'The reigning prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, knew the danger of leaving so consequential a place in the hands of his enemy but it resisted all the most vigourous efforts made on it...'
Thomas Pennant, 'A Tour in Wales.'
The history of Rhuddlan has not always been dominated by conflict between the Welsh and English, but much of what is visible now in the town would seem to argue to the contrary. And nothing suggests that with greater fierceness than the massive, intimidating remains of the Edwardian castle.
The English, Anglo-Norman presence in Rhuddlan had been considerable for many years before the building of the castle began in September 1277. The Saxons had built a burh here in 921, Cledemutha, as a defensive position against Vikings operating from Ireland and the Wirral, and the Normans had operated out of the Twt Hill motte and bailey castle for around two hundred years before Edward’s castle.
However, it was not until the end of the war with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1277, that the mighty castle, the ruins which still dominate the town was begun. The scale of the works was astonishing, and formed part of Edward’s ambitious plan to surround the troublesome kings of Gwynedd by building a series of state-of-the-art fortifications around them. Indeed, such work has been called the most extensive and far reaching feat of engineering in Europe at this time.
The Castle owes its existence to two of the most experienced engineers (ingeniator) in Europe. Master Bertram began the building work, but after six months responsibility for the build was taken over by Master James of St. George (St George being St George-d’Esperanche near Lyon). It was, of course a vast undertaking, and while exact figures of the number of people working on the castle are unknown, they are unlikely to be any less than those working on Flint Castle, which numbered in the thousands, and from a variety of places within England.
We know that Edward visited the building in 1278, more than likely to oversee development, and ensure progress was being made at the level he expected. The fact that the Queen, Eleanor was with him suggests he felt secure in his holdings and that the focus was on the royal apartments in the castle.
Three years into the build in 1280, the towers were being roofed with lead, and shingles were being added to the Kings Hall a year later. However, building work came to a halt during 1282 as Dafydd ap Gruffud and a little later his brother, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd rose up in rebellion. Edward’s response was crushing, effectively ending Welsh rule of North Wales by 1283, and creating the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 which effectively brought English common law to the Principality.
Visitors enter the Castle, as they did when first built, through the massive west Gatehouse
A wander within the walls of the Castle gives a very real sense of its power
Work restarted soon after, and certainly repairs were required in 1285, suggesting that the Welsh brothers had managed to damage the castle in 1282-1283. Massive sums of money were spent on the castle’s development, but nothing in the Castle is quite as impressive as the massive engineering feat of canalization of the River Clwyd for over a 2 mile stretch in order to facilitate the supply by sea of the castle and its defenders.
Gillot's Tower overlooked the Dock Gate, offering protection to ships supplying the castle. The River Clwyd by Rhuddlan was canalised in order that the castle could be supplied by the sea going ships that Edward relied upon during his advances into North Wales.
While the Statute of Rhuddlan was traditionally believed to have been enacted at Parliament House, it is more likely that this happened at the Castle itself. It is also believed that the Castle was the site of Edward’s declaration that he would appoint, ‘a prince who was born in Wales, could speak no English, and whose life and conversation nobody could stain’ as Prince of Wales. This was his son, of course, Edward who had been born at Caernarfon in 1284, and was formally made, Prince of Wales, in 1301.
Rhuddlan was attacked in 1400 by Owain Glyndwr, during the Welsh rebellion against Henry IV, but failed to take the Castle itself. As at Ruthin, it was the town that suffered the brunt of the attack, being at least partially razed in the attack. Given that Rhuddlan as a town was designed by the English, for the English, it is perhaps not so surprising that Glyndwr would be so prepared to damage the lives of ordinary people.
In the English Civil War, Rhuddlan, like many of the North Walian castles, was held for the King. However, it surrendered in July 1646, to Major-General Thomas Mytton, and under the orders of Roger Hanmer, high sheriff of the county was slighted. Rhuddlan Castle now stands in the excellent care of CADW.