Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Gwydir Castle: Treasure of the Conwy Valley

By Annie Whitehead

Recently, I paid my second visit to Gwydir Castle. This lovely historic house was built on the edge of the River Conwy flood plain – of which more later – just about a mile or so from Llanrwst. The fertile Conwy Valley, land worth owning, was fought over for several centuries so Gwydir held an important defensive role, although it is more of a fortified manor house than true castle.


Its first owner was a man named Hywel ap Coetmor, who was recorded fighting in France as a commander of longbowmen who served the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. But his is not the building that visitors see today, for it was destroyed during the Wars of the Roses when, following a Lancastrian assault in the area, Edward IV issued orders for the earl of Pembroke to retaliate and attack Nantconwy (‘Nant’ meaning Vale, or Valley).

Hall of Meredith - image courtesy Judy Corbett
The castle was rebuilt in the late fifteenth century by Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert (born 1460), who bought it from Hywel’s son, Dafydd ap Hywel, and who was the founder of the Wynn dynasty. Meredith was a staunch supporter of the Tudor king, Henry VII and he had held the lease for another great Welsh castle, Dolwyddelen. During the tenure of his son, John ap Meredith, who also established Gwydir School, (possibly, the teachers were monks from Maenan) Gwydir was enlarged, using stone from the nearby – recently dissolved – Maenan Abbey. The square turret at the rear of the Solar Tower has a spiral staircase which was part of the masonry re-used from the abbey. John Wynn’s initials can be seen above the main entrance in the courtyard, with the date: 1555. The oldest part of the present building is the Solar Tower, but the castle was extended by Sir John Wynn, a descendant of the first John, in the seventeenth century.

The Wynn family was influential throughout North Wales during the Tudor and Stuart periods and Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan house in Conwy – which I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post – was built by Robert Wynn, son of John ap Meredith.

Sir John Wynn, the first baronet, (1553-1627) was John ap Meredith’s grandson, his father, Morris, being the first to use the name Wynn as a surname. Sir John Wynn claimed, in his History of the Gwydir Family, that his family was descended from Gruffudd ap Cynan (1054/5–1137), king of Gwynedd, but this has been disputed. The aim seems to have been to establish links with the Welsh royal dynasty to maintain connections with the present monarchy. Sir John, who went to Oxford, was wealthy and powerful, serving as an MP and a JP. He was less successful in his commercial ventures, losing money from his investment in Parys Mountain (a copper mine on Anglesey). He died at Gwydir on 1 March 1627 and was buried in Llanrwst parish church.

Gwydir Uchaf Chapel

A hidden delight (I only found out about it through a chat with the current owner) for the visitor to Gwydir is Gwydir Uchaf Chapel – not to be confused with Gwydir Chapel in Llanrwst, of which more in a moment – which is just a short walk from the castle, where the key is held. The chapel was built in 1673, by Sir Richard Wynn, the fourth baronet, as a family memorial chapel for the Wynns, although apparently there is no record of its ever having been consecrated. Sir Richard was also an MP, though he was rarely present in the commons, due to his drink problem, and served as Groom to the Bedchamber to King Charles I and his consort, Queen Henrietta Maria. The king was Sir Richard’s guest at Gwydir in 1645.

Interior of the chapel 

Next to the chapel is a smaller building, now used as Forestry Commission offices, which I only discovered after my visit was originally a smaller home owned by Sir John Wynn, built in 1604. Sir Richard died of the plague in 1674 and the property passed to his daughter Mary. Her marriage, at the age of seventeen, in 1678, to Robert Bertie, Baron Willoughby de Eresby, later duke of Ancaster, meant that during the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth it was the possession of the Barons Willoughby de Eresby of Lincolnshire. In 1895 it was bought by Charles Wynn Carrington who sold it in 1921.

Following a fire in the Solar Tower in 1922, the house fell to ruin. There was an attempt in the 1940s to restore it, but by the 1980s it was once again derelict and was bought by its current owners in 1994.

The restored dining room - image courtesy Judy Corbett
The wood panelling in the dining room was bought by William Randolph Hearst and was subsequently located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and bought back by the current owners of Gwydir. Princes Charles officially opened the restored dining room in 1998.

Ghost Room - image courtesy Judy Corbett
Visitors to Gwydir might feel a chill in the rooms (as I did, on both occasions!) because it is said to be haunted. In fact, it is known as being one of the most haunted of all the stately homes in Wales. The gardens, Grade I listed, are a delight. The resident peacocks are numerous but friendly, and the Cedars of Lebanon are recorded as having been planted in 1625. Follow the Chinese Walk down to the river, and you will see the remains of Gwydir Quay. This area is prone to flooding and there is a constant battle to keep the fabric of the building safe from floodwater. Followers of Gwydir on Twitter are familiar with the regular calls for help to ‘plant’ sandbags when bad weather is forecast. Click the link HERE for more details about the fundraising efforts and the scale of the problem.


The current owners, Judy Corbett and Peter Welford, fund the restoration project themselves, with only a small grant from CADW (the Welsh government's historic environment service.) Their approach ensures that the castle can be seen by the visitor very much as it appeared in its time as the home of Meredith and his descendants.

Tu-hwnt-i'r bont, now a tea room
The strong presence of the Wynn family can also be seen in Llanrwst, just a short walk away. To get there from Gwydir, you walk past probably the most famous tea room in the UK* and then on to the parish church of St Grwst where Sir Richard Wynn built Gwydir Chapel in 1633, which was used as the family chapel until Gwydir Uchaf was built. Many family members were buried here, including Sir John as mentioned above, but not, as it turns out, Sir Richard, who was buried in Wimbledon. I’m informed that the pews are the originals, where the family sat during service.

There is an effigy of the original owner of Gwydir, Hywel ap Coetmor. The chapel now also houses the sarcophagus of Llywelyn Fawr, thirteenth-century prince of Gwynedd, but I’ll return to that in a future post. In the mid-eighteenth century, the chapel, to the consternation of those who wished to keep the memory of the Wynn family alive, was closed off from the main church when panelling was placed across the doorway. Happily, the castle they built is being lovingly cared for and the restoration project continues.

Effigy of Hywel, who began the story of Gwydir

* Tu-hwnt-i’r-bont dates from the fifteenth century and was used for a while in the sixteenth century as the local courthouse.

Images: Taken by and copyright of Annie Whitehead, unless otherwise credited. Grateful thanks to Judy Corbett of Gwydir for permission to use images of the interior from the Gwydir Castle Website

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Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Annie has a deep and abiding love of North Wales and its rich history and takes every opportunity to visit.

Connect with Annie: Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, Amazon

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating post. How lucky to get the paneling back! Unusual, I should think, in the history of bought up UK interiors.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, I remember reading about the re-acquisition of the panelling and hoping one day to see it. It lives up to expectations and you really can get a feel for how the house looked at the time.

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  2. I wish I had known this when I lived in Harlech on the edge of Snowdonia. I visited Llanwrst but not Gwydir. Great to at least learn about it now.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the article Roland. I love that part of the world and visit as often as I can, but it is fair to say that signage is not what it could be, and things can easily get missed.

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Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.