Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links

Degannwy Castle

on twin hills behind the town, Aberconwy & Colwyn, north Wales

Map link for Degannwy Castle

All photographs copyright by John Northall

Above: view of the Welsh-built revetment wall and tower base of the upper bailey of Degannwy Castle
Below: the strongly situated northern side of the upper bailey with Conwy Morfa and Penmaenbach in the background.

 

 

Frances Lynch 1995.

Th twin rocks of Degannwy have been the focus of settlement and warfare for more than a thousand years but, because they have been fought over so ferociously, little survives for the modern visitor to see. However, though the castle walls have been reduced to little more than rubble, the hilltop is still an evocative place.

During the post-Roman period the hill became a place of major political importance, the court of Maelgwyn Gwynedd, the foremost historical figure of the 6th century in north Wales, patron of St Cybi and St Seiriol, but reviled as a drunken tyrant by the chronicler Gildas. Excavations on the western summit in 1961-66 confirmed occupation in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Documents show that the Norman Robert of Rhuddlan built a castle here in 1080, but nothing remains of it. It was later regained by the Welsh, and in 1191 Giraldus Cambrensis described it in the Itinerarium Cambriae as a "noble structure." However, it was soon to be destroyed as part of a scorched earth policy in the face of threats from King John.

When Llywelyn ap Iorwerth regained the castle in 1213 he rebuilt it in good style. Only a little of this castle survives today. In 1228 it is recorded that he imprisoned one of his sons here. After Llywelyn's death in 1240 his sons were not strong enough to resist the English advance and demolished the castle in anticipation of its loss. When the English arrived in 1245 they were forced to shiver in tents, so effective had been the Welsh destruction.

The campaign of Henry III saw the construction of walls and towers, the ruins of which survive today. The castle, with towers on each hilltop and a bailey on the saddle between, had an associated borough which received a charter in 1252. It was under construction from 1245-54 but was never completely finished.

As Henry became more embroiled with his own troubles, the power of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was growing. In 1263, after a long siege, he captured this outpost of English power and systematically demolished it. When Henry's son, Edward, advanced across this territory in 1283 he camped at the ruins of Degannwy, but recognizing the greater strategic value of a riverside site and also the political impact of a castle across the river Conwy, which up until then had been the frontier of the essential Gwynedd, he founded his new castle at Conwy. Degannwy was abandoned.

The ruins visible today belong mainly to Henry III's castle. The defences of the bailey - earth banks and ditches on the north side, the base of two D-shaped gatehouse towers, and the curtain wall hastily built by Edward I on the south - can still be recognized. The mass of fallen masonry near the base of the gatehouse is a relic of the demolition of 1263.

 

Below: The earthwork defences of the western bailey rampart. The base of Mansell's tower lie on top of the small hill and the incomplete 'mantlet' defensive step is to the left of the summit.

 

The One Thousand Years of Deganwy Castle

by John Northall

 

The twin hills above the modern village of Deganwy housed a fortress that was in use from at least the Roman era until its final destruction in 1277. Hardly anything now remains of the castle but history has left us an intriguing insight into this once grand stronghold.

Roman Period

  • Excavations in 1961-6 uncovered evidence of dark age and Roman occupation on the larger west hill of the castle.

  • Five Constantian coins were found on the south slope of the west hill and one unidentified Roman coin was found in the mortar of the wall around the east hill. Sadly, all are now lost.

  • Samian ware (fine imported glazed pottery) was also found during excavations.

    Dark Ages

  • 6th Century - Deganwy became the Llys (fortified court) of the fearsome Maelgwn, Lord of Anglesey, who died in 547 AD (Nennius).

  • 822 - The Annals Cambriae state that the fortress of Deganwy, described as Arx Decantorum, was destroyed by the invading Saxon army of Ceolwulf of Mercia. The Saxon army did not stay.

    Medieval Period

  • 1080 - Robert of Rhuddlan built the first Norman castle on the site while attempting to subjugate North Wales. He was killed when bravely attacking some Welsh pirate ships under the neighbouring Great Ormes headland. His men were said not to be quite so brave and lived to fight another day!

  • 1200 - Possessed by Llewelyn Fawr

  • 1210 - The castle was slighted (i.e. made indefensible) by Llewelyn during an English advance.

