Rhuddlan’s past is ancient. Traces of human activity here can be traced back to the Mesolithic era, with thousands of dateable finds of chert and flint tools. Settlement at this time, however seasonal or temporary is entirely possible, since evidence of stakeholes have been found in the layers of sand, indicating perhaps shelters or windbreaks. Most fascinating of all, is the astonishing finds of Mesolithic artwork, engraved pebbles showing signs of fir trees and flask shaped patterns. Art requires time, as well as intent, and such finds would suggest stability in place as well as vision outside of simple survival. Arrowheads in the area suggest a nearby hill top settlement from the Neolithic Era. Finds from the Bronze Age would suggest continued settlement in the area.
But why Rhuddlan? The truth of the matter is that the town enjoys a favoured position. The site has always been a traditional fording point across the River Clwyd, and was an important routeway, skirting the northern reaches of the Clywdian Mountains, and was a vital intersection between the coastal marshes to the north and the head of the valley to the south. Even today, travel to the North West of Wales requires travel through the plains close to Rhuddlan. As a consequence, Rhuddlan remains a window on history stretching from the Stone Age to modern times.
Certainly, there was a Romano-British settlement here, located north of Twt Hill and at Lon Hylas, traced by excavations from the late 1960s by Henrietta Quinnell (whose work effectively redefined Rhuddlan’s past) and John Manley. Settlement evidence, as indicated by Roman pottery, suggests this period stretched from the late first to the early fourth centuries. It is probable this settlement was centred around farmsteads, since there is no evidence of a military purpose to the place.
The name of the town can be translated as, ‘red bank’, and takes its name from the red soil on the river bank, but in terms of Rhuddlan’s long history, this would seem to be a recent invention. The Annales Cambriae describe a clash between the Saxons of Mercia and the Welsh in 797 as, ‘Bellum Rudglann’ or, ‘Battle at (or near) Rhuddlan’. How accurate this statement is remains unclear, since it claims that both Maredudd of Dyfed and Offa of Mercia were killed, and evidence of Offa’s demise elsewhere in the year before is well established. It is, of course, possible that it was a different Offa,but this remains very much conjecture. The Battle itself is remembered in a lament as the ‘Battle of Morfa Rhuddlan’. The Ordnance Survey map of 1871 sites the battle in a field, what would have been marshland, to the North West of the town, though evidence is distinctly lacking.
‘Du ac arswydus yw'r hanes am heddiw,
Trechodd Caethiwed fyddinoedd y Rhydd,
Ciliodd yr heulwen wrth weled ein distryw,
Cleddyf y gelyn a gariodd y dydd!
Gwylliaid ysgrechiant ar faes y gyflafan,
Ceisio ys glyfaeth mae'r blaidd a'r dylluan,
Wylo mae Rhyddid ar hen Forfa Rhuddlan,
Gwlad annibynnol byth mwyach ni bydd.
2. Cladded y Forfa dan donnau yr eigion,
Agor, O! Neifion, i'r dyfroedd eu dôr:
Dagrau rydasant delynau y dewrion,
DTyred i'n canol, O Arglwydd fy Iôr!
Eto edrychaf ar draeth y gyflafan;
Wadwyd mo Rhyddid er gwaethaf y cyfan,
Gwell ydoedd marw ar hen Forfa Rhuddlan,
Gwell ydoedd suddo i Ryddid y môr!’
In 921, during the reign of Edward the Elder, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) records the creation of a burh, a Saxon fortified settlement, by the name of Cledemurtha, or ‘Clwyd mouth’. There has been some doubt as to whether this was the same site as the present day town, but recent excavations would suggest that it was. An unusually large burh has been discovered to the south east of the great Edwardian castle, with strong defences. Anglo Saxon pottery, idiosyncratically shaped loom weights and the fairly rare discovery of a couple of sunken floored grubenhauser huts suggests a considerable presence. Curiously, the timing of the foundation of the burh would suggest Cledemurtha was built, not as a response to Welsh pressure, but as a means of preventing attacks by the Norse Vikings out of Ireland. As such, Cledemurtha would more than likely have been built with the blessing of the Welsh of Gwynedd, who were suffering from regular Viking attacks.
