‘On the side of one of the steep hills that hang over the village of Diserth towards the north-east, and a little below the rocky eminence still crowned by the ruins of Diserth Castle, is a small ruined building, known in the neighbourhood by the appellation of Siambre Wen, and Eglwys Wen.’
Harry Longueville Jones, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1847, p.339
There is something about Siamber Wen which stubbornly refuses to give up its air of mystery. Hidden away from all but the most determined of adventurers, amongst a mass of thicket, bramble and rabbit warren, beneath the broken, quarried away Dyserth Castle, Siamber Wen slumbers and slowly moulders away. While many have considered the purpose of Siamber Wen in the past, little has been written of this intriguing building in the last 100 years, and we are left largely with the conclusions of antiquarians and the curious from at best the early part of the 20th century. And then, of course, we have the rather fabulous story of the one-eyed Sir Robert Pounderling to consider.
Siamber Wen was photographed by the RCAHMc in 1910 - a rare image of the site clear of overgrowth.
Siamber Wen was first mentioned by Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century, in which he claims it to be the residence of a Sir Robert Pounderling. As far as can be said, this is the first occurrence in which Siamber Wen and Robert Ponderling were connected.
‘Siamber wen, enw hên vyrdhyn Ihe bŷ Sr Robert Pounderling yn bŷw.’
Where Lhuyd came by the information linking the two is unknown, but given his reliance on correspondents from the locality, it probably reflects the tradition found in the area at the time of his writing. However the information came to him, it has led to Siamber Wen being linked with Pounderling ever since.
Choked with brambles and undermined by a trememdous rabbit warren - Siamber is slowly mouldering away.
Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century, repeats the connection between Siamber Wen and Sir Robert Pounderling, while also describing an amusing and interesting story in which the knight is said to have baulked at again confronting a Welsh gentleman who had earlier knocked out one of his eyes in a tournament.
‘In a field a little to the south of the castle is a ruinous building called Siamber Wen. This is said to have been the seat of a Sir Robert Pounderling, once constable of the adjacent castle, a knight valiant and prudent, who had one of his eyes knocked out by a gentleman of Wales in the rough sport of tournament; but being requested to challenge again to feates of armes on meeting our countryman at the English court, declined the combat, declaring that he did not intend that the Welshman should beat out his other eye.’
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol. II p.114
This story is first mentioned, as far as can be said, by John Leland in his, Itinerary in England and Wales 1535-1543.
‘Salisbyri, knight of Denbigh land, told me that emong other things was a constable of Dissart Castelle caullid Syr Robert Mounderlinge knight, a man of great p… there and yn his Prince fa… and so valiaunt courage that… there ordenid thereby the… a tylte for justes. And at this place yn a certain challenge one Theodore, a gentleman of Wa[les]...dis streek out one of Mounderlinge’s yes: and after this Theodore cumming to the king of Englandes courte, and not thoroughly known but seen to be a man of a right goodly stature, and be likelihood of strenkith: and to provoke his feates of armes, they… knowing that it was he that had streken owt Syr Robert Mounderlinges [yee] brought the same Mounderling to challenge hym at feates of armes; but when he saw Theodore he saide that he entended that he should not strike out his other yee.’
J. Leland, Itinerary in England and Wales 1535-1543, ed L. T. Smith, p84
Pennant, having read both Leland and Lhuyd has, it seems, merged the two stories. Here also, in Leland, is the first mention that Pounderling was the constable of Dyserth Castle - a fact that Pennant repeats. It again begs the question as to where Lhuyd came by his information that Siamber Wen was once owned by Pounderling. Leland was told this tale by, ‘Salisbyri, knight of Denbigh land’ - possibly if not probably John Salusbury (1520-78). Given the Salusburys deep roots within north east Wales, it would suggest that the Pounderling tale was local currency.
But who was Sir Robert Pounderling? It is likely that he did in fact exist, since he is mentioned in genealogies (Peniarth MSS 127.6), which date his birth to around 1180 - some 60 years before the building of Dyserth Castle. It has been claimed that he was originally a Cheshire man, but there is no mention of a Pounderling in genealogies of the county. And the name has not survived, though it is believed that the Pounderling born in 1180, did indeed have children. So, it would seem entirely impossible then, for the Robert Pounderling we know of to have been the constable of Dyserth Castle. Where then does that leave us in our understanding of Siamber Wen and its place in Dyserth history?