  • 1213 - The castle was recaptured from the English by Llewelyn Fawr who then built a stone castle here. Part of the north wall and the foundations of a small round-faced tower are attributed to this phase of construction, and a carved stone bracket from the site bearing a bearded and crowned head is on show in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff - it may show the face of Llewelyn Fawr himself. (Castles of the Welsh Princes by Paul R Davies).

  • 1241 - After Llewelyns' death his son Dafydd, who had succeeded him in competition with his half-brother Gruffudd, slighted the castle during the advance of the English army of Henry the 3rd. A peace treaty was signed and Henry gained the castle along with Mold and Basingwerk and began to rebuild it.

  • 1244 - Deganwy was refortified by the English because of a return to hostilities by the Welsh.

  • 1250 - On Aug 23rd Alan Le Zusch was ordered by Henry to fortify the bailey between the two hills in stone and lime, raise Mansells tower on the east hill by 12 ft and make a barrier ("incinctorium") outside the tower. A level platform just below the apsidal end of the tower still exists. The bailey was to be provided with two gates, with two towers on each side in pairs and with suitable chambers above these with fireplaces. There was to be a chapel in the town of Gannoc just outside the north side of the bailey and a horse mill was ordered. A 1ft 5 inch millstone, 3 inches thick, was found just outside the south gate in 1948. (Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales).

  • 1252 - A town charter was granted to Gannoc and the pipe roll for the period of 1250 to 1255 records a rent of 10 shillings.

  • 1254 - Payment was recorded in a pipe roll for walling half the bailey and making one gatehouse. No payment was made for the northern bailey wall and it appears never to have been any more than started. This side was evidently still protected by a strong earthen rampart and wooden palisade but rebuilding had been hampered by Welsh attacks.

  • A letter sent from Deganwy during Henry's 1254 campaign, preserved by Matthew Paris, tells vividly of the hardships and lack of food in the castle. Prisoners were slaughtered on both sides and the heads of Welshmen were brought back to the castle as trophies after each successful sortie. (The Oxford History of England, The Thirteenth Century).

  • 1257 - Attacked by Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, David's nephew and grandson of Llewelyn Fawr.

  • 1263 - Prince Edward, later to be King, had been able to revictual his castle with the help of his mercenaries in April but the Welsh starved the garrison out by cutting off his resupply chain later in the year. Llewelyn ap Gruffudd then slighted it so thoroughly that it was never to be raised again.

  • 1277 - The English were once again encamped at Deganwy after a successful invasion under Edward the First. The king arrived here from Rhuddlan on 29 August after agreeing the disposal of North Wales with Llewelyn's traitorous brother Dafydd. Edward decided to build a new castle across the river on a prominent rock jutting out into the River Conwy, where it could be supplied by sea via a fortified dock.

  • Local tradition has it that the stone of Deganwy Castle was reused in the making of Conwy Castle and its town walls - an ignominious end to a once proud fortress that had lasted for a thousand years.

     

    Additional Photographs of Degannwy Castle

     

    The twin hills of Deganwy Castle looking from the south. The earthern ramp to the outer gate can be seen between the hills.

     

    The accomodation block at the north-west corner of the upper bailey with Llandudno beyond it.

     

    A view of the later Conwy castle from the ruined outer gateway.

     

    The tumbled masonry of the the King's Hall, which was built for Henry the third.

     

    The northern gate of the lower bailey looking towards Llandudno and the Great Orme.

     

    The Welsh-built revetment wall and tower base of the upper bailey.

     

    Looking down the curtain wall from the site of Mansell's Tower towards the outer gateway.

     

    An inverted section of gateway passage from the southern outer gateway, complete with drawbar socket.

     

    The inside of the southern bailey wall, looking towards the Conwy valley.

     

    The southern bailey wall as it climbs the smaller hill towards Mansell's tower.

     

    Earthern platforms from the planted town can be seen close by the northern side of the castle.

     

    The remains of a turret on the southern bailey wall.

     

    Looking towards the site of Mansell's tower on the smaller hill from the inner gate.

     

    The site of the inner gate to the upper bailey from the western end of the Kings Hall.

     

    The base of the small round tower as seen from the corner of the accommodation block.

     

     

    Follow this link for additional photos of the castle
    Follow this link for a reconstructive drawing and site plan of Degannwy
    View Mr Northall's other contributions to the Castles of Wales web site

    Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links

    Copyright 2009 by John Northall and the Castles of Wales Website

  •