Above the landscaped beauty of Hawarden Estate, ancestral home of the Gladstone family, the remains of the medieval keep stands watchful over the ancient route from Chester into north Wales. But the strategic worth of this eminence was not some Norman epiphany, since the earthworks still visible, outside the lines of the much later defences are the remnants of an ancient hillfort - late Bronze Age, perhaps early Iron Age.
‘There seems good reason for supposing it to have been a stronghold of the aborigines, the strength and nature of the circumvallations that wind round the hill on which the Montalt built his castle, offering a protection which was too advantageous to be neglected.’
Rev. Charles Henry Hartshorne, ‘Archaeological Journal’ (1858)
It’s hard to credit now, of course, with the much later impressive keep within its embankments, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that the same motivations that played at the forefront of later strategists' minds, were there in the people of the Deceangli some 2000 years previous.
What the Romans made of this hillfort is hard to say with any certainty. However, given its thrown stones distance from the mighty legionary fortress of Deva (known today as Chester, of course), it’s highly unlikely that it would have been allowed to stay under native control. And little evidence of the Romans has been found here - the odd coin perhaps, but curiously little else, especially given the importance of north east Wales to the Roman occupiers, and especially given the importance of the road that led beneath its embankments, that continued to be essential in the centuries to come, that led along the coast road to the lead mines and smelting workshops on the north Wales coast.
With the end of Roman rule in around 410 AD, it’s possible the hillfort was reoccupied for a time, but evidence is lacking. But what is more certain, is that the area fell under the direct control of the Saxons, from whom the current name of the village originates - Haordine within the Hundred of Atiscross, according to the Domesday Book. There has been constant speculation that the Saxons built a fortress at Hawarden, and naturally the focus has been laid on the site of the current later castle. Speculation, however, is all it is, since no evidence of a Saxon fort, or indeed any building has been found. But then, very little of any Saxon building remains, throughout the British Isles, a consequence of their penchant for building in timber, and the Norman obsession of dismantling pretty much anything that the Saxons built. It seems entirely logical that the Saxons, here at Hawarden would have had some level of administrative complex, but all signs have long gone. That complex would have, likely as not, been centered on the site of the Castle. At the time of the Norman Conquest, which began in 1066, it was ruled over by Earl Edwin. Pennant calls him, ‘Gallant Edwin’, though his absence at Hastings on 14th October 1066 has not endeared him to those that see his actions, and those of Morcar his brother, as not a little duplicitous.
Edwin submitted to the Conqueror not long after William’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066, and despite a series of rebellions, ended up being killed on his way to Scotland in 1071. The Earldom of Chester thus came into the keeping of Hugh d’Avaranches in that year, and it is thought that work started almost immediately on the raising of a motte and bailey within the precinct of the ancient hillfort. While the rest of the Earldom was packaged out to various underlings, cousins and the like, Hugh retained Hawarden to himself. It is worth stating again, the nearness of Hawarden to the city of Chester, at the strategic importance of the village as a sort of outlying defensive bulwark for the City.
There is some surprise to find that, in fact, very little is known of the Castle until it comes into the history of the Welsh Wars of the 13th century. There is, as you will no doubt have noticed, much vagueness when sketching over the Castle’s first 200 years of existence. In fact, the Castle first appears in recorded history, with the meeting of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Henry de Montfort, eldest son and heir of Simon de Montfort. In the Second Barons War (1264-67), in which de Montfort wrested control of England from Henry III, Llewlyn’s power in Wales was seen as a means of reigning in the powerful Marcher lords, many of whom remained loyal to Henry III - or at least antagonistic to de Montfort. Many sources claim the meeting took place early in 1264, but given the later events of the year, it is more likely that the meeting took place in January 1265, some months after the devastating victory of de Montfort’s forces at Lewes in May 1264. The victory at Lewes had, amongst other things, brought the Earldom of Chester under de Montfort control, and the meeting was probably an effort to end the violence that had raged on between Gwynedd at Chester, almost independently of whatever else was going on elsewhere, as well as a means of gaining the direct support of the House of Aberffraw in de Montfort’s ongoing issues with the Marcher Lords. In this, it seems the meeting was successful. And interestingly, there has been the suggestion that Hawarden Castle was promised to Llywelyn as a price of that support, but evidence of this is sketchy. The events of just a year later, would further muddy the waters on this point.
