Ruthin lies within the Vale of Clwyd and historically has been one of the most important settlements in north east Wales, as well as one of the largest. The town has an air of mystery about it and still holds some secrets from us that no doubt time will unveil.
The name of the town has been translated to various meanings, but the most likely meaning is, ‘Red Fort’. This seems logical given the preponderance of red sandstone in the town, and certainly the remains of Ruthin Castle retains this striking burnt red appearance.
Ruthin’s recorded history begins with the granting of the town to Dafydd ap Gruffudd, by Edward I after the Welshman’s help in the successful war against his brother, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, King of Gwynedd in 1277. Until this point, Dyffryn Clwyd had been violently contested by the Welsh and Norman English. Certainly, Dafydd’s help was a major blow to his brother, Llywelyn’s hold on the area, but his treachery must be seen in the context of what had been an ongoing on-off feud between the brothers for some years. The building of Ruthin Castle was begun almost immediately.
And yet, the history of Ruthin goes back much further than the Edwardian Conquest of 1277. Ruthin itself is sited on what was the southern shore of the gigantic ‘Llyn Clwyd’, a vast area of inland waterway which has done much to shape the modern geography of the area. Formed 18000 years ago from glacial meltwaters and existing until some 7000 year ago, the rich fertile land of this part of the Vale of Clwyd owe much to the river deltas which fed into the lake, of which the River Clywedog was one.
The area was a hive of activity in the era of the Mesolithic hunter gatherer, and the nearby Bronze Age barrows are testimony to its continued importance. The discovery of a pair of very rare Iron Age ‘spoons’ in the Ffynogion area suggests the area was important to the peoples of the time in a ceremonial capacity. These ‘spoons’ which bar one example from Northern France are unique to the British Isles, are almost always found in pairs, and the Ffynogion pair were discovered in 1861 during excavations for the Denbigh - Corwen railway. One of the ‘spoons’ has a curious cross which divides the bowl into quarters, while the other has a hole in it. The handles have a beautiful wheel-and-spoke like structure which seems to vary upon this theme in other examples of this curious item. The splendidly named Rev. Dr. Rock believed they were used as part of the Celtic chrism ceremony, but the possibility of ceremonial use would seem to indicate the fact that no one actually has any real firm evidence of what they were used for. The pair are now held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Ruthin’s Roman past is equally mysterious. No Roman forts of anything other than a temporary nature have yet been found in North East Wales, but it is believed three do in fact exist. Varis is mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary but has not been found as yet, though it is believed to be near St Asaph, while it is thought the Roman road network points to Corwen being the site of another. Ruthin has been suggested as the site of a third, based largely on the finds of first to second century Holt thrown pottery at Ruthin Hospital, indicative of cremation burials and identified in a military context. It is believed the site of the fort is beneath the grounds of Ruthin School to the east of the town. Yet, more important still was the find of what is believed to be a temple site (temenos), just north of nearby Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd. It is thought this site was surrounded by a ditch, with an internal colonnade and temple. Further excavation is necessary to gain more evidence, though it is feared ploughing has done much damage. This does, however suggest that Ruthin was an important site to the Romans, midway along the road linking Roman sites of the north to the main routeway to the mid wales coast.
Little is known of Ruthin between the departure of the Romans and the Edwardian Conquest, but it is believed that Ruthin was a maerdref, the administrative centre of the commote of Dyffryn Clwyd. Well Street, previously known as Welsh Street is thought to be perhaps the site of the original Welsh settlement. There is little evidence, other than circumstantial, that a llys existed here, but the suggestion, given the historical importance of the area is compelling.
Ruthin came under Norman English ownership after Edward I’s conquest of 1277. Dafydd was given control of the settlement after his help in defeating his own brother Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Dafydd’s tragic rebellion of 1282, against his erstwhile ally Edward, was crushed by 1283, and Dafydd was the first notable victim of the notorious punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering. Ruthin was then bestowed upon Reginald de Grey, who laid out the town and ruled over the lordship of three commotes.
