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In Search of Ednyfed's Castle

Text, drawings and photographs Copyright © 2001 by John Northall

With acknowledgements to Cadw, The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust,
Colwyn Bay Library, The Bay Bookshop and Britannia.com.

The tranquillity of Bryn Euryn hill, 365 feet above sea level, belies a dramatic yet little known past. Iron and Dark Age strongholds, the medieval castle of a notable Welshman and a later fortified mansion have all been built here, and a Roman expeditionary force disappeared nearby.

 

Bryn Euryn rises above the North Wales town of Colwyn Bay, dominating the old Welsh kingdom of Rhos.
The ancient fortresses stood on its summit and the ruins of the fortified mansion are on its seaward slope.
Historical records hint that Ednyfed had a castle here but where was it?

 

The search for Ednyfed's Castle was prompted by a visit to a bookshop during a trip to Colwyn Bay on a rainy Easter weekend. The second hand bookshop in the town centre always has a good supply of interesting old books and I found myself looking through them as I sheltered from the rain.

The Roman Connection

While looking for books on local history an old school textbook fell into my hand, one that we had used during our Primary School education in the 1960's. It was called The Story of Denbighshire Through Its Castles and was written by Frank Price Jones in 1952. Within its covers was a reference to the Iron Age hillfort of Bryn Euryn and a description of how life was probably lived there at the time when the Roman Legions invaded North Wales.

This reminded me of the history lessons we had at around the age of 10 that told us how of Roman invaders had apparently been slaughtered near Bryn Euryn. A Roman historian recorded the disappearance of a Roman expeditionary force led by Sempronius somewhere near the North Wales coast. The story was that the Roman column had been ambushed while it passed through a narrow valley formed between Bryn Euryn and the high ground just to the east. Consequently, we had visions of terrifying woad-painted Celtic warriors screaming as they rushed down through the woods to annihilate the Romans with their slingshots, spears and swords. The valley is still called Nant Sempyr, which is taken to mean The Valley of Sempronius.

 

Bryn Euryn looking across Nant Sempyr, possibly the scene of a successful attack on the Romans by the native Celtic tribe of the Deceangli.

 

Ednyfed's Manor

Another old book caught my eye. It was a guidebook of the Colwyn Bay area dating back to the time when it was a fashionable Edwardian seaside resort. There was a description of Bryn Euryn and talk of the lost medieval site of Ednyfedís castle.

Ednyfed Fychan was a descendent of the tribal rulers of the area and is a fairly well known character in Welsh history, but his castle is a mystery having seemingly disappeared without trace. Ednyfed rose to become the chief advisor of Prince Llewelyn Ap Iorwerth and as such he was the second most powerful man in Wales during the early part of the thirteenth century. He bought the land of Rhos Fychan ('Little Moor') from Llewelyn and established his manor there around the year 1240. Rhos has now been largely built over and is a suburb of Colwyn Bay but Bryn Euryn springs above the land just as it did in Ednyfed's day. Ednyfed is known to have had a private chapel at the foot of Bryn Euryn, part of which still exists as the north wall in the local church of St Trillo, and his manor was said to be close by.

At that time in Wales manors were not the large country houses that now grace the land. They had to be defensible against hostile neighbours and so they were often small castles, as can be seen at the later manorial site of Owain Glyndwr at Sycharth.

The Search Begins

I know the area around Bryn Euryn well after growing up locally but had previously been unaware of a castle site, therefore a search for the lost castle was irresistible. Armed with a camera and in the company of my 12 year old son, I drove to a small car park on the seaward edge of the hill from where the search could begin. The car park sits within an old limestone quarry and footpaths lead off from it in various directions. Cadw, the custodians of Welsh historical monuments, had thoughtfully provided a notice board at the car park and it gave some information about the earthwork fort crowning the hill and also the ruined mansion nearby. Both the fort and the mansion had been recently excavated but no mention was made of Ednyfed's castle.

We strolled up one of the paths for about a quarter of a mile until we reached the old mansion, winding up through dense woodland and over a low limestone crest as we went. The ruin soon came into view through the trees.

Llys Euryn

The mansion is commonly known as Llys Euryn these days although according to some old books in Colwyn Bay library its actual name seems to have been Plas Bryneuryn or in English, The Palace of the Golden Hill. Llys has a subtlety different meaning to plas, or palace, and would have been applied to the fortified court of a local ruler in the early medieval (Dark Age) period, so could there be an older building below the present one?

 

Looking across the kitchen range towards the west hall and the southwestern corner turret.
The base of the northern turret is in the foreground.

 

A reconstruction drawing of Llys Euryn from the Cadw information board at the site, showing how it probably looked in the 15th century.

 

The hall was built in the mid 15th century and had turrets containing latrines, a full range of domestic rooms including two halls and a small central courtyard. A contemporary bardic poem described '3 fair stories' and the building had a slate roof pegged in place by oak nails. The windows of the three feet thick external walls were all narrow defensible slits but those looking inwards were bigger for greater comfort.

 

The site of the new west hall with a domestic range and the kitchen door beyond.
The good preservation of the fireplace and chimney is the result of rebuilding in the 19th century.
The three levels of floor and the arrow slits can be clearly seen in this picture.

 

The remains visible today are of the fortified manor house built for Robin, eldest son of Gruffyd Goch who led the old Welsh tribal division of Rhos. It was a large and very well appointed building for its time and was fortified because of the invasions of North Wales that occurred during the Wars of the Roses. The hall was improved during its peaceful first hundred years but the family fortunes declined and it was sold to pay off debts. By 1763 it was probably derelict, robbed of any useful material until it became a mere shell.