It would seem this meeting at Hawarden was something of a precursor to the more formal Treaty of Pipton in the June of 1265, when with a payment of 30000 marks, Llywelyn gained the the de Montfort recognition of his position as Prince of Wales, the effective ruler of Wales in its entirety.
After the annihilation of de Montfort at Evesham in August 1265, and the retaking of the Earldom of Chester into hands of the Crown - namely Edward, Henry’s heir - Llywelyn could be forgiven for thinking that the terms of Pipton would be promptly torn up. This, then, was probably the motivation behind Llywelyn’s attack on Hawarden Castle later in 1265, and its utter destruction. To have an English Castle so close to his hard won Tegeingl lands, so close to Chester was unthinkable, and its destruction rather than annexation was probably a practical realisation that keeping the Castle would have been virtually impossible. It could be, then, that this was the end of the timber motte and bailey first constructed some 100 years earlier. It had no doubt been tinkered with, but it had probably remained essentially a timber construct.
A plan of Hawarden Castle, from Arch. Journal, 1858, J.Harrison of Chester
It is clear that Llywelyn had been concerned as to the response of the English Crown after the return of Henry III to the throne, and perhaps more so by the installation of the energetic Edward, his son, to the Earldom of Chester, given the support afforded to de Montfort. The time would come, of course, when Edward’s wrath would be felt across the whole of Wales, but in the early years of Henry’s return, more practical concerns were at play in English politics. While de Montfort was dead, brutally dismembered on the field of Evesham, the motive of the barons in rebelling in 1264 had not gone away. It had been necessary to besiege the well nigh impregnable Kenilworth Castle for much of the second half of 1266 as a result, which had ended only with the compromise which was the Dictum of Kenilworth (which incidentally, had involved the Dominican friar, William Freney, whose tombstone can be seen in St Mary’s Church at Rhuddlan). Clearly, Henry felt that his position was not as strong as Llywelyn perhaps suspected. The Treaty of Montgomery of September 1267 was a reflection of Henry’s concern, since it followed much of the Treaty of Pipton, two years earlier. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was acknowledged as the Prince of Wales, in return for his agreeing to pay homage to the English Crown.
Amongst the terms of the Treaty was agreement that Hawarden Castle would be reinstated to the de Montalt family. This then, of course, suggests that despite the utter ruination of Hawarden Castle in 1265, Llywelyn was in fact the de facto ruler of the land upon which the Castle stood, or at least was a recognition that his sway there was powerful enough to have given the English a cause for concern. The terms of the reinstatement of Hawarden Castle to the Montalts also stated that no fortification should be built on the site for 30 years (some sources say 60 years). Due to the minority of Roger de Montalt, the blackened remains of the Castle were placed in the care of firstly, Kenrick Seys, and then into the hands of the powerful, Lord Roger de Clifford. It is thought that this agreement was ignored almost immediately, and building work on a new fortification began soon after, although the evidence is at best, sketchy. But it does seem likely that by the time of Edward’s invasion of 1277, his forces gathering at Chester, that there was something at Hawarden resembling a fortification. It was, however, unlikely to have been the masonry castle that we see today, for the reason which will become clear.
The terms of the Treaty of Montgomery, including those relating to Hawarden, are likely to have been superseded by those of the Treaty of Aberconwy of November 1277, which saw the effective annexation of the Perfeddwlad to English rule, all lands east of the Conwy under the rule of Edward or his nobility, including that of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llywelyn’s younger brother. Hawarden became part of Tegeingl, and ruled directly by the Crown. Did the building of the masonry Castle at Hawarden begin at this time, as the more massive constructions at Flint and Rhuddlan were begun? We simply cannot say with any certainty.
The events of Easter 1282 were extraordinary. The reasons for Dafydd ap Gruffudd’s rebellion against his erstwhile ally, once one of Edward’s most trusted men in Wales are much debated, and will not be discussed here. His attack on Hawarden Castle, in the dark of the night on the early morning of Palm Sunday was a surprise to the English, and does suggest that either Dafydd’s numbers were low, or that the fortifications of the Castle were substantial enough to warrant a surprise attack, utilising a day with intense religious significance, which was the cause of widespread criticism. In what has been described as an astonishingly brutal slaughter, much of the English garrison, if not the garrison entire was put to the sword, with Clifford being captured and quickly taken away into the vast fastness of Snowdonia. So began the tragic events that ended not at Orewin Bridge in December 1282, not even with Dafydd’s capture on Bera Mawr in June 1283, but rather with his gruesome execution in Shrewsbury in October 1283. Hawarden was destroyed in the attack of 1282, it seems, or damaged beyond practical repair, however far the works had progressed.
