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Dryslwyn Castle

5m W of Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, south Wales
SN 554 204

Map link for Dryslwyn Castle

Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Even at first glimpse, it is clear that the long ridge occupied by Dinefwr and the rocky knoll on which Dryslwyn sits perched are positions of the most extraordinary defensive strength. But suggestions that prehistoric fortifications possibly underlie the medieval castles are not borne out by any evidence. This said, the finds of Roman material within the locality of Dinefwr, and references in the Book of St Teilo and the Book of Llandaff indicate that nearby Llandeilo Fawr was a place of no little significance well before the arrival of the Normans.

One of the greatest Welsh leaders of the 12th century, Rhys ap Gruffydd was able to withstand the power of the Anglo-Norman lords of the March, supported on occasion by the intervention of King Henry II (1154-89) of England, and recreate the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. He was then able to take advantage of the king’s more conciliatory policy in the period after 1171 to maintain stable authority for many years. Deheubarth flourished over a period of relative peace and general harmony, with Welsh culture and religious life, as well as legal and administrative affairs, all benefiting from Rhys’s patronage and self-assured governance.

Below: a public footpath leads from the base of the castle through the remains of the western gatehouse.

Gradually over a period of more than 20 years Rhys re-established a single power over the lands of Ystrad Tywi, Ceredigion, and parts of Dyfed, and thereby brought a large part of the ancient kingdom under his control. He captured the castle at Cardigan and probably rebuilt the castles of Llandovery, Rhayader, and Nevern. His remarkable achievement in reversing the fortune of his kingship cannot be underestimated. By 1180 Deheubarth had been reconstituted and was the premier Welsh kingdom, albeit under the overlordship of the English king.

Following the death of Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1197, his sons contested the succession to the kingdom of Deheubarth. Rhys had probably intended that his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (d.1201), should inherit the kingdom, but his succession was challenged by two other sons, Maelgwyn ap Rhys (d.1231) and Rhys Gryg (d.1223). A vigorous struggle ensued, and castles were captured and recaptured in a period of prolonged conflict between the brothers, and - after the death of Gruffydd - his sons Rhys Ieuanc ap Gruffydd and Owain ap Gruffydd. The main beneficiaries of this tragic conflict within Deheubarth were outsiders. The English king, Anglo-Norman lords of the March, and native Welsh neighbours, all took advantage until once again the days of independence seemed to be numbered. Finally, it was by the power of the prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, that a settlement was made and in 1216. He induced the claimants to accept a tripartite division of Deheubarth. They were all now rulers by the grace of Llywelyn, diminished in stature and relegated to a lesser role in history. Deheubarth was never to recover the status it had enjoyed under the Lord Rhys. Despite this, it was in these decades that Dinefwr achieved its mighty masonry construction before being eventually lost to King Edward I.

Below: approaching the castle at Dryslwyn from the middle ward.

It is from this time, in 1246, that we have the first reliable documentary reference to Dryslwyn Castle, despite the fact that the recently excavated evidence suggests that it must have been in existence for some years before. The source in question, the native Latin chronicle, Annales Cambrie, makes passing mention of a siege at the castle by the seneschal of Carmarthen on behalf of its ‘rightful owner’. But we are given no indication of the outcome, or indeed who the chronicler considered its rightful owner to be.

The earliest castle at Dryslwyn was probably raised during the second quarter of the 13th century. The buildings included the round tower or keep, with an adjoining polygonal ward enclosed with a curtain wall, and with a simple gateway entrance on the north-east side. Inside this castle there was a single large hall - the great hall - with open ground and bedrock to the north, and a small cluster of wooden buildings to the east. South of the hall was a small stone building, probably a kitchen, with a hearth, In the north-west corner, between the great hall and the curtain wall, another small structure was probably used as a prison.

Below: view of the round tower at Dryslwyn (left foreground) and the valley beyond

Many early Welsh castles are of similar form, perched in defensible positions high on hilltops, overlooking valleys, with a strong tower and a defended ward whose size and shape were dictated by the size and shape of the hilltop. Indeed, the similarity between the layout of Dryslwyn and that of Dinefwr, in particular, reinforces the idea that their initial plans were conceived by the same Welsh prince.

There were many additions to the castle in the years which followed. In the mid 13th century, a second (middle) ward was added to the north and east of the initial defences, virtually doubling the overall size of the stronghold. Meanwhile, in the inner ward, a new hall was built to the east of the earlier great hall. Subsequently, it was almost certainly Rhys ap Maredudd who further enlarged and improved the castle in the 1280s. Rhys had been rewarded for his loyalty to the Crown in the war of 1282-83, and it was probably the wealth he derived from his new lands which allowed him to invest in the extensive building programme at Dryslwyn.

Below: (1) the stone plinth near the middle of Dryslwyn's great hall once rose to support a central hearth.
A section of chimney now rests atop a concrete platform, and (2) view of the southern apartment block

Within the inner ward, substantial walls were raised overlooking the Tywi; the hall (later described as ‘the King’s Hall’) was remodelled; a series of apartments was built adjoining the hall, with a projecting chapel tower at the eastern end; and there was a newly mortared courtyard at the centre of the complex. Alongside this work, Rhys also added a third (outer) ward to the castle. All in all, by 1287 Rhys had made Dryslwyn one of the largest masonry castles ever raised by native Welsh lords, a structure impressive enough to rival any number of strongholds raised by Anglo-Norman and English lords of the March.

Rhys ap Maredudd was soon involved in a series of bitter disputes with Robert de Tibetot, the new justiciar of west Wales (1281-98). The situation rapidly worsened, and in June 1287 Rhys suddenly attacked and captured the castles of Dinefwr, Carreg Cennen and Llandovery. The constables were slaughtered, and many defenders left for dead. The English response was swift and immensely powerful. A great army of some 11,000 men was raised in various parts of England and Wales, marching to Carmarthen to assemble under the king’s cousin, Earl Edmund of Cornwall. From here, in the second week of August, they set out to lay siege to Dryslwyn Castle, where Rhys had established his defensive headquarters. The siege is particularly well known because of the relative abundance of documentation. The castle fell after three weeks, during which time Dinefwr had also been retaken. Rhys himself fled, but after a few more years of resistance he was captured in April 1292 and executed at York for treason.

Below: exterior view of the curtain wall protecting the chapel at Dryslwyn.

During the ensuing English occupation, although there was much repair work undertaken from time to time, there was very little new building. The castle was very deliberately decommissioned in the early 15th century. The passage through the outer, or main gatehouse was walled up, and access into the basement of the round tower was also blocked. The site was then looted, with hinges taken from the main doors, and even the stone treads removed from steps. All in all, this meant that Dryslwyn could no longer be used as an effective front-line stronghold. The actions were very probably carried out by the English forces that retook the castle following its surrender to Owain Glyndwr in 1403. The intention was presumably to prevent the site from being held by any hostile forces in future years.

Below: windows of the chapel (background) seen from the inner ward.

At a later date, the castle was deliberately put to the torch, with very extensive archaeological evidence to show that all the major buildings were burnt to the ground. Demolition of the upstanding walls followed, apart from two prominent sections on the south side.

Sian E. Rees and Chris Caple
The Cadw guidebook for Dinefwr and Dryslwyn castles (1999)


Additional photos of Dryslwyn Castle
Learn more about the 1287 siege of Dryslwyn Castle

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas