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Denbigh Castle

Overlooking the town, Denbighshire, northeast Wales

Map link for Denbigh Castle

Text copyright 1994 by Lise Hull
Photographs Copyright 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: Denbigh Castle viewed from from south via the B4501.

Of the mighty fortresses that formed King Edward I's infamous "ring of castles", built to encircle and subdue the native Welsh in the late 13th century, four have been named World Heritage Sites. These four, Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris, are undoubtedly the most visited and best known of Edward's fortresses, and probably the most explored of the castles of Wales. However, several others were erected to buttress Edward's victory over the Welsh. Like their better known siblings, they have survived the centuries and are certainly worthy of our attention. One of the least known of these castles is in Denbigh, a fine town in North East Wales. Though ruinous in comparison to the Big Four in the north west, Denbigh Castle remains an intriguing and distinctive site.

Reaching Denbigh Castle may be a bit daunting, especially if you approach it from the center of town. But, perseverance is the name of the game, and, after a rather harrowing climb along the narrow, winding lane that ends at the castle entrance, you will be glad you made the effort. The massive walls and powerful gatehouse belie the castle's former glory, but, with the tiniest bit of effort, it is easy to imagination medieval Denbigh and the intimidating effect the castle would have had on both foe and friend.

 

Below: view of Denbigh's inner ward with the Green Chambers on the left.

 

Below: the east curtain wall of the castle with the well in the foreground and Great Hall & Great Kitchen Tower to the left.

 

Interestingly, Edward I was not the first castle builder to make use of this strategically important site. The Welsh actually had a fortification on the rocky hilltop, at least as early as the start of the 13th century, and it was probably still occupied by the powerful Princes of Gwynedd when Edward stormed Wales and crushed the unruly Welsh in 1282. Historical records indicate that Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the troublesome brother of Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales, had a stronghold at Denbigh, which he may have inherited from his famous ancestor, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (also known as Llywelyn Fawr, or "the Great"). Indeed, Llywelyn the Great apparently met with an abbot who journeyed to Denbigh from a monastery in England for a meeting in 1230.

Unfortunately, nothing of the native-built castle has survived, but, thanks to historical documents, we do know that it contained a hall, private chambers, a bakehouse, and a buttery. The Welsh inhabitants made a brave showing from inside the castle, lasting a month or so against the might of England's army. Inevitably, however, the English seized the site.

The name, Denbigh, implies that this stalwart hilltop may have been occupied long before the Middle Ages. The word derives from the Welsh, "Dinbych", or "little fort", and, according to CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, "incorporates the word "dinas" (a rocky fortress), which suggests that it was long regarded as a natural stronghold; there may have been a fort here in the early Christian period," perhaps, as much as 700 years before the medieval castles were constructed. However, nothing tangible survives to prove this theory.

Almost immediately after Edward I defeated the Welsh freedom fighters, he initiated the second phase of his great castle- building program. The lordship and castle at Denbigh were granted to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln and one of the king's more successful military leaders. We can credit de Lacy with the establishment of the fortress we see today.

Sweeping away any traces of the Welsh castle, de Lacy followed plans probably designed by the great medieval engineer, Master James of St. George (described recently as "the Bill Gates of medieval military construction"), who was working closely with the king at that time. By 1284, Denbigh Castle and its connecting town began to dominate its surroundings.

Essentially, Denbigh Castle was assembled during two phases, the first of which included the rapid construction of rather insubstantial outer defenses along the southern and western sides. The building of the town walls also was initiated at this time. Other features probably begun during the first phase include the eastern towers, part of the curtain wall, and perhaps the great gatehouse. However, these latter structures were not finished until the second phase, which lingered into the 14th century.

 

Below (2): front and rear view of the triple tower gatehouse at Denbigh.

 

 

The second building period brought the bulk of structures to the site. In response to the short-lived success of the previous year's rebellion led by the fiery Welshman, Madog ap Llywelyn, in 1295 de Lacy began the construction of the splendid gatehouse, the great hall, an extensive residential complex, and massive towers. Dying in 1311, poor Henry de Lacy did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Evidently, it is possible that the fortress was never a finished product.

During the second phase, heavy defenses were added to the castle: the curtain wall was refortified with thicker and higher walls, and huge polygonal towers were constructed on either side of the gatehouse. The gatehouse itself was heavily buttressed with twin towers facing outward and an enormous interior tower, called the Badnes Tower. Together, the three octagonal towers gave the gatehouse incredible strength, and an unusual overall plan. Between the twin towers was a heavily defended gate passage with murder-holes, a series of strategically-placed portcullises, powerful wooden doors, and arrowslits. One of the towers contained the porter's lodgings, while the other served as the prison. An interesting set of latrines still occupies the prison tower.

Modern visitors passing through the gatehouse may find the building fairly confusing, since so much of it is ruined. In recent years, however, restoration efforts have greatly upgraded the overall appearance of the gatehouse. Indeed, visitors cannot help but be impressed by what greets them when they approach the castle's entrance: a fascinating carved figure towers overhead, said by some to be the great Edward I himself. Individualized carvings like this remarkable piece give Denbigh Castle its distinctive character.