The keep of Hawarden Castle, Royal Commission , County of Flint (1912)
Can we then assign the years following 1282-83 as the origins of the masonry castle, the remains of which are still so impressive today? Well, probably. It seems that following the conclusion of the Welsh War of 1282-83, a writ was issued by the English Crown, instructing the Montalts to restore order in the area under his control. This would then be a convenient date to assign the start of the masonry works. In any case, such efforts did not prevent, it seems, the village of Hawarden being razed to the ground by the forces of Madog ap Llywelyn (a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd), in the revolt of 1294, of which he seems to have been rather a figurehead. Whether the Castle itself was taken is a little harder to ascertain.
Roger de Montalt died childless in 1297 and his estate, including Hawarden Castle passed to his younger brother, Robert. It has been suggested, largely on architecturally and stylistic concerns, that the masonry Castle was the work of Robert, rather than Roger (or Clifford). This might be true, but what it does make clear, is the vagueness of the information on what was a hugely important fortification - a mystery. By the time of Robert’s death in 1327, also childless, it was certainly the castle we see today that was passed over to Isabella of France, during the period of English history in which she was effectively the sovereign of England. Edward III shook off the control of his mother and her lover, the powerful Marcher Lord Roger Mortimer, and Hawarden once again came under the domain of the King.
Hawarden Castle was granted to William Montagu in 1337 as part of the vast Earldom of Salisbury, and stayed with them until 1400, with the execution of John Montagu, the 3rd Earl in Cirencester after a failed insurrection against Henry IV, in favour of the deposed Richard II (in which nearby Flint Castle played a vital part).
In 1400 Owain Glyndwr began his revolt against English rule with the raising of banners at Glyndyfrdwy and the attack on Ruthin. Hawarden was his target in that same year, and while it is thought that the village was once again burnt to the ground, the Castle seems to have remained in English hands.
The rest of the 15th century seems to have been a more sedate time for Hawarden and its Castle, at least militarily. Ownership of the estate was a rather more turbulent affair, bouncing between the state and nobility. However, following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and the rise of the Welsh born Henry VII to the English throne, Hawarden was under the control of the Stanleys - namely, Thomas Stanley, father-in-law to the new King, made the 1st Earl of Derby in recognition for his services at Bosworth, and no doubt his being being married to the King’s mother. The influence of the Stanleys, especially Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, on north east Wales at the end of the 15th and early 16th centuries is profound. Her touch was felt from Holywell to Mold, but does seem to have been rather more light upon Hawarden and its Castle.
The next we hear of Hawarden Castle, at least directly, is during the English Civil Wars (1642-51). Hawarden’s fortunes were always going to be tied to those of nearby Chester, and during the siege of the City by Parliamentarian forces under Brereton, Hawarden played its part. It was held for the King on the outbreak of war, commanded by a Colonel Thomas Ravenscroft and John Aldersey. However, the Castle was surprisingly surrendered on 11th November 1643 without a shot fired or threat thrown. The Castle gates were opened with the arrival of Brereton and Myddleton. Treachery has always been considered, but the meaning of such things is always complicated in a civil war. Ravenscroft and Aldersey had probably made clear through silent sources their sympathy to the Parliament cause, but one should not entirely discount the possibility that their understanding of the precarious position of the Castle, poorly provisioned and possibly in a poor state of repair, led to a very practical decision that an attempt to hold the Castle would be entirely futile. Whatever the reasons, for a brief few weeks, Parliament was in control of Hawarden Castle. This was to be the only time Parliament held Hawarden Castle until its eventual surrender in 1646.
