‘The peculiar situation of this place, on the only part of the marches through which access could be obtained by the English to the heart of North Wales, subsequently rendered it the scene of many of the most important events connected with the subjugation of the principality.’
Samuel Lewis ‘Topographical Dictionary of Wales’ Vol 1 (1848)
Not far from the River Dee, close to the Cheshire border with England, stands the pretty village of Hawarden. Historical waters, though today seeming still and calm, run deep and ominous here.
It is believed that Hawarden was founded with the arrival of St Deiniol sometime in the 6th century, and his establishment of a church. Nearby is Deiniol’s Ash, reputed to be the site that the saint set his staff on his arrival in the area.
St Deiniol was an important figure in the 6th century history of North Wales. He was the grandson of the gloriously named Brochwel Ysgythrog (of the Tusks), while his father, Dunawd founded the ill-fated monastery at Bangor-on-Dee, the monks of which were slaughtered by the Northumbrian King Athelfrith at the Battle of Chester in around 613 AD. Unsurprisingly, it would seem that Deiniol spent some time at the monastery, and it would seem thus likely that his formative clerical training was undertaken there, though there are suggestions that he spent some time as a hermit, ‘on the arm of Pembrokeshire’. Sometime later, he moved into Gwynedd, founding a monastic site at Bangor, likely named after his father’s monastery, under the patronage of Maelgwn Gwynedd (he the target of scathing criticism of a fulminating Gildas) and later became the first Bishop of Bangor. Several miracles were attributed to him, including the tremendously helpful cleansing of a woman from Caerwys of worms.
The cult of St Deiniol is extensive, reflected in the numerous geographical features named after him. The dedication of churches to Deiniol are curiously, however, less numerous, with only Hawarden, Marchwiel and Worthenbury definitively attributed to him in North East Wales. He is, however represented in a beautiful stained-glass window in Llandyrnog Church in the Vale of Clwyd. The deeply religious four-time prime minster of Great Britain, William Ewart Gladstone, whose presence runs solidly through the 19th century history of Hawarden, gave up both land and some several thousands of his own books to form a library dedicated to Deiniol. The saint is said to be one of the 20000 saints buried on Bardsey Island, and his holy spirit was said to have ministered to the hermit St. Elgar there.
Hawarden is, of course mentioned in the Domesday Book as ‘Haordine’, which translates from the Old English as, ‘high enclosure’ or perhaps, ‘headland’. The Welsh name for Hawarden is, ‘Penarlag’, first noted as, ‘Pennardlaawc’, and while there is much speculation as to which name came first, it seems both refer to Hawarden’s geographical position, since both mean much the same thing.
The history of Hawarden becomes a little clearer after the Norman Conquest of 1066, largely because of the throwing up of the motte and bailey castle. Hawarden’s geographical position was no doubt the reason Hugh d’Avranches (known as both, Hugh Lupus and Hugh the Fat), Earl of Chester ordered the castle to built here soon after being granted the earldom in around 1071. It was held for him by a succession of lords and barons, including Roger Vitz-Valerine and the Montaults of Mold. We know that Hawarden was owned by the Saxon, Earl Edwin before the conquest, and there has been continued speculation that he had a castle built at Hawarden. This seems unlikely, given the Saxons rarely raised such fortifications, and there is no archaeological evidence of such a building. Given that the Norse out of Ireland were apt to make a nuisance of themselves on the north Wales coast, it is possible a watchtower (as at Gwespyr) was built here, but a castle would probably have been more substantially reflected in recorded history and toponymy, as at Rhuddlan. Edwin, who along with his brother Morcar had failed to fight at Senlac Ridge, rebelled against William in 1068 and died, through treachery on his way to exile in Scotland.
Hawarden was an important settlement during the medieval period, a strategically vital spot in the often tense and difficult negotiations between the Anglo-Norman crown and the powerful kings of Gwynedd. It was at Hawarden in 1264 that Simon de Montfort (some sources say it was his son, Henry) met with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf) in order to secure his aid in the campaign against Henry III, aid that was forthcoming with the addition of Welsh infantry to de Montfort’s forces, and to take ownership of Hawarden Castle itself. After de Montfort’s death at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Llewelyn launched a campaign against the English Marcher territories, in order to strengthen his position as far as possible, no doubt expecting a military response for his support of de Montfort, and certainly in order to destroy the strategically important strong point of Hawarden Castle (which following de Montfort’s rather gruesome death had not been handed over). It could also be said that it was at Hawarden that any semblance of Welsh independence was crushed, since it was Dafydd ap Gruffudd’s devastating attack on Hawarden Castle in 1282 that led to crushing interventions of Edward I and the Statute of Rhuddlan, which effectively imposed English law on the Welsh.
