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

Flint Castle

In the town, Flintshire, northeast Wales

Map link for Flint Castle

Text copyright 1996 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright 2002 by Irma Hale

Above: Approaching the castle from the south. From left to right: the South West Tower, the Great Tower, and the North East Tower. The surviving mound of the outer bailey is to the left.
Below: Approaching the Inner Gatehouse with modern bridge over the inner ditch. The castle's Great Tower is to the right. Looking north.

vershadowed by its larger and more celebrated sisters to the west, Flint Castle stands at the eastern doorway into North Wales. The encroachment of the industrialized city and the sandy marshes of the Dee Estuary give Edward I's stronghold an image of desolation and solitude, and remind us of the stark contrast between our modern world and the Middle Ages. Rarely recognized for its unique contribution to castle-building as well as Britain's history, this marvelous structure awaits your discovery and careful exploration.

There is much to see at Flint Castle, if you look closely - views across the estuary bring us in contact with England, and the Wirral; the remains of the outer ditch, revetted with stonework, can be followed along the road before the castle, and, with a little imagination, can be quite easily reconstructed in your mind's eye; the waters of the adjoining estuary once ran up to the slopes of the castle's bailey, covering the car park, and would have provided an excellent defensive barrier; the great keep, or donjon, is a remarkable structure, unlike any other in Britain; and, most interesting, the scratches of mason's marks can be detected on stone blocks throughout the castle. While Flint Castle is under the care of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, it is freely open to the public, which not only makes it available for visiting at virtually any moment, but also makes it vulnerable to vandalism. Flint Castle needs our special attention. It is a masterful work of architectural genius that gives tribute to Edward I's master mason, James of St. George, and deserves the attention given to its greater sisters - Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris - the "Big Four" in the northwest.

Below: View of the castle from the outer ditch. The small fragment in the foreground is the remains of the outer gatehouse. In the background (from left to right) is the North West Tower, the South West Tower, The North East Tower and the Great Tower.

The Welsh were never ones to settle for dominance by their English neighbors. The history of Wales after the Norman Conquest was marked with a series of rebellions against their oppressive overlords. During the 13th century, two particularly notable princes of Wales, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (the Great) and Llwyelyn ap Gruffydd (the Last), attempted to regain control of their homeland from the English kings, Henry III and his son, Edward I. Despite being recognized by King Henry in the late 1260's with the title of "Prince of Wales", Llywelyn the Last was a restless and cautious man. Upon Edward's accession in 1272, Llywelyn intentionally defied courtly protocol and refused to swear allegiance to the new king at any time during the following four years. Compromise with the Welshman was futile. By 1277 King Edward had reached the limits of his patience, and, in order to quell the Welsh threat, initiated what was perhaps the greatest period of castle-building in Britain.

Edward I chose the site with great care, ensuring access by sea - for reinforcements and supplies - as well as by land. The origins of the name "Flint", or Le Flynt as it was once known, has been debated. Perhaps, it was derived from the rocky nature of the area, or, more symbolically, it may have been Edward's way of reiterating that the castle (and its accompanying town) was his first striking point into Wales. Whatever the source of its name, time was of the essence at Flint, and great numbers of laborers were recruited from throughout England to work on the structure, reaching some 2,300 by the end of August. Not only was work carried out on the new castle, but an entirely new town, or bastide, was also erected. Such fortified towns served their king well. They were useful administrative centers from which the king would receive revenue and retain control over the citizenry of the region. The original medieval street plan is still clearly visible at Flint.

Below: Looking down into the circular basement of the Great Tower.

Although in ruin, today's castle remains much as it appeared in Edward's time. Square in design, Flint Castle had round angle towers at three corners and a huge donjon (at right), the keep, at the fourth. To the north and east, the waters of the Dee estuary rose close to the castle's base; however, on the opposite side, the landward faces, ditching and an outer bailey were constructed, reinforcing the security needs of the inhabitants and symbolically setting the castle apart from the rest of the world.

