and Welsh in guarding against the Norse out of Ireland. In the years to 1066, the area changed hands several times, but certainly by the time of the Norman conquest the area was in English hands, effectively owned by Edwin of Mercia. The Domesday Book of 1086 names several settlement in the near vicinity of Flint, such Coleselt (Coleshill) and Latbroc (Leadbrook), now effectively suburbs of the town. This area was part of the Cheshire hundred, a term of Saxon origin signifying a subdivision of a territory which had its own court, called Atiscros, which roughly constituted the same area as the Welsh region of Tegeingl. This area is largely bereft of place names of Welsh origin, rather being English or even Scandinavian. Indeed, the Domesday book makes clear the extent of the English colonisation of the area, since the modern county of Flintshire is heavily represented in its pages, while Denbighshire is largely invisible.
Atiscros is thought to have been an actual landmark, a cross of some importance, since its name to an entire hundred. While John Dee, writing in 1574, and Edward Lhuyd in 1699 suggest that it was still in its original form, by the time Thomas Pennant writes in the 1780s, only the pedestal remained. Early Ordnance Survey maps are explicit in its location, to the near south west of the more ancient Pentre Ffwrddan, but excavations in the 1930s uncovered nothing of its presence. Speculation that the cross was Scandinavian in origin, much like the celebrated Maen Achwyfan at Whitford, remains just that – speculation. However, the cross remains intriguing. The site of the cross at Pentre Ffwrddan suggests perhaps that it was place there as a riposte to an older, pagan past. In light of this, Atiscros and Maen Achwyfan could be seen as quite deliberate attempts to assert a Christian superiority, given that they are surrounded by pre-Christian cairn and tumuli.
In the two hundred years between the conquest of England by William in 1066 and the final defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, this area of North East Wales was witness to brutal warfare. Owain Gwynedd took full advantage of the chaos of Stephen and Matilda’s English civil war by seizing Perfeddwlad in around 1150. He fought off at least two English attempts to regain the territory. In 1150, a combined force of Anglo-Normans under Ranulf Earl of Chester and Welsh under the prince of Pwys, Madog ap Maredudd was beaten back. The more serious attempt came in 1157, with the assault of the forces of Henry II, marching along the old Roman coastal road towards Deganwy. This last attempt led to a celebrated short, sharp engagement by Ewloe Castle, the Battle of Coleshill - a Welsh success which almost led to the capture of the king himself. The Battle is discussed in detail elsewhere, but suffice to say that despite the victory, the question of who governed Perfeddwlad was not definitively answered. As a consequence, it seems superious at best to suggest that this area around Flint remained quiet in the century years after the Battle, given the lack of decisiveness of the engagement and the continued importance to both sides of the territory. However, they go fairly unrecorded.
In 1272, Edward I came to the throne of England after spending a year on crusade, attempting to strengthen what remained of the Christian holdings in the Holy Land, centred on Acre. His ascension to the Crown was quite simply an unmitigated disaster for the hopes of an independent Wales. One cannot imagine a more dangerous adversary to Welsh hopes than this battle-hardened veteran of war. In particular, Edward had learned the hard way how to operate an army in unfamiliar and hostile territory, a failing of Henry II in 1257. From his time in the Holy Land, Edward had come to understand the importance of castles in securing territory, and this was undoubtedly one of the major reasons for his success in his Welsh and Scottish wars. Flint Castle can trace its DNA to those in the Middle East.
While Henry II had rarely experienced victory in Wales, Edward rarely saw defeat. Tactical knowhow, a ruthlessness that, unlike his ancestor, was always used together with a strategic plan, led eventually to an effective end of Welsh independence.
The history of Flint Castle is discussed in detail elsewhere, but suffice to say here that the castle at, ‘le Flynt’ was founded in 1277 – largely as a base for Edward’s continued campaign in North Wales, the aim being to restore to the English Crown those lands thought to be rightly theirs, and currently controlled by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, known also as, Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf.
Those lands were effectively under English control by November 1277. The Treaty of Aberconwy allowed Llywelyn control over the lands west of the River Conwy, while those to the east of the River remained in Edward’s hands. Llywelyn was also forced to accept Edward as his sovereign. The lands west of the River Conwy were divided between direct English control, essentially the coastal area, while a swathe of inland territory was given to Edward’s erstwhile ally, Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, a reward for his support in the war.
The building of Flint Castle had begun in the autumn of 1277, and the choice of this rocky outcrop in the ancient parish of Northop seems to have been made for its strategic position in the estuary, since Edward was ever mindful of securing his lines of supply, and its midway position between Chester and Rhuddlan.
