Sunday, April 10, 2016

Harddwych Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part II

By Annie Whitehead

The first thing you might notice about Wales, and North Wales in particular, is that there are rather a lot of castles. They are usually lumped together as "Welsh Castles" but some are Welsh, and some are 'English'. On our first trip in 2004, we visited as many as we could. From the dark and brooding Dolwyddelan, Criccieth, Dolbardarn (all Welsh,) to the castles which formed the Iron Ring of Edward I's campaign of subjugation - Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris... But I'd like to begin this second leg of our tour of North Wales not with the castles, but with some of the places associated with the Princes of Gwynedd.

Author's own photo
Those who've read Sharon Penman's Welsh novels will be familiar with the story of Llewelyn Fawr (the Great) and his English wife, Joan (Joanna) who was the natural daughter of King John. In the church of Saint Grwst in Llanrwst lies the stone coffin, reputed to be that of Llewelyn, who died on April 11th AD1240. Over on Anglesey in the town of Beaumaris, the parish church porch houses Joan's coffin.

Like all medieval princes, Llewelyn was fairly peripatetic and one of his favourite places was his hunting lodge at Trefriw. The story goes that Joan took exception to walking up to the little chapel above Trefriw. But I can recommend that the climb rewards the effort. Services are still held in this 11th century church, and there is evidence that there has been a church here since the 6th century.

The medieval chapel at Llanrhychwyn -  author's photo

A new church was built in Trefriw in around 1230 on the site where St Mary's now stands, where stained glass windows devoted to the royal couple can be seen.

So we can visit these people in death, and see where they prayed, but can we visit where they lived? Well, yes, up to a point. The royal palace at Aberffraw is buried under a housing estate, and there is an ongoing debate as to the exact location of the palace at Abergwyngregyn. In the village there is a raised mound, which has been suggested as some kind of motte, but there is also an old manor house, Pen y Bryn,  dating back to the 17th century which, it is claimed by some, was built on the site of the former palace.

The priory at Llanfaes, where Joan was sent by Llewelyn after an indiscretion, has also long since gone. But in Newborough, the royal 'Llys' has been partially excavated. Drive round the corner too quickly and you'll miss it, in the field above the road, but it's there. Here, at Llys Rhosyr, it is possible to see the footings of the original buildings as well as the views across to the mainland.

author's own photo - Snowdonia in background
I've been to this site two or three times over the last decade and it seems to me that there has been sporadic investigation in the intervening periods, with information boards now erected, and directional stones inscribed with information about the layout of the site. (Readers of Part I of this journey through the area will remember that further along this road is the beach, which leads to Llanddwyn Island.)

Here is my photograph of one of those information boards, showing how the site might have looked. But of course, much of life was spent not in houses, but castles - the construction for which North Wales is famed.

Many of these castles belonged to the Welsh Princes, and it's believed that Llewelyn Fawr was born in an earlier building on the site of Dolwyddelan Castle, which he had built. It offers commanding views of the surrounding landscape, and part of it is still intact. For atmosphere and a feel of the past, it's hard to beat.

Dolwyddelan Wiki commons - CADW

Other 'native' castles include Criccieth on the Llyn Peninsula. When I visited there in 2004 there was an informative exhibition dedicated to Gerald of Wales, the 12th century chronicler. Standing like a sentinel high above Llanberis and overlooking the lake called Llyn Padarn is the ruin of Dolbadarn Castle, where Llewelyn's grandson, also called Llewelyn, imprisoned his brother, Owain ap Gruffudd. (Brotherly love was generally in short supply in that particular family.)

Dolbadarn - author's own photo
and see here for a post about this site

Like Criccieth, some native castles were taken over by Edward I and extended. At Rhuddlan, Edward went further still and altered the course of the river Clwyd when he built the castle there. Rhuddlan is not as well known, perhaps, as the major Edwardian castles which make up the 'Iron Ring'. Llewelyn Fawr's grandson poignantly became known to history as Llewelyn the Last, defeated by Edward in 1282. Edward began a massive programme of building, using the 'concentric' design of a castle within a castle. He was determined that the Welsh would remain subjugated and at Conwy Castle, he used stones from Aberconwy Abbey which had been the resting place of several Welsh princes. It was a powerful symbol of conquest.

Caernarfon - attribution Manfred Heyde
This picture of Caernarfon Castle shows how impenetrable and formidable these structures appeared to be. And yet Caernarfon was breached, in an uprising of 1294 led by Madog ap Llewelyn and was besieged again during the uprising of Owain Glyndwr (AD1400-1415).

In this, Caernarfon has something in common with Harlech Castle, which was occupied by Owain's forces between 1404 and 1409.

But Caernarfon also shares a secret with Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, in that it was never actually finished. Wander round Caernarfon and you might not realise, since most castles these days are at least partially ruined. But step inside Beaumaris and you will see that only the outer walls were completed and the castle was never fully inhabited.

Beaumaris - commons attribution ljanderson977

In over a decade of at least twice-yearly trips, I still haven't visited the sites of all the Welsh castles. All of these sites are well worth a visit; some have a castle or a church to display. Some have much more to show off. Please join me in Part III of this tour when we will go back to Trefriw to visit a haunted Tudor castle and taste the iron water which drew the Victorians to the area. Back in Conwy we will visit two Tudor houses and a suspension bridge built by Telford. And after taking in a couple more Tudor buildings, we'll further explore the changes wrought by the Victorians on the landscape of this beautiful corner of Wales.

To read the previous parts of this tour:
Part I is HERE
Part III is HERE 


Annie Whitehead
studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has now been a judge for that same competition for 2019 and 2020, as well as for the HNS Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (published by Amberley Books) and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, (published by Pen & Sword Books)

Author Page
Blog - Casting Light upon the Shadow


  1. Fascinating post, as was Part I of the North Wales ones. It makes me want to visit every one of these places before I leave Harlech in September. At least I will have memories...and your articles.

    1. Glad you're enjoying the series Roland. You'll know, of course, that the Welsh have the word Hiraeth - a special kind of longing for home - which you will probably experience when you leave. There's one more post in this series which will be published on May 8th, hope you enjoy that one too :)

    2. Even though I'm not Welsh, I'll miss this part of Wales. As you say 'Hiraeth'.

    3. It is a beautiful place - there's really nowhere like it, in my opinion

  2. Just got back from a visit to Bangor, and on the way back to Dolgellau, we travelled along the coast. We drove to the base of Caernavon castle and I realised I had never visited it. So next Wales visit Caernavon castle here we come, especially with your inspiration.
    We then travelled south down the coast passing Harlech castle which used to have the sea lapping it's base. Wonderful countryside, wonderful history.
    Love your piece the beauty of North Wales. Think you need to get back to Cricceth castle and check out what is going on there 12 years is along time. Perhaps I could go and check it out for you.

    1. You're right - 12 years is far too long! I'm off to Wales again soon, visiting a new area, so maybe I'll be able to report back. It is a wonderful place, as you say, with such dramatic scenery and history from all periods wherever you turn - really visible history too. Thanks for leaving your comment and I'm glad you enjoyed the article :)

  3. Great post as always! A church in Farndon has the arms of Richard the third carved into it's font. love Wales, love history, thanks Annie


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