The remains of Ruthin Castle probably lie over what was once the Welsh llys, or court of Dafydd, who had been granted the maerdref within Dyffryn Clwyd by his brother, Llywelyn ap Gruffud. Dafydd kept Ruthin after Edward’s invasion of 1277, after fighting against his brother on behalf of Edward.
Building began on the new stone castle in 1277, with records existing of substantial numbers of English tradesmen involved. This would suggest that at least initially, the building was a wholly English affair, with little input by Dafydd. The castle at this time was called, ‘Castell Coch yng Ngwernfor’, which translates as, ‘The Red Castle in the Great Marsh’. Dadfydd took ownership of what must have been nothing more than a shell in 1277, and became responsible for its continued build and subsequent upkeep. Little is known of the development of the Castle between 1277 and 1282, when Dafydd’s attack on Hawarden Castle signaled the start of new hostilities with the English Crown, and the subsequent dismantling of Welsh rule by 1284 and the Statute of Rhuddlan.
After Llywelyn’s death and Dafydd’s execution, the cantref of Dyffryn Clwyd was awarded to Reginald de Grey. It is at this time that Ruthin was transformed into a bustling market town, a thriving mixed community of both native Welsh and English immigrants. Edward I was at Ruthin for a little over a week at the beginning of September 1282, probably to oversee the plan of the Castle along with the ubiquitous Master James of St George. It was not until the end of October 1282, that de Grey became solely responsible for the Castle.
The castle that emerges in the years after 1282 was a substantial fortress indeed. With an upper and inner ward, curtain walls 100 feet high in places and nine feet thick, the castle boasted six turrets and an imposing gatehouse, surrounded by a moat of some considerable depth. A Great Hall was built, some 100 feet long and 40 feet wide against the west wall of the upper bailey.
Ruthin Castle was captured in 1295 by the rebel, Madog ap Llywelyn in what was a serious and far reaching attack on English rule throughout Wales. It was attacked again in 1321, with less success, but certainly at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, Ruthin was at the forefront of an ongoing tension between the end of native Welsh rule and emerging English control, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Ruthin’s population of English and Welsh inhabitants seemed to, on the whole, to be able to live peacefully side by side.
The Castle was not again threatened to any great extent until September 1400. Ruthin was Owain Glyndwr’s first target, after being proclaimed Prince of Wales in September. Tradition states that he and his forces hid in the woods of Coedmarchan before entering the town as the gates were opened for the start of St Matthew’s Fair. Though the rebels failed to take the castle, Ruthin was badly damaged, although suggestions that Ruthin was entirely burnt to the ground are hard to both accept and verify through the available archaeological evidence. Of the rebels that attacked Ruthin, some 270 in number, only 17 were from the Ruthin area. Does this suggest that Ruthin, perhaps to exclusion of other towns in North Wales, had somehow managed to successfully create a multicultural community?
Ruthin Castle seems to disappear somewhat from recorded history until early in the 16th century and the rule of the Welsh born Henry VII. The de Grey family were bankrupt by 1507 and the lordship was bought by the Crown, and remaining until 1563, when it was granted to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick. It reverted back to the crown in 1604, by which stage the Castle had fallen into a state of some decay. Records would suggest that during the 16th century, the castle was allowed to fall into ruin, with valuable, salvageable materials being stripped and kept safe from being robbed out.
As with many castles, the English Civil War caught many of these once mighty fortifications by surprise. At Denbigh, Colonel Salesbury spent much of his own money in making the castle there defendable for the King, and much the same happened at Ruthin, which was also held on behalf of the Crown, despite the fact that it had been ‘bought’ by Sir Thomas Myddelton from the King in 1632, who had been eager to secure new streams of revenue in the face of Parliament’s intransigence. The Castle was hastily repaired, and with little time to spare. In what was a short, sharp and very bloody encounter, Sir Thomas Myddelton attacked Ruthin on 14th October 1644, in mind to take back his property. After fighting his way into the town, the Royalists were chased almost as far as Denbigh. However, the impressively named, Captain Sword, deputy governor of the town, retreated into the Castle and managed to fend off Myddelton with musketry and even stones. The Parliamentary general was required to retreat from the town after an extremely brutal encounter which left over 100 of his men dead and strewn about the streets.
The Castle stayed on a war footing for the next two years, with records existing which suggest all plans were made with a view of maintaining a castle under siege. However, it was not until January 1646 that Parliamentary troops, now commanded by General Thomas Mytton made a serious effort to take the fortress. A six week siege ensued, which only came to an end after threats of mining were made. The Castle garrison, under Major John Raignolds, surrendered on 12th April 1646, and were allowed to march from the Castle with banners held high. Apparently, Mytton said of the siege that, ‘reducing this castle of Ruthin hath cost me more time and ammunition than I expected.’ As with other castles in North Wales, Ruthin was extensively slighted in order to prevent its use against Parliamentary interests.
The increasingly decrepit castle continued to fall into ruin, and with the passing of Richard Myddleton in 1797, the last of the male line of that family, the castle was eventually inherited by Maria West, one of his three sisters, after a considerable and acrimonious legal wrangle in 1848. It is at this point that the Castle starts to take the shape that is most visible to the modern visitor. Maria’s sister, Harriet owned the Castle and estate until her death in 1848, and during her lifetime, had a grand, Gothic style mansion built on the site of the Castle, further extended after Maria inherited the property.
However, the West's, or more accurately, the Cornwallis-Wests were not the most financially solvent of families throughout the 19th century, despite appearances to the contrary, and by the early 20th century the family was bankrupt, exacerbated by George Cornwallis-West and his inept business ventures. At first the Castle and the estate was sold off piece-meal, with many locals able to purchase parts of the town. Despite his controversial behaviour, George made himself something of a hero to the people of Ruthin by donating the Recreation Ground to the town, but the tenure of the family at the Castle was effectively over. George would live to 1951, when he would take his own life, probably due to his prolonged ill health.
Despite complications, the Castle eventually came into the hands of Duff House Clinic in 1923, which brought with it a reputation for excellence in the field of the investigation of obscure intestinal diseases. The clinic brought with it considerable investment. However, the clinic’s popularity waned in the 1950s and eventually closed at the very end of 1962. It was considered as the base for Denbighshire County Council, but was eventually sold at auction and converted into a hotel, a role which has continued to the present.
In March 2017, it was announced that Cadw would begin stabilization works in an effort to prevent further decline in the fabric of the Castle.