Perhaps the answer is as simple as the merging of tales and legends. Is it possible that a Robert Pounderling had his eye knocked out by a Welsh gentleman? Of course. It is worth noting that the name of the Welshman in the tale, Theodore, is anglicised and can be rendered back into Welsh as Tudur or Tewdwr. And there are two candidates that might fit the bill as the would be optic vandals. Tudor ap Ednowain ap Branwen (born c.1185) and Tudor ap Ednyfed Fychan (born c.1200) were both active at the same time, in the same area as Pounderling, and would likely have been involved in tournaments and the like. And while it is unlikely that Pounderling was the constable of Dyserth Castle, given that he would have been rather advanced in age, it is possible that the tale and the Castle merged into one.
As for Pounderling - at least the Pounderling we are aware of - being the owner of Siamber Wen, this is unlikely. There is a danger of taking two and two and coming to five, making the truth fit the tale and vice versa. Whatever the purpose of Siamber Wen, and there has been some debate, it more than likely dated to some time after the Pounderling born in 1180. Lhuyd may well have claimed otherwise, but it would seem, at least as far as we know at present, that he was relating the information given to him by the community around Dyserth. Clearly, the Pounderling tale and the perceived connection between the knight and Siamber Wen was robust.
A plan of Siamber Wen drawn by the Rev K. D. Beste in 1910-11, published in Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1911.
It is difficult today to gain a clear understanding of the layout of Siamber Wen, given its overgrown and ruinous state. In truth, it is a condition that almost every visitor who has shown any interest in the building has been confronted with, whenever they have visited. At times it has been cleared, only to quickly revert to nature in the years between antiquarian enquiries. There are a number of plans reflecting the work done between the 1847 - 1912, and they are immediately intriguing.
Harry Longueville Jones, founder of Archaeologia Cambrensis, visited the site in 1847 and wrote up his observations in an article for that journal. What he described was a considerable rectangular building some 15m in length by 7m in width. It is crossed at its eastern end by a second block running 11m north to south and 6m in width, giving the whole a T plan. His interpretation of the building was especially intriguing, since he immediately concluded that Siamber Wen was no residence of a knight or other worthy, but ecclesiastical in nature - a chapel about a holy well, in fact.
‘We are inclined to surmise, principally from the occurrence of the ruined well, which is six feet square and fit for purposes of immersion, that this was one of the holy foundations formerly so much venerated in Wales, and of which two notable examples exist at Holywell and Wygfair, in this same district.’
Harry Longueville Jones, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1847, p. 341
As is clear, Jones came to this conclusion based on what he believed to be a sizable well to the centre of the rectangular chamber, which would have been a rarity to be sure in a domestic residence. Together with the T shape of the building, the transept-like eastern block, Jones was convinced. He was also aware that the building was also known as Eglwys Wen in the locality - White Church, though there is no record of this name before the 19th century.
The possibility that Siamber Wen was no domestic residence, but a chapel on the site of a holy well is terribly exciting. There is also the question of Ffynnon Cwyfa, identified by Lhuyd as, ‘ai vrythyllied wrth yr Eglwys,’ but since lost. Some commentators have stretched Lhuyd’s positioning of the well by the church to being sited at Siamber Wen - a chapel built about it, as at Trefnant and Holywell.
By the time that the Reverend Kenelm Digby Beste of St Beuno’s College at Tremeirchion led his team of eager theological students to Siamber Wen in the summer of 1910, little had been added to the story of Siamber Wen. If considered at all, Siamber Wen was seen as being a possible chapel, based almost entirely on the observations of Jones some 60 years earlier. But the findings of Beste’s boys began to challenge the picture of Siamber Wen.
‘It may safely be said at once, that though the result of their work does not definitely and completely upset the conclusions of H. L. J., it considerably weakens his position.’