The Royalists retook the Castle on 4th December 1643, after reinforcements for the King arrived out of Ireland, landing at nearby Mostyn at the end of November. Parliamentarian power in north east Wales collapsed almost immediately and Brereton retreated, leaving behind a small garrison at Hawarden Castle. Royalist forces moved against the fortress soon after, recognising it as so very vital to the continued safety of Chester, and in a series of letters to the commanders, Captain Thomas Sandford, leader of the King’s forces before Hawarden Castle made his position clear.
‘Gentlemen, I presume you very well know, or have heard of my condition and disposition; and that I neither give nor take quarter. I am now with my Firelocks (who never yet neglected opportunities to correct rebels) ready to use you as I have done the Irish: but loth I am to spill my countrymen’s blood; wherefore, by these I advise you to your feilty and obedience towards his majesty; and shew yourselves faithful subjects, by delivering the castle into my hands for his majesty’s use; in so doing, you shall be received into mercy, &c. otherwise , if you put me to the least trouble or loss of blood to force you, expect no quarter for man, woman, or child. I hear you have some of our late Irish army in your company: they very well know me; and that my Firelocks use not to parley. Be not unadvised; but think of your liberty; for I vow all hopes of relief are taken from you; and our intents are not to starve you, but to batter and storm you, and then hang you all, and follow the rest of that rebellious crew. I am no bread-and-cheese rogue, but as ever, a loyalist, and will ever be, while I can write or name.’
Thomas Sandford, quoted in ‘A Tour in Wales’ Thomas Pennant.
The garrison promptly surrendered.
After this promising start, the Royalist situation steadily worsened through 1643-46. Chester suffered a prolonged siege, while Hawarden suffered also. Brereton returned strongly in the April of 1645, initiating a blockade of Hawarden Castle, now led by Sir William Neale, in order to prevent it being a source of supply to Chester. By the May of 1645, a mining operation was underway beneath the walls and keep of the Castle, and the fortress, led powerfully in the absence of Sir William by his wife, Lady Helen Neale was determined to fight to the end.
‘Our condition is at this tyme very desperate for besides the approach of their myne which is very near ye great Round Tower they have brought over great peeces for five carriages we discovered, but whether they be all for Battery wee know not because ye worke they are making for one of them is conceived by ye Captaine for a mortar piece… I am purposed to hould out as longe as there is meate for man for none of these eminent dangers shall ever frighten mee from my loyalty but in life and death I will be ye King’s faithfull subject and thy constant lovinge wife and humble servant.’
Lady Neale, in a letter to Sir William Neale, 9th May 1645, quoted in ‘The Great Siege of Chester’ John Barrat (2003)
Not long after this letter was written, the mine was detected, broken into and blocked. Thus, disaster was averted and Hawarden Castle hung on. And while the Castle suffered from the blockade, the village suffered from the occupation by Parliamentarian forces. For example, a raid in October of 1645, by a Major Jerome Zankey had away with 590 sheep, 14 horses and, rather incredibly, a bear (which on its taking caused some considerable consternation amongst the troops). Such raids were targeted on denying Chester the vital resources required to prolong the ever tightening grip of the siege.
Hawarden finally surrendered in March 1646, fully a month after the fall of Chester to Parliament and, Pennant claims, only after being instructed to do so by the King - shades of Denbigh Castle there. Parliament ordered the Castle to be slighted, which with gunpowder, it was. Interestingly, Pennant claims that Sir William Glynne, 1st Baronet, who had inherited the Hawarden Estate in 1666 from his father (bought form the Crown in 1654), chose to further reduce the Castle, possibly to create a romantic ruin.
And with that, the history of the Castle as anything other than a rather wonderful and atmospheric ruin was done. As with many ruined castles, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Hawarden became something of a draw to the artist and poet, perhaps a little less so due to its isolation on a private estate. Turner produced some sketches of the Castle on his tour of the British Isles at the beginning of the 19th century. Ironically, it was another Glynne, Sir Stephen (1807-74), brother-in-law to William Gladstone, that moved to restore the Castle, at least to a point, and by all accounts, a fine job was done. The Glynnes had long since moved into a palatial mansion within the grounds of the Estate.
The Castle remains on private land, though access to the park remains available, giving fine views of the remains. Traditionally, access to Castle directly, is afforded on certain Sundays during the summer. Today, the picturesque remains of Hawarden Castle belie the turbulent events of centuries of bloody conflict. But they are there, lurking beneath the silent stone and soil.