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Castell Cynfael

Tywyn, Gwynedd, north Wales
OS 135 SH 615016 U3

Text copyright by Richard Hartnup, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
Photographs copyright by Irma Hale

There are several rights of way from the village of Bryncrug, 2 miles north east of Tywyn, to the south side of the Fathew valley, and the Talyllyn Railway. A footpath leads from the car park to Pont y Felindre and across the fields to Tynllwyn Hen and Rhyd-yr-onen. From here there is a right of way to Braich-y-rhiw farm, and on to the motte and Bailey at Bryn-y-castell, called Castell Cynfael. It is possible to climb to the summit of the motte and enjoy glorious views of Broad Water, and the surrounding country - including the steep, tree-covered motte of Domen Ddreiniog near the road bridge over the Dysynni River to the north.

The traditional early Norman castle consisted of a wooden keep on top of an earthen mound or motte, surrounded by a defensive ditch and bank - the bailey. Inevitably, the Norman conquest of England was quickly followed by a period of expansion into Wales. The Conqueror's land-owning Lords infiltrated Gwynedd from bases like the great castle of Rhuddlan in north east Wales. Following the capture of Gruffudd ap Cynan around 1088 they built defensive structures to administer the Welsh territorial infra-structure, generally one in the Maerdref (administrative township) of each Cantref or Cwmwd. Modern Meirionnydd now includes the Cantref of Ardudwy, north of the Mawddach. The ancient Cantref of Meirionnydd, however, lay between the Mawddach and the Dyfi: Tomen Ddreiniog, commanding the crossing of the Dysynni, could well have become its administrative centre. However, the Cantref was divided by the Dysynni into two cymydau (Commotes) - Talybont to the north and Ystumanner to the south (Pont Ystumanner near Llanfihangel-y-Pennant). Mediaeval people seem to have identified particularly with their Cwmwd, which was the focus of their civic life.

Castell Cynfael, does not fit into this pattern, but was a Welsh-built castle representing the period of Welsh recovery following the expulsion of the Normans. It differs considerably from Domen Ddreiniog in its site and construction. It is placed on a steep spur towards the south western end of a major upland ridge along the southern limb of the Bala, or Tal-y-llyn fault. The spur has formed between two north-westward flowing streams from the watershed - Nant Braich-y-rhiw to the north east and Nant Cynfal to the south west. The site commands a good view of the Dysynni crossing,, and the strategically important junction of the Dysynni and Fathew valleys. The castle mound has been built by cutting off the hillock at the end of the spur with a deep ditch. Lynch, in the Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales says "it is known to have been constructed by Cadwaladr in 1147".

The Normans were driven out of Gwynedd for at least 70 years following the release, or escape of Gruffudd ap Cynan around 1094. With help from his Irish relations he razed the Norman's castles. In the ensuing time of relative stability Gruffudd's sons, Owain and Cadwaladr consolidated Welsh control of the region. Although Cadwaladr built Castell Cynfael, he became the victim of those all-too-common family struggles. By 1152 he was in exile, whilst his astute brother Owain became a notable ruler, expanding his interests into Powys, and earning the title of Owain Gwynedd - even Owain the Great. (see R.R. Davies, 1991, The Age of Conquest). It was during this period that the Welsh princes embraced many of the trappings of European learning, traditions and civilisation. Both Tomen Ddreiniog and Cynfal were probably eclipsed by Castell y Bere, built by the Llewelyn the Great in 1221 - a century before Edward's English castles. It, in turn, became more or less redundant after Harlech Castle was completed in 1289.

 

Additional Photographs of Castell Cynfael

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Copyright 2009 by Richard Hartnup, Irma Hale, and the Castles of Wales Website