It is claimed by Camden that Twt Hill, better known as the site of the Norman motte and bailey castle, was first a stronghold of Llewelyn ab Seisyll, the King of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth, built in 1015. By 1063 it was certainly the llys (court) of Llewelyn’s son, Gruffydd, a mid-11th century thorn in the side of Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwineson, Earl of Wessex, fated to die three years later on Senlac Ridge, built much of his military reputation on the series of lightning attacks on Gruffydd which led to the destruction of his llys at Rhuddlan and his killing by his own men in Snowdonia, ‘on account of the struggle he was waging against earl Harold.’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D) continues:
‘His head was brought to earl Harold, who brought it to the king, together with the figure head of his ship and the adornments with it.’
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans moved their influence steadily north. By 1073, William Duke of Normandy was in Chester and directed a castle to be built at Rhuddlan, another indication of the town’s strategic importance. The Norman motte and bailey was built on the site of Gruffydd’s llys on Twt Hill by Robert of Rhuddlan and a small borough, smaller than the Saxon settlement was founded to the south east of the castle. Robert, based at Rhuddlan, crossed the Clwyd and founght his way through Welsh resistance to Degannwy, building an early stone castle at the llys of Gruffydd ap Cynan. The Welsh king was deceitfully captured at Rhug in 1081 and Robert took control over Gwynedd.
Rhuddlan is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 under entries for Cheshire. It is described as having 8 burgesses, a mint and a church, likely identified by Quinell’s excavations on the site of Ysgol y Castell, as opposed to the present church to the north of the Castle. The church, located of the east side of a footpath between Hylas Lane and Twt Hill was simple structure by all accounts and survived until the late 13th century when it was relocated to its present site. In the adjacent burial ground, two coins of William Rufus, the ‘unlucky’ recipient of a wayward arrow have been found.
During a period of English history called the ‘Anarchy’, effectively a civil war between King Stephen and Matilda (1139-54), Rhuddlan fell into Welsh hands and remained so until 1241 (other than a brief interruption in 1211-13). The great Llywelyn ap Gruffydd captured Rhuddlan from the Anglo-Normans in 1256 and held it until the arrival of Edward I in 1277.
It was in 1277 that the mighty Rhuddlan Castle, discussed in detail elsewhere, was begun. The town itself was ordered on a planned grid system, still very evident from even a cursory look at town maps. It enclosed some 30 hectares and included the Dominican friary. It is thought that Edward had intended to move the see of St Asaph to Rhuddlan but this came to nothing. However, more importantly, Edward drew up the Statute of Rhuddlan here in 1284, formally proclaimed on 3rd March of that year. This was to effectively govern North Wales until 1536 and the Laws in Wales Acts under Henry VIII, and created the counties in North Wales of Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Flintshire and Merionethshire.
Despite this, it would seem that Rhuddlan did not become the important Edwardian town that others he founded did. The town did not, for instance, receive a charter to site a market. It fairly disappears from recorded history until its destruction in 1403 by Owain Glyndwr. Though the castle survived, much of the town was burnt to the ground. Back in English hands by 1407, by 1428 it is recorded as having only 37 burgage plots.
We know a timber bridge across the Clwyd existed in 1277 since we are told it was burnt down and that it was replaced almost immediately. A stone bridge was built in 1358 and remodeled in 1595. Some of the stone work from the late Elizabethan era still exits but it has been altered since.
Rhuddlan is given a fairly desultory mention by John Leland, suggesting there was little there to capture his attention and much of what we know suggests the development of Rhuddlan was stagnating. An Elizabethan acknowledgment of the, ‘noble Castell’ does not seem to indicate any real upturn in the towns fortunes, although during the English Civil War (1642-49) the port of Rhuddlan was in use in an effort to supply Chester during the siege of the City in 1646.