The green brilliance of the Inner Ward is startling. Now a large empty area, the ward once bustled with activity during the Middle Ages. Around the perimeter are the ruins of various buildings, most of which date to the second phase. Lengths of the wall-walk have been preserved, and are usable by modern explorers to overlook the Kitchen Tower as well as to experience the marvelous views of the surrounding countryside and the fine castle. High atop the curtain wall, we can appreciate the value of this site to the castle's medieval builders, for any unusual movement certainly would have been noticed. Beware, though - apparently, the ropes placed to safeguard curious visitors have been removed. Tread lightly as you scale the walls!

The eastern part of the Inner Ward contained most of the domestic structures at Denbigh Castle. Now greatly ruined, they may be identified by key features. For example, the hexagonal Kitchen Tower contains two enormous fireplaces. The tower sits adjacent to the Great Hall, of which only the foundations have survived. Inside this huge building are traces of the buttery and pantry, essential to the operation of any adequate dining facility, and the raised dais, where the lord and honored guests sat. At the southern end of the Hall, the lord could withdraw into his own private chambers, which were located inside the so-called White Chamber Tower, another ruin. Alongside this polygonal tower sat a postern gate, through which supplies of water taken from a second well could be accessed. This water probably supplemented the offerings from the castle's huge well, which is located inside the castle, appropriately, near the Kitchen Tower.

 

Below (2): view of the Green Chambers & Kitchen Tower at Denbigh Castle.

 

 

The range of buildings known as the Green Chambers sit at the southeastern corner of the Inner Ward. This 14th century structure was named for Gwespyr rock, the greenish stone used in its construction. Notable features include two drains and benches, as well as ribbed vaulting adorned with carvings. This luxurious complex of rooms was the castle's main residential block, clearly befitting a nobleman or his king.

Rounding the curtain walls to the south takes visitors toward what may be Denbigh Castle's most perplexing feature, a complex of structures which seems to mesh into an indistinctive jumble. Here, the town walls still meet the castle's, and adjoining this spot are the remains of the Postern Tower and the Upper Gate, which extend side by side. However, it is what lies beyond these ruins that grips our attention.

 

Below (2): view of the Postern Tower and stairs leading to the Postern Gate.

 

 

Spanned by a very steep modern footbridge are the remains of the deep pits and footings of the medieval drawbridge. The bridge slopes perilously to the ruined Postern Gate, the lowest gateway into the castle. Anyone passing through this gateway from outside the castle walls was forced to turn abruptly to the left when seeking access. The unusual plan was intended to confuse enemy soldiers, whose disorientation would expose them to the garrison's firepower. Today, we are instantly and almost unavoidably hurled down the incline toward these creatively constructed defenses.

Adjoining the angular pathway is another intriguing feature, the Mantlet. Now a wide open area skirting the south and western walls, the Mantlet was actually a series of terraces cut into the rock face built to thwart an invasion. In some ways, the Mantlet functioned like the ditches (or moats) so commonly found rimming Britain's castles. Denbigh's terraces also impeded undermining of the poorly constructed first phase towers that lined this side of the curtain.

At the southwestern corner of the Inner Ward stand the remains of the Treasure House Tower, where the vital records for the Lordship of Denbigh were once stored. The western side of the curtain once supported auxiliary buildings, such as the stables, workshops, and structures for storing supplies. About midway along the wall, a short descent leads to the sally port, a curious feature once defended with a portcullis and murder holes. Its purpose? To allow rapid and undetected passage to and from the castle. Hopefully, enemy soldiers did not know the sally port's location!

 

Below: two interesting carved corbels surviving from the Green Chambers at Denbigh.

 

 

To gain a complete impression of the power of Denbigh Castle, a walk around the exterior is essential. Not only may you examine the fine masonry walling and the ruined towers, you may also detect fascinating features like the limekilns. In addition, solid lengths of Denbigh's medieval town walls have endured the centuries, some portions still connected to the castle, while others head toward the town itself.

Just north of Denbigh Castle, an unusual tower stalwartly stands the test of time. The tower is the only reminder of the medieval chapel that once offered services to the castle and the town. Better known as St. Hilary's, the chapel stood almost midway between the castle gatehouse and the northernmost face the town's walling. Sadly, only the fine fortified tower survived the demolition efforts of 1923. Religious services were moved to a new church in 1874.

 

Below: view of St. Hilary's Chapel from the White Chamber Tower.

 

Interestingly, beyond St. Hilary's tower lie the ruins of Denbigh Friary, home to Carmelite monks from about 1289. The presence of St. Hilary's Chapel and the friary at first seems a curious contrast to the military nature of this site; however, they remind us of the close relationship between Church and State during the Middle Ages.

Whether or not the structure was ever completed, Denbigh Castle was sturdy enough to endure attacks during the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. In 1646, it took Cromwell's men some 4 months to bring about the defeat of Denbigh's garrison, the massive structure finally succumbing to the pounding of Parliamentary troops and its inhabitants surrendering in October of that year.

Today, Denbigh Castle is in the care of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments. It is freely accessible at any reasonable time. Travelers passing through northeast Wales should make time for a side trip into Denbigh. You will discover one of Wales' best kept and most fascinating secrets.

 

Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.

 

Additional photographs of Denbigh Castle and Town Walls

 

Below: the Entrance to Denbigh's town walls is via this gate off Bull Lane near the Burgess Gate.

 

Below: view of the town walls from the North Eastern Tower towards the Countess Tower.

 

Below: approaching the Goblin Tower.

 

Below: view of the Sally Port that located along the castle's ruined curtain wall.

 

Below: two views of Denbigh and the beautiful surrounding countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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