There is no doubt that Hawarden suffered during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, having grown around the castle. A two week siege of the castle in 1643 would have done much to reduce the village to a shell, though there is little to tell how badly Hawarden suffered.
And there is the problem, since gathering information about the wider settlement of Hawarden has always been hard to establish, since unsurprisingly it was the matters of nobility centred around the castle that tended to be recorded. Separating Hawarden form its castles is a difficult business. There would seem to have been open fields of some size here in the 15th century, and this would likely indicate a fairly large farming community. Fields that were subsequently enclosed were turned over to parkland at the beginning of the 19th century.
There is no doubt that Hawarden suffered during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, having grown around the castle. A two week siege in 1643 would have done much to reduce the village to a shell, though there is little to tell how badly Hawarden suffered.
Hawarden was possibly one of the few nucleated settlements in Flintshire, but it was certainly a castle settlement, which is to say that it developed naturally around an existing castle, unplanned - unlike Rhuddlan, Flint and Caergwrle. It is likely that it owned borough status, a sign of its stature. Reliable evidence of Hawarden’s progress is however sadly lacking, and the few maps that remain to us are not necessarily reliable. It is likely that during the 16th and 17th centuries the settlement grew along the Chester road, passing north of what remained of the castle. The village most certainly had a grammar school in 1606, which while rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century was largely demolished to make way for the building of the Gladstone Library, later renamed St Deniol’s Library.
John Glynne purchased the Hawarden estate in 1651. Glynne had been born in Glynllifon in Gwynedd and claimed descent from ancient Welsh tribes. He was a lawyer during the rather exciting Commonwealth and Restoration periods, and had become famous for his summing up against the Earl of Strafford, who was subsequently executed. An MP for Westminster during the Short and Long Parliaments, he died in 1666 in London without ever having lived at Hawarden. In fact, it was not until 1723 that the Glynne family arrived at the village, and it is likely that it was at this time that much of the landscaping of the estate took place. By 1740 there is evidence that a residence, Broadlane Hall had been built, surrounded by formal gardens to the north and north west. The hall had replaced a half-timbered affair from the 16th century, and in 1755 a further rebuild was undertaken before being converted into Hawarden Castle in 1809. The initial parkland of the early 18th century had effectively demolished the eastern part of the village and the later necessitated the moving north of the Chester road when it was turnpiked in 1804.
Sir Stephen Glynne inherited the baronetcy in 1815 on his father’s death. The 9th Baronet was largely motivated by his love of studying churches of England and Wales (allegedly some 5500 by the time of his death), but was rather indolent in matters of business. Indeed, his public life was one of mediocrity and failure. At the age of 17 he was described by a relative, Lady Williams Wynn as,
‘too quiet and slow to shine on the stage or indeed off it. He still retains that singular indisposition to mix or associate even with his schoolfellows when they visit him, and will, I fear, never be popular, though I must admit that his peccadilloes are all negative ones.’
It was a character that he seemed incapable or unwilling to change. Glynne’s sister, Catherine, married William Ewart Gladstone in 1839, and it was Gladstone’s father that saved Glynne from the financial ruin of the failure of his Oak Farm coal and iron works. It seems the price for this was that Gladstone and his wife would live at Hawarden, and that the estate would be inherited by the Gladstone children. Given that Stephen died of a heart attack in Shoreditch High Street in London, whilst studying his beloved churches, without marrying and issue, this came to pass in 1874, with William Henry Gladstone taking ownership.
Even today it is possible to see Hawarden as some rural idyll, calm and peaceful in an ever frantic world, a place where thousands visit every year, whether to read and study at St Deiniol’s Library or join the fun at the Good Life Experience, founded by Charlie and Caroline Gladstone, Steve Abbot and Cerys Matthews.
However, Hawarden was also a thriving centre of industry from the 16th century onwards, which while may be surprising today given its quiet beauty, should not be given Flintshire’s long industrial past. Indeed, both the Glynnes and Gladstones were dependent on the revenues, and there was some concern at their falling value in the later 19th century, necessitating the sale of some of the assets. Hawarden was a centre of coal mining, brick and tile works and with the presence of the iron foundry of Williams & Co, famous for the production of steam engines and rather wonderfully, steam boats. Aston Hall Colliery was operating from about 1550, its coal transported by road, rail and even barge to Chester and further afield. The colliery finally ceased operations in 1909.
Hawarden remains a beautiful village, but beneath still waters lie a raging undercurrent of history, an age of fierce Anglo-Welsh conflict and scholarly endeavour.