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Castles of the princes of North Wales: Dolwyddelan (left), and Dolbadarn (right)
Text copyright © 1995 by Lise Hull Photographs copyright © by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Follow this link for a Welsh language version of this page!
Many visitors to Wales are acquainted with the Norman and Edwardian castles that dominate the countryside. Indeed, that domination was one of the reasons for their construction - domination, intimidation, subjugation of the local populace. Although less celebrated than their Anglo-Norman counterparts, Welsh-built castles, powerful in their own right, also impacted the land during the Middle Ages. They remain as fascinating survivors of a heritage marked by conflict - not only with the conquering outsiders, but between princely brothers vying for control of their inheritance.
One's personal discovery of these Welsh castles is both exciting and enlightening, for it presents an aspect of Welsh history that is frequently bypassed, certainly less known than that of the conquering invaders, but every bit as eventful, chaotic and significant. Welsh-built castles were unknown prior to the Norman invasion, however, material defenses were common. Welsh administrative centers, the commote or "llys" generally were lightly fortified, enclosed by a stone curtain wall, and in the Iron Age, earthworks called hillforts dotted the Welsh countryside.
Major Welsh Castles|
Carreg Cennen Castle
Castell y Bere
Castell Dinas Bran
With the Normans came subjugation in the form of the motte and bailey castle (earth and timber fortresses), easy and quick to construct. Hundreds of these castles were built throughout Wales and may be spotted almost everywhere (minus their timber defenses). The Welsh adopted this building technique from their overlords and, like the Normans, soon recognized the advantages of buttressing their castles with stone.
Welsh-built castles tend to be somewhat less overbearing and less lavishly designed, but this fact is due merely to the relative lack of fiscal resources available to the Welsh princes, as well as the unavailability of architects and other craftsmen, who were conscripted by the Normans. Furthermore, as one source states:
"We must also consider the possibility that, in the planning of these castles, there may have been an almost unspoken reluctance to embark upon the ambitious programme of fortification for fear of provoking a hostile reaction from the other side (this happened at Dolforwyn)."
"Above all these considerations, however, there was the overriding difference in the two cultures. In Wales, the bonds between a lord and his followers were essentially those of kinship; in England, authority was very largely maintained by fear and force of arms."These differences are directly reflected in the development of distinctive castle styles. The castles of the Welsh princes have a variety of common characteristics which distinguish them from their English equivalents. Ingenuity was one of the Welshman's greatest attributes successfully applied to castle-building.
One Welsh advantage against effective invasion was the rugged topography of their homeland. So, the castle-builders relied on the conveniently inhospitable terrain of the Welsh countryside as their primary means of defense. Consequently, Welsh strongholds were isolated, frequently perched high on rocky outcrops, protected by sheer cliffs, and defended by deep-cut ditches. Additionally, Welsh castles tended to be smaller and erratic in plan; generally consisted of only one ward; depended on a two-storied keep as the main source of refuge and accommodation; and, most notably, incorporated a new design - the apsidal tower.
This elongated D-shaped structure was a strategically intelligent combination of two more vulnerable designs (the round tower and the rectangular keep), and was technically more useful. The rounded end opened up the defender's field of fire and was less susceptible to undermining, while the squared-off side allowed the expansion of interior rooms for more living - and breathing - room. Interestingly, while many English castles used spiral staircases to move between levels, most Welsh strongholds contained straight flights of steps set into the interior walls. Follow this link to see a cross section of a D-shaped Welsh tower.
Curiously, most Welsh castles made little use of one particularly formidable defensive asset - the fortified gatehouse (Criccieth being the one blaring exception), a structure successfully employed in many English castles. However, the precarious location of Welsh castles would have afforded long-range observation and timely preparation for invasion.
Exploring Welsh castles is a true adventure! The solitary, foreboding siting of these fortresses provides modern visitors with great opportunity: at once you feel the elation of seeing something surprising for the first time, and a sense of accomplishment for tackling the challenge of the site's excellent natural defenses (or the uncertainty of its location). Above all, you absorb a permeating sense of historical energy, and have visions of survival and warfare which once filled these marvelous structures.
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: email@example.com.
The Princes of Gwynedd as Castle Builders
Despite creating castles like Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan, the Welsh did not really adopt the Norman practice of building castles. Out of over 400 which still survive within the modern borders of Wales, less than 10% can be shown to have been built by Welshmen (although the original total must have been somewhat larger). The earliest reference to a Welsh lord planning to build a castle is found in an entry in the Brut y Tywysogyon, the Chronicle of the Princes. It records that, in 1111, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was slain at Welshpool where he had 'thought to stay and to make a castle'. Five years later, we have the first recorded mention of a castle which has survived to the present day: the mound or motte at Cymer, near Dolgellau, was put up by Uchdryd ab Edwin in 1116.
During the rest of the 12th century there are further very occasional references to the Welsh building castles. Where these can be identified today, they are of earthwork form, usually either a motte standing on its own or with an associated bailey. As such, they are indistinguishable from their English counterparts.
The scarcity of Welsh castles in the 12th century has rendered impossible any attempt at establishing an overall pattern to their distribution. They were not linked to any particular military campaign, nor do they appear to form part of a broader pattern of land control. Neither, as far as we can see, were such strongholds replacing the role of the llys or court as the centre of the Welsh administrative area, the commote. Rather, each appears to have fulfilled it's own specific role, generally that of controlling routeways.
It was not until the 13th century that the Welsh began to build stone castles of a quality comparable to those raised by the English Marcher lords. The finest examples are to be found in the princedom of Deheubarth, the south-west, and within Gwynedd in the north. Indeed, in Gwynedd, where Llywelyn ap Iorwerth rose to power at the beginning of the 13th century, and was quick to adopt the stone castle, one might expect to see a more clearly defined pattern to the use of such strongholds by the Welsh.
Building a castle was an expensive enterprise and a major drain on the finances of the princes. Construction would not have begun without a clear purpose in mind. One thing is immediately apparent. Like their 12th century predecessors, these castles were not being built at the commotal llys. The only exception was at Degannwy, on the eastern side of the Conwy estuary, a site of considerable importance dating back to the post -Roman period.
The court of Gwynedd was itinerant, moving from one centre to another, and we know that castles came to feature in there itineraries. Their locations suggest that these castles were primarily to serve a strategic function, as well as fulfilling a symbolic and political role. The princes were making it clear to the English Marcher lords, to other Welsh lords (many of whom owed allegiance to them), as well as to their own subjects, that they were true masters of all they ruled. Neither can it be a coincidence that Welsh castles were sometimes used to house important political prisoners.
At various times the frontiers of Gwynedd extended right up to the English border. The castle built by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd at Ewloe lay close to the river Dee, and the one he began at Dolforwyn in 1273 lay almost within sight of the royal castle at Montgomery. Further west, Degannwy overlooked the coastal crossing of the Conwy, whilst castles at Carndochan and Castell y Bere guarded the southern border.
Within the heartland of Snowdonia, the castles of Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan controlled two of the principal routeways through the mountain mastiff. Their location may have also been dictated by that of the princes summer pastures or hafotiroedd. Important vaccaries or cattle ranches were located close to both these castles and, in the south, there was another near Castell y Bere. In the immediate vicinity of Dolwyddelan there were no less than ten vaccaries capable of supposing 552 cattle all year round. The castles would have provided permanent bases for the protection of this source of food. In time of war, mobile supplies on the hoof would have been crucially important to the survival of the men of Gwynedd if forced to retreat into their mountain stronghold.
Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare
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