A charter was granted in 1282 and a market was established in that year, along with the foundation of St Peter’s Church as a chapel. The castle, market and chapel established Ruthin as a vibrant, prosperous borough, by all accounts a ‘genuinely Anglo-Welsh community’, in the words of Professor R. Ian Jack. By the beginning of the 14th century St Peter’s had become a collegiate church after a significant rebuild and town of 70 burgesses, of which at least a third are thought to have been Welsh.
Owain Glyndwr attacked Ruthin in 1400 at the beginning of his rebellion, and while looting the town, failed to take the castle. It is thought he tried again in 1402, again failing to secure the castle, and as a result a ditch was dug around the town as a defensive measure.
Ruthin recovered quickly and became a centre of the cloth industry. By the middle of the 15th century Ruthin had a large number of fulling mills, and the town had a thriving guild of weavers and fullers. There was also a successful guild of shoemakers by the end of the 15th century and the town continued to prosper. The lordship of Ruthin was sold to Henry VII in 1508, but the rise of Shrewsbury as a centre of cloth industry, effectively monopolising the finishing and the marketing of cloth in the North Wales area, began a period of painful decline. While John Leland in the 1530s says little of Ruthin, William Camden is effusive in his praise of the town, claiming it as, ‘the greatest market towne in all the vale, full of inhabitants and well replenished with buildings’ (Britannia 1607), and so we can suppose that Ruthin had by this time recovered somewhat.
Ruthin was held for the Crown against Parliament during the English Civil War of 1642-49, besieged in 1644 and 1646, and a more in depth discussion of Ruthin Castle and its history is discussed elsewhere. Suffice to say here that Ruthin Castle, as were many castles at this time, was slighted, some more than others. Many of the buildings of Ruthin show a recycling of stone and timber originally used at Ruthin Castle.
Many have tried to trace the town defences, but so far have failed to definitively trace anything other than the aforementioned ditch. Possible masonry walls and towers have been mooted but so far remain only possibilities. The street plan of Ruthin clearly shows its medieval heritage. St Peter’s Square is the traditional heart of the town, from which all of Ruthin’s fascinating history can be easily reached. St Peter’s Square was where the famous Ruthin markets were held, so loved by the Tylwyth Teg. The stunning timber-framed court house was built in the centre of the Square and is traditionally dated at 1401, though dating evidence suggests a slightly later date of 1421. Either way, it is likely that the building of the court house is evidence of a recovery in Ruthin’s fortunes after the attacks of Owain Glyndwr. The beam of the former Ruthin gibbet rather menacingly projects from the wall of the court house, not used since the hanging of a Franciscan priest in 1674, while below street level a number of prison cells still exist. It is in St Peter’s Square where you will find the famous Maen Huail, evidence of a jealous King Arthur’s rage.
The extraordinary 15th century (possibly much earlier) Nantclwyd y Dre is discussed elsewhere, but is one of many medieval buildings in Ruthin. The old castle mill (122582) is thought to be 13th century and though much altered in the intervening centuries still has its early red sandstone quoins and early cross within the gable. This cross, as you might expect, was an object of curiosity to the Rev. Elias Owen, who felt it unlikely that the existence of the cross supposes that the building was a religious before it became a mill. Clwyd Street shows considerable evidence of its importance as a mill site. The mill race can still be traced running alongside the River Clwyd south to Castle Park Farm, site of the mill pond.
Indeed, Ruthin’s medieval streets are veritably teeming with 16th and 17th century buildings, all altered or restored over the years but showing their age in ways many and varied. Whether it is traces of medieval smithying in Record Street or evidence of a tanning workshop around the Town Hall.
Elias Owen in ‘Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd’, also tells of some curious traditions in Ruthin. These included the ‘grotesque appearance’ of May Day dancers, ‘with ribbons of various colours tied to their arms and other parts of their bodies’, who would dance through the town, entering the premises of buildings who had, it seems, mistakenly left their doors open, in order to solicit money. These dancers would then move on to other towns in the Vale of Clwyd. Owen claims he saw them dancing in Rhyl, though it is to be expected that this would be highly unlikely today. The bells of St Peter’s Church would also toll at 11 o’clock on Shrove Tuesday, and this was known as the, ‘Pancake Bell’.
Ruthin is a beautiful small town and well worth the time to investigate its wonders and mysteries.