Rev. Kenelm Digby Beste, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1911, p. 54
Beste’s doubts were raised largely due to the difficulty in definitively identifying the building as ecclesiastical when many of the features could as easily be seen to be domestic and residential. Jones in 1847 saw no other domestic buildings in the area about the building, and saw the large windows and eastern block as indicative of a chapel - the apparent well and the alternative name for Siamber Wen as Eglwys Wen made up his mind. But in the years following Jones’ visit in 1847, much was discovered of the nature of medieval residences, and it was becoming increasingly clear that in fact Siamber Wen was not dissimilar to many other medieval residences. Beste also failed to find any foundation suggesting an altar had ever been present at Siamber Wen.
Still, Beste was not quite comfortable in dismissing Jones entirely - probably because he felt it was not his ‘place’ to do so. Still, some of his conclusions are sound, though his over reliance on the correspondence to the Prestatyn Weekly, and his excitement at attributing a Saxon provenance to the site are wayward.
In an article for Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1912, written by Dr. Robert Cochrane, a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the matter of Siamber Wen as an ecclesiastical structure was dismissed out of hand.
‘I have pleasure in complying with the request of the editor to furnish a short note on the remains of this interesting mediaeval house, which appears to have excited a good deal of interest, partly on account of its having been mistaken for an ecclesiastical structure’.
Dr. Robert Cochrance, Mediaeval House, Dyserth, Flintshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1912, p.33
Cochrane was of the opinion that much of the confusion as he saw it was as a consequence of there being few similar buildings with which to compare Siamber Wen. He widened his net in seeking comparisons to outside the area. His plan of the building divided the building into three sections, with a kitchen to the west, a solar or retiring room to the east, separated by a sizable hall to the centre. All were likely screened off from each other. A not unfamiliar layout, in truth. Cochrane also found evidence of a stairwell within the kitchen area, which he believed evidenced a second floor to the building - the servants quarters. He also believed there was a second floor to the solar, basing this largely on the fact that similar houses from as far afield as Wexford in Ireland, did so, with Siamber Wen’s stairwell considered to be within the body of the room, instead of in the wall as at Rathumney. The well he simply dismissed as a hearth.
Cochrane's 1912 plan of Siamber Wen, reflecting his certainty of the building being a medieval residence of some minor gentry.
Siamber Wen, he believed, was,
‘Built for the accommodation of the family of a man of some position, but not one of exalted degree, or one in the position of lord of the manor. It is more likely to have been the residence of the seneschal of a manor or an esquire.’
Dr. Robert Cochrance, Mediaeval House, Dyserth, Flintshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1912, p38
This man of ‘some position’ was not the Sir Robert Pounderling of 1180, since Cochrance dates the building from the late 13th century, to perhaps an abandonment in the 15th century. As such, it post-dates both Pounderling and the utter destruction of Dyserth Castle in 1263. A residence then, it seems, its origins obscured by local legend and its ecclesiastical appearance. Still, it would seem that Coflein is still of a mind to hedge its bets, somewhat.
‘The roofless ruin of a substantial stone building, known as Siamber Wen, consists of an E-W block, c.15.25m by 7.4m, crossed at the E end by a second block, 11.2m N-S by 6.0m, forming an overall "T" plan. It has been interpreted as a residence, with service and hall, with central hearth, in the main block with a chamber to the E, featuring a large S window opening.’
A thorough investigation is needed, quite obviously, to put the matter to bed. But it feels that time is of the essence, since the site seems likely to disappear into a giant rabbit warren in the near future. It is hidden in plain sight, within its shroud of overgrowth, and seems determined to be ignored. It is, however, well worth a few willow wanded welts to find.
R. Cochrane, Mediaeval House Dyserth Flintshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1912)
Rev. K. D. Beste, Recent Excavations at Siamber Wen near Dyserth Flintshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1911)
Harry Longueville Jones, Siambre Wen near Diserth Flintshire, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1847)
J. Leland, Itinerary in England and Wales 1535-1543, ed. L. T. Smith, London, (1909)
E. Lhuyd, Parochiala, Archaeologia Cambrensis Supplements Parts 1-3, (1909-1911)
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, ed. John Rhys, Caernarvon, (1883)
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire County of Flint, London, (1912)