Our understanding as to how the town was planned and built comes largely from the much later maps of John Speed, dated to the beginning of the 17th century. Later archaeological investigations have added to our knowledge of the medieval layout of the town, while also confirming the extraordinary detail of Speed’s original maps. The symmetry of the medieval town is superb, with the castle, medieval market hall and St Mary’s all neatly placed to represent the aspects of government, bisecting the town and creating a pleasing organisation.
Speed’s map shows the original medieval grid plan, the east-west coastal road largely corresponding to the modern Chester Street and Holywell Road, crossed by four north-south roads – all still clearly evident in an even cursory examination of a modern map of the town. Speed’s map also shows a number of other roads and lanes, though how many of these date to the original foundation of the town is currently unclear. What is also clear from Speed, is that during his time there were many vacant plots in Flint, and the reasons are unclear.
Though the castle was unfinished, the town was functioning by 1278, since a weekly market and an annual fair were in operation. The town received borough status in 1284. However, there is a suggestion that settlement in the town was not entirely successful, since in 1282 plots were rented free of charge to encourage inward migration – probably a result of the continued Anglo-Welsh tensions of the time. This does not, however, answer the question as to why this was the case at the beginning of the 17th century. Those 13th century tensions are made starkly evident by the events in 1294, when as a desperate means of preventing the fall of the castle to Madog ap Llywelyn, the constable of the fortress ordered the razing of the entire town, which widespread devastation. Only St Mary’s Church is thought to have survived beyond the castle walls. Despite the townspeople being compensated for their losses, it undoubtedly put off further development.
Tithe maps of the early 19th century show the expansion beyond the original town defences, the increase in agricultural land as the population of Flint increased, though that increase was sluggish. In fact, it was not until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the middle of the 19th century that Flint’s population began to increase in an altogether more dramatic fashion.
The reasons for this slow increase in population are debateable, but it seems fairly credible to lay the blame largely upon the political upheavals in the many centuries of the town’s existence. A case in point would be the ravages of the Civil Wars of the 17th century. Quite why those civil wars are often called the, ‘English Civil Wars’ is curious, since their effect on the whole of the British Isles was profound. The effect of those civil wars, which only came to an end in the middle of the century are well described in a description of the town by John Taylor in, ‘A Short Relation of a Long Journey’, written in the summer of 1652.
‘Surely war hath made it miserable; the sometimes famous castle…is now almost buried in its own ruins, and the town so spoiled that it may truly be said of it that they never had any market (in the memory of man). They have no saddler, tailor, weaver, brewer, baker or button maker; they have not so much as a sign of an alehouse, so that I was doubtful of a lodging…and this (me thinks) is a pitiful description of a shire town.’
If the 17th century saw Flint in a desperate state, the same can be said for much of the 18th century. Daniel Defoe in, ‘A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain’ (1724-27) gives Flint short shrift, describing it as, ‘little more than a village’, while Thomas Pennant, speaking of his county town in 1784, describes it as,
‘a place laid out with great regularity; but the streets far from being completed. The removal of the greater and the lesser sessions, and its want of trade, will be further checks to its improvement.’
However, at about the same time that Pennant was writing, there was, it seems some sign of a revival. It is hard to credit today, given Flint’s nearness to the traditional seaside resorts of Prestatyn and Rhyl, but it would seem that for some fifty years or so, until the unfettered rise of industry quite literally stifled it to death, that Flint became something of a centre for tourism, based almost entirely on the ‘bathing season’. Several writers tell of the popularity of sea bathing at Flint, including Samuel Lewis writing in 1833. The reason for this might have its source in Flint being, as Edward Parry claims in 1843, ‘a very pleasant sail’ from Chester.
However, Flint’s real recovery had its foundation fashioned from coal and, as it had over a thousand years previously, in lead. In the 20th century success came in the form of textiles and chemicals. Aber Park Industrial Estate is an excellent case study of the changing face of industry in Flint. At the end of the 19th century, a paper mill was established on the site, stretching into the medieval field system beyond the traditional boundaries of the town. A German textile firm took ownership of the mill at the beginning of the 20th century, but the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914 saw the firm withdraw from the area. In 1917, Courtaulds began what was to become a powerful presence in the town. They took ownership of the vacant textile mill and expanded it enormously, adding alkali works to its portfolio and opening new factories in the town, producing viscose rayon, amongst other things. Caourtaulds fairly dominated the town from an employment perspective with 5000 people employed on various sites in or near to Flint, not to speak of the various industries which rose or prospered to service the needs of these workers.
However, by the middle of the 20th century, Courtaulds was on the decline with various factories closing, re-opening, closing again, mothballed and finally being torn down in the 1990s. Various smaller units were raised on the site of the old Courtaulds sites, producing a variety of new products and services.
It is fair to say that Flint’s long history has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs – wars, revolutions and industrial expansion and decline. What the future holds, no one can tell, though experience would point to drama.