Edward Lhuyd’s correspondent at the end of the 17th century writes of a smallish town of roughly 100 houses, including those in the suburbs or, as he calls them, ‘ye Liberty’. By 1756 most of the homes are still within the Edwardian defenses, and even in the 19th century Rhuddlan cannot be described as anything other than a large village with most of the roads still unpaved. The port still thrived, especially with the export of lead from the Talargoch Mines in nearby Meliden. Elias Owen, writing in 1886, claims that the, ‘ruined castle, priory, and hospitium, indicate a greatness that has departed’, and it is hard to argue his point based on the evidence to hand.
However, Elias Owen does add fascinating insights into Rhuddlan’s past. He mentions that other than the two crosses known of in the parish, a third was remembered by the older inhabitants of the town, known as the, ‘Yr Iseu gwyn o Rhuddlan’, ‘The White Jesus of Rhuddlan’, so called because it was made of white stone or marble. It was believed to have been in the Church or the Abbey before its dissolution. It is now lost.
Owen also claims that it was at Rhuddlan that Edward I received the Regalia of Wales, which at that time included the Croes Naid (Cross of Refuge) which was claimed to be a part of the True Cross. It must be supposed that this was the cross also called, ‘The Leap Cross’ which it is claimed had been brought to Wales by Hywel Dda from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 928 and which had been kept at Aberconwy Abbey. The cross was taken to Westminster but has since been lost, though some believe this to be a false claim.
Rhuddlan vilage cross no longer exists, though Owen claims he was told where it stood, now a garden abutting Church Street and called, ‘Ty’nygroes’. It was here that labourers gathered at harvest time for work and to agree a wage. This practice in itself is not specific to Rhuddlan, being also common at other crosses in north east wales, since an agreement at such holy sites was considered binding. However, what makes ‘Ty’nygroes’ unique, is the practice of the Sunday ‘cyflog y croes’, the ‘wage of the cross’, which was for work a week at a time and at an agreed price, and which no account was made for weather, a state of affairs which favoured the labourer. In fact, in districts elsewhere, wages might well be agreed on the basis of the ‘Rhuddlan wage’. And since this was very unusual, Rhuddlan became much crowded at these times. Daily employment might be gained on the Monday if work was not secured on the Sunday. The Criccin Cross is described elsewhere in these pages.
The popularity of Rhuddlan on these Sundays seems to have led to the popularity of fairs. These apparently became rumbustious affairs of, ‘buying, selling, harping, fiddling and dancing’. The more sober minded people of Rhuddlan were appalled, and despite the efforts of magistrates and vicars little changed. However, the appearance of one John Elias in Rhuddlan in 1802 brought an end to the fairs. The Rev. E. Morgan tells of a thundering sermon which caused the revelers to be, ‘panic struck’, shaming those that heard into respect for the Sabbath.
Owen also tells of a tradition in Rhuddlan Parish in which no farming was done of St Mark’s Day, April 25th. It was believed that any ploughing or sowing of seed would prove useless, since nothing would grow from work done on St Mark’s Day. It was, instead, a holiday, and much enjoyed by those that kept it. Owen tells an amusing story, however, of a widow who lived, as Owen describes it, ‘near the fashionable town of Rhyl’ and insisted that her son sow oats on the day, refusing to accept the truth of the belief. Her son, however, much annoyed at losing a day of idleness, argued the uselessness of the endeavour. It would seem his mother was not for changing her mind and the son surrendered before her ridicule of his ‘superstition’. Instead he, and the servants directed to work the land, simply dug a deep hole in the corner of the quillet, dumped the oats and pretended nonchalance at the widow’s shock at the failure of the crop to grow. She ever after kept sacred ‘Dy Gwyl Farc’ and as Owen says, ‘the ancient belief lasted for some time longer’.