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The castles of Llywelyn Fawr, castles of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Wales. Welsh Castles and places of historic interest

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After the disastrous invasion of Wales by King John of England in 1212 Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) decided to build a chain of Castles to protect his territory from future attacks. Below are listed some of the Castles and Forts either built by Llywelyn or that have some connection to his life and times.

Dolwyddelan Castle:

Dolwyddelan, Gwynedd, North Wales
Dolwyddelan Castle stands impressively on a rocky ridge commanding the Lledr Valley, one of the Click to enlarge Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Llywelyn the Greatprincipal passes through Snowdonia. Believed to have been built between c.1210 and 1240, under the command of Prince Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, Rather confusingly it is sometimes said that Llywelyn was born in Dolwyddelan Castle but this must refer to the vanished Castle on the summit of the rocky knoll in the valley floor below the present Castle. The present Castle was built to guard the road into the core of his kingdom to watch over his vital upland cattle-pastures. Defended by rock-cut ditches and a steep drop, the Castle is dominated by a rectangular keep-tower, later heightened to three stories. More >>

Criccieth Castle:

Criccieth, North Wales
Criccieth Castle is an impressive site sitting on the headland overlooking Tremadog Bay in Criccieth, North Wales. The Castle was founded by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), and extended by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last). After the English King Edward 1's successful campaign against the Welsh in 1283 the castle was again strengthened and extended, but this time by the English invaders. It was finally destroyed, ironically by the Welsh, during the Owain Glyndwr revolt in 1404 and was never rebuilt,

The original castle, built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the early 13thC, was a smaller but imposing structure on the summit of the hill, used as both a fortress and prison for distinguished prisoners and as an administrative centre for the area known as Eifionydd. It consisted of 2 D shaped Gatehouse towers and a large rectangular tower on the South East. The Gatehouse has been deemed too impressive to have been built by a mere Welshman albeit Llywelyn the Great, and many historians like to attribute it to the English King Edward's architect Master James of St George. (Well they would wouldn't they!) However latest opinion seems to favour the Welsh as being the builders if not the designers. The design was possibly based on the Gatehouse at Beeston Castle in Cheshire, built by an ally of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1220. So we'll leave it at that. More >>


Castell y Bere:

Llanfihangel y Pennant, Abergynolwyn
Castell y Bere is a romantic Castle that appears to grow naturally from the rock which rises dramatically from the level floor of the Dysynni Valley.
In 1221 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth took back control of Meirionedd from his son Gruffudd and began to build Castell y Bere. The D shaped towers at the North and South boundaries are easily recognisable as being in the same style as the other Castles built by Llywelyn Fawr.
The Castle is on the southern border of Gwynedd and in the war of 1282-1283 it was besieged by the central English Army under the command of King Edward 1's Lieutenant Sir Otto de Grandison. The Castle fell in April 1283 and an English garrison took over the Castle. King Edward planned to establish an English borough close by similar to Beaumaris or Conwy. However in 1294 the Welsh, during the Madoc ap Llewelyn revolt, recaptured Castell y Bere and for this and various other reasons the borough did not flourish and soon after it seems the Castle was abandoned. More >>

Dolbadarn Castle:

Llanberis, Gwynedd, North Wales
Dolbadarn Castle stands sentinel on its lakeside crag against a backdrop of rocks and the mountains of Snowdonia. It was almost certainly built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth between 1216 and 1240 to control the pass through the high mountains and the entrance to the rich pastoral lands of Anglesey. But it was some years later that the castle made its mark on Welsh history, when Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who came to power in 1255, imprisoned his brother Owain for 22 years in Dolbadarn Castle after defeating him in the battle of Bryn Derwin in 1255. During the twenty two years of Owain's imprisonment Llywelyn ap Gruffudd increased his power and indeed surpassed that of his grandfather Llywelyn Fawr. But in 1277 Llywelyn was defeated by Edward 1 of England and was forced by the English King to release Owain. The peace was short lived however and the next Anglo Welsh war broke out in 1282. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was killed in a skirmish near Builth Wells and Dolwyddelan Castle in the heart of Gwynedd capitulated in January 1283. Llywelyn's other brother Dafydd tried to maintain the struggle but by spring he was trapped. He was taken by the English to Shrewsbury and executed. His last letters were from Dolbadarn and were proudly signed "Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon". More >>

Tomen y Bala:

Bala, Powys, North Wales
This is a medieval earthwork castle of the 11th to 12th C situated in the town of Bala. The Castle is 40m wide and 9m high and is likely to have been the maerdref or administrative centre of the commote of Tryweryn, and it was still fortified in 1202 when Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, who was extending his power towards Powys, drove out Elis ap Madog, Lord of Penllyn. Llywelyn reduced the defenses and very probably built the more modern stone Castle at Carndochan. Bala however retained its importance as an English borough was established beside it in 1310.