When approaching the castle from the southeastern car park, be sure to take time to explore the outer bailey, the scanty remains of the outer gatehouse (which look directly toward the city), and the location of the outer ditch, with its stone revetment. Now containing the roadway which leads to the castle grounds, the ditch once held the tidal waters of the Dee, and would have been an excellent barrier from unwanted human intrusion. Interestingly, this area of the castle has only recently been cleared to its original appearance - from 1785 to 1962, the county jail stood in the outer bailey. It is easy to ignore this portion of the fortress, since the stone ruins so distinctly dominate the site and, from the car park, the bailey seems just a grassy plot.

Below: Stone vaulted gallery running through the base of the Great Tower (left), and the remains of a spiral staircase in the North West Tower (right).

          

The low-lying location of Flint Castle camouflages its strength, for it seems to sink into its marshy surroundings (supposedly, there are still places where quick sand can be encountered along the outermost rim of the castle!). Yet, the fortress would have been a powerful deterrent to the Welsh rebels, with its massive towers and thick walls. Sadly, it is nothing more than a shell of its former glory; however, enough of the defensive walling and the potent round towers remains to more than compensate for its deteriorated condition.

Entry into the castle proper is across a timber bridge, which has replaced the original drawbridge, the footings of which have been uncovered and can be detected in the wall under the modern bridge. The bridge crosses a ditch, originally about 20 feet deep, which separated the south curtain wall and the southwest tower from the outer bailey, and would have also been filled by the tidal waters of the Dee. As can be imagined, the castle would have been completely accessible by sea, as ships could sail all around the site.

Below: A good example of the arrowslits in the North West Tower (left), and a stone vaulted gallery running through the base of the Great Tower (right).

          

The gatehouse into the inner bailey is quite ruined today, but remains of an archway and the ruins of a porter's lodge are still visible. Inside the gate passage, access to the castle was guarded with heavy double doors and a portcullis, which are indicated by drawbar holes and a groove. It is rather surprising that Edward I did not erect a mighty gatehouse, as he did in his other great fortresses. Perhaps, he felt the position of the great keep adequately compensated for the lack of a gatehouse. The gatehouse leads directly into the inner bailey, a large expanse of grass, marked at the center by the foundations of what apparently were later buildings, such as the kitchen, hall, etc. Like the exterior grounds, the inner bailey can be quite marshy, and would have been a moist floor for the daily activities of the castle dwellers and workers.

The three angle towers guarding the inner bailey are now in various stages of disrepair, access limited in two. The most complete is the largest one, in the northeast corner of the bailey facing the Wirral peninsula. However, there is still much to be discovered in each of the towers. The three-storied southwest tower, for example, still contains the remains of a spiral staircase, windows, drawbar holes, and embrasures for arrowslits. The interior of the northwest tower is still faced with smooth stone on the lowest portion, and embrasures with arrowslits also may be seen. Like its neighbor, the tower was probably three stories high, and still contains relics of a spiral stair and fireplace, which indicates that this was a structure built with the comfort of its inhabitants in mind. Perhaps, the tower housed higher status members of the garrison or guests. The final angle tower, on the northeast side of the bailey, is the best preserved of the lot, both inside and out, and the interior can be closely examined. This tower holds the remains of two spiral staircases, one accessing the wall-walk atop the curtain, and the other reaching passages to the latrines (which emptied out into the waters of the Dee). Upper chambers contained arrowslit embrasures, fireplaces and windows, and would have offered fine accommodation.

Below: The North East Tower.

Connecting the angle towers and enclosing the inner bailey are the remains of a strong battlemented curtain wall. On the south wall are several strategically placed embrasures facing the outer bailey, a wall-walk connecting the towers, latrines, and, along the southwest and northern sides, modifications for a dock and mooring ships are still visible. Large portions of the wall most likely supported timber buildings; the structures which likewise supported the castle's dwellers no longer survive. Much of the curtain wall has fallen as well, victim of the ravages of the Civil War and years of neglect. Yet, it is clear that the wall would have been a solid barrier to unwelcome visitors.