 

The south wall of the mansion has accumulated a thick layer of earth against its outer face over the last five hundred years.
The original ground level can be seen within the building at the right of the picture.

 

Llys Euryn has been excavated at least twice, once by a local vicar who was also an amateur archaeologist and most recently by Cadw. No medieval remains were found by Cadw to positively connect Llys Euryn with Ednyfed although grindstones built into the wall of the west hall may have come from his manor.

So if Llys Euryn were not the site of Ednyfed's castle or an earlier llys perhaps the top of the hill could have been the home of the medieval stronghold? We walked onwards through the woods and up the hill towards the summit.

 The Iron Age Remains

As we climbed the lower reaches of the hill we passed over a small plateau where the walls of Iron Age roundhouses used to be visible as large dark circles in the turf. However, the amount of coarse vegetation around here has increased since I was a boy and no signs of the roundhouses could be found. We turned away from the plateau and continued our climb, which soon became steep, and we could then see the rampart of the Iron Age hillfort stretching up to the top of the hill from the right. When we reached the top we walked over the final crest that had once been part of the defensive wall and entered the flattened area at the highest point of the hillfort.

 Looking north from the village of Mochdre, the site of the hillfort can be seen on the humped summit of the hill. An earthen rampart runs from the left side of the summit down through the wooded area at the far left of the picture to the top of a cliff. Steep slopes on the other three sides further defended the fortress.

 

The hillfort bank on top of hill is obscured by vegetation.
In the centre background can be seen Maelgwn's fortress of Deganwy, visible as a small but prominent hill.
A tract of marshy ground separated the two rival strongholds.

     

 

The Dark Age Fortress

In the 6th century a man called Cynlas Goch ruled the kingdom of Rhos. He was born around 490 AD, the son of Owain Danwyn (Owen White-Tooth) who had lost his kingdom to Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd. Gildas, the 6th century monk and early historian, referred to Cynlas as a usurper and evidently had little respect for the man. "You Bear, rider of many and driver of the Chariot of Dineirth" he said and blamed him for starting a civil war, which was perhaps launched in an attempt to liberate Rhos from the Kingdom of Gwynedd. The road that runs around the western half of the hill is still called Dinerth Road and the old name for the hill was Din-Arth (The Fortress of the Bear). This hilltop site was the real Llys Euryn.

The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust had excavated the llys and set up a display of information boards about it in Colwyn Bay Library. It seems that in common with many other hillforts in post Roman Britain, this earthwork, which was perhaps already 800 years old, was refortified during the Age of Arthur.

An oval enclosure was built in the 5th century at the highest point of the fort to form a sturdy inner sanctum. Along with the surrounding Iron Age enclosure, a layout similar to the motte and bailey castles of the Normans was achieved and the same arrangement can be seen just a few miles up the Conwy Valley at Pen-Y-Castell, on a rocky ridge high above the village of Maenan.

 

The remains of a well-constructed drystone wall peep out through the shallow turf at the very top of the hill.
Looking east, the hills lining the edge of the Clwyd valley can be seen in the background and these too were crowned by Iron Age forts.

 

This view looks along the western edge of the inner enclosure to the district of Llandrillo-Yn-Rhos and the Irish Sea beyond.
The dressed stones in the foreground are along the line of the rampart and have been rebated to accept a door.

 

Could this rudimentary stone fortress have been in use during Ednyfed's time? Giraldus Cambrensis wrote that in 1188 a similar site had been built by the sons of Owain Gwynedd at Carn Fadryn on the Lleyn Peninsular. However, such remote sites were no doubt impractical and by the 1200's castles tended to be more conveniently situated. There was no sign of mortared stonework or a 'proper' earthwork castle on the hilltop and so it could probably be ruled out as the site of Ednyfedís castle. 

Was This the Castle?

Having failed to find any traces of the castle we returned down the hill the way we had come and passed Llys Euryn again. Then I noticed a curving filled-in ditch with the slight remains of a bank next to it. The bank ran into the trees where a cone shaped mound of rising ground was apparent. This may have been the castle motte and the curved bank could have been the defensive rampart of the outer court or bailey. The limestone quarry had destroyed the rear two-thirds of the mound, which would explain the previous lack of identification. We couldnít explore the supposed bailey area very much due to the impenetrable blackthorn undergrowth, however the far edge of bailey had a definite drop, down which the path zig-zagged.

Below right: The presumed site of Ednyfed's Castle with the earthworks picked out in yellow. The edge of the sloping earthen mound, which may have carried a defensive wooden tower, can be seen rising into the trees. Its rearward part had been removed during extensive limestone quarrying. The eroded remains of a ditched rampart leading away from the motte can be seen at the bottom of the picture. It was probably leveled when the fortified mansion was built nearby.

   

Above left: How a motte and bailey castle could have appeared at this site. Protective ditches would have surrounded the earthen ramparts and stout timbers provided a secure enclosure.

Could this have been the site of Ednyfedís Castle? Itís in the right place as Ednyfed's manor was known to have been close to his chapel of Llandrillo. A motte and bailey would also have been the right type of castle for a minor stronghold in Ednyfed's time and the continuity of use of an important place was provided by the later fortified mansion. 

These slight remains may well have been part of the Ednyfed's stronghold but unless the site is excavated we will never know. Nothing much remains of the motte but there may be much more of the bailey hidden by the dense undergrowth that covers the area to the left of the photograph. The bottom of the ditches could also yield some worthwhile evidence. It would be marvellous if someone was willing and able to complete the search for Ednyfed's Castle.

 

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