Harlech Castle:

Harlech, Gwynedd
Harlech Castle was part of the English King Edward 1's iron ring of fortresses built to dominate the Welsh and which now dominates the small seaside town and holiday resort of Harlech. Recognition of the strategic value of the site of Harlech Castle, high on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, is credited to King Edward 1's Lieutenant Sir Otto de Grandison who came across the site on his march north after his capture of Castell y Bere in the war of 1283. More >>

Conwy Castle:

Conwy, Gwynedd
Conwy Castle was built 43 years after the death of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth but it is still relevant to this page as the Castle was to be built over the site of the original tomb of Prince Llywelyn.
On his death in 1240 Llywelyn was buried in the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy, which he himself had founded. In 1283 King Edward 1 of England had successfully completed another campaign against the Welsh and was determined that this time he would stamp his authority over Wales. He was to build an iron ring of fortresses around North Wales that included Harlech Castle, Caernarfon Castle, Beaumaris Castle and Conwy (Conway) Castle. Conwy was not only an important link in the chain, as it placed the English on the west bank of the Conwy river, but it also had symbolic significance as Edward was to demolish the Abbey of Aberconwy that was Llywelyn's resting place to make way for his English Castle.
The Castle, including the massive town walls, were completed in just four and a half years and is judged to be one of the most impressive in Europe earning world heritage site status. Standing on a rocky promontory overlooking the Conwy estuary and with the foothills of Snowdonia as a backdrop it is a sight to behold. Conwy Castle...more >

Although I am a Welshman I have to give credit to King Edward for his ability to plan, finance, organise, and build the series of Castles, even allowing for the fact that he had the assistance of Master James of St George, the foremost architect and military engineer of his day. Edward must have been one hell of an adversary as in just 12 years he had built Harlech Castle, Caernarfon Castle, Beaumaris Castle, Conwy Castle and rebuilt and refurbished Criccieth Castle. It could be said five of the finest medieval Castles in Europe and all the while the building work was undertaken in hostile territory. His actions put to shame many modern attempts at civil engineering projects (Wembley stadium springs to mind). With these credentials I am sure he would have been head hunted (in the modern sense of the words) by many cities hopeful to stage the modern day Olympic Games! Conwy Castle...more >

Deganwy Castle:

When looking out across the River Conwy from the town of Conwy toward Deganwy on the East bank one can see a hill with two rocky peaks. But no Castle. One would be forgiven for thinking that the only Castle in the immediate vicinity is obviously the massive Conwy Castle built by King Edward 1 in 1283 on the West bank of the Conwy. But the two rock outcrops on the hill known as the Vardre have been the focus of settlement and warfare for more than a thousand years and their picturesque location belies the fact that they have been fought over so ferociously by the Romans, Vikings, Irish raiders, the English and the Welsh, So ferociously in fact that little remains for the modern day visitor to see. However, though the Castle walls have been reduced to little more than rubble, the hilltop is still an evocative place, indeed the area below the Castle is known as Maesdu (Black Meadow) and was, doubtless, the site of many bloody battles.

The hill was fortified many times over the centuries and it is thought that it was first occupied during the Roman period and then later in the Dark Ages, as it was safe from Irish raids. Archeology shows us that the royal court of Maelgwyn King of Gwynedd c.480 - c.547 (who established the Royal Line of Wales) was located on the Vardre in the 6th century AD.
In the 11thC the Anglo / Norman Lord Robert of Rhuddlan occupied the hill but it was later regained by the Welsh before they in turn destroyed the fortification as part of a scorched earth policy in the face of threats from King John of England.
When Llywelyn ap Iorwerth regained the castle in 1213 he rebuilt it in good style. Only a little of this castle survives today. In 1228 it is recorded that he imprisoned one of his sons here. After Llywelyn's death in 1240 his sons were not strong enough to resist the English advance and the Vardre fortifications were demolished again in anticipation of their loss. When the English arrived in 1245 they were forced to shiver in tents, so effective had been the Welsh destruction.
The later English campaigns of Henry III saw the construction of walls and towers, the ruins of which survive today. The castle, with towers on each hilltop and a bailey on the saddle between, had an associated borough which received a charter in 1252. It was under construction from 1245-54 but was never completely finished.
As Henry became more embroiled with his own troubles, the power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was growing. In 1263, after a long siege, he captured this outpost of English power and it was systematically demolished again.
In 1283 in the aftermath of his successful campaign against the Welsh the new English king, Henry 111's son, King Edward 1, camped at the ruins of Deganwy and an even greater Deganwy Castle could have risen from the rubble once again. But, recognising the greater strategic value of a riverside site and also the political impact of a Castle across the river Conwy built over the grave of Llywelyn Fawr, he founded his new castle at Conwy. Deganwy was abandoned and according to legend much of the stone was used on the new Castle.

Garth Celyn

Abergwyngregyn Gwynedd

Garth Celyn in the settlement of Aber Garth Celyn, now known as Aber or Abergwyngregyn was built in the early 13th century. It's strategic position on the banks of the Menai Strait made it an ideal location for what was to become the royal palace of both Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon. More >

Acknowledgement: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales. Gwynedd. Frances Lynch.
HMSO Publications.

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Heritage map showing Castles on Llywelyn Fawr trail.
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