The most impressive building at Flint Castle, and its most unique contribution to castle-building, is the formidable great keep (above right), separated from the rest of the castle and the bailey by its own water-filled ditch (now dry) and stone wall. This donjon was inspired by castles Edward I encountered during the Crusades, and was probably most directly influenced by the castle at Yverdon, in Savoy, where Master James of St. George had worked a decade earlier. It is unlike any other keep in Britain, for it consists of a series of levels of galleries running around a central open area. Situated on levels above the basement (which probably stored military supplies), each gallery contained several rooms, side by side around the open cylinder, including residential chambers, latrines, the kitchen (probably adjacent to the well), and a chapel. It is likely that these chambers were used either by the castle's constable, or by individuals of high rank (like the justice of Chester) who visited the castle for short stays, but required the best accommodation the castle had to offer. Evidently, the uppermost level was eventually provided with the most complete and elaborate furnishings, a lead roof and wooden platform, which would have accommodated the extended visits of Edward's son, the future King Edward II.

Below: The surviving wall top of the Great Tower, looking northeast.

The great keep was a well-defended structure, surrounded by a deep ditch, and accessed only from the inner bailey across a drawbridge. Walls were dressed with smooth stone, and were tremendously thick, more so at the base (some 23 feet wide!) than the crown, and contained arrowslit embrasures. Entry into the central area can be gained by more than one route, however, the visitor is naturally drawn to proceed downwards into the basement. It seems that this downward approach was intentionally created as a way to move intruders into a more vulnerable spot within the tower, the basement level, a location into which defenders could quickly converge from the upper gallery levels (Forde-Johnson, 1981).

Despite Edward's initial intent, Flint Castle was not substantially completed until 1284, the year in which the town received its royal charter. Ironically, the mighty fortress did little to deter another Welsh revolt, and in 1282 the castle was besieged by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, brother of Llywelyn the Last who immediately joined the foray. The Welsh uprising provoked a second great castle-building effort by King Edward I, and by the end of the year the Welsh were effectively subdued, Llywelyn the Last killed in December at Cilmeri near Builth Wells, and Dafydd taken prisoner the following June. Another attempt to seize the castle was made in 1294, when the English constable deliberately burned the fortress and its bastide to prevent capture by the Welsh. Extensive repairs were then made to restore the castle to its prior condition. By 1301, ownership had been granted to Edward, Prince of Wales.

Below: West curtain wall and North West Tower from the inner ward.

After this point, life at Flint Castle was relatively quiet, with a couple of notable exceptions. As Shakespeare recorded in his play, "Richard II", in 1399 King Richard stopped briefly at the castle during his conflict with Henry Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster and the future King Henry IV. It was at Flint that Richard attended chapel and then climbed the donjon's walls to view the arrival of Bolingbroke. Here Richard agreed to abdicate in favor of his opponent. One story has it that even Richard's dog recognized Bolingbroke's authority!

Below: Closer view of the west Curtain wall and the North West Tower.

The last significant action seen at Flint Castle was during the English Civil War, in the 1640's. Initially garrisoned for the Royalists under the command of Sir Roger Mostyn, the fortress was used as base for regrouping and besieging the powerful Royalist stronghold at Chester. Flint Castle was itself besieged for three months, before surrendering to the Parliamentarians, led by General Mytton who slighted the structure in 1647. Like other castles, Flint was effectively made useless by Cromwell's decree of devastation.

As mentioned earlier, in the 18th century the outer bailey was taken over by the county jail, which stood on the site until the 1960's. In 1919, the castle was placed under the guardianship of the Office of Works, later to become CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, under whose care it remains to this day.

Flint Castle is an unusual and interesting site, and is most worthy of a detour from the normal castle-hunting route in North Wales. Its status is rather precarious, for without a regular caretaker at the site, it is susceptible to defilement from vandals, carelessly strewn trash, and the effects of rain, cold and neglect. Flint Castle is a vital link in the history of the Welsh struggle for independence and must not be overlooked.

 

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.

 

Visit the Castles of Britain Web Site
More information about Edward castles
Learn more about Edward I's bastide towns in north Wales

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

Copyright 2009 by Lise Hull, Irma Hale, and the Castles of Wales Website