Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Prisoner of Dolbadarn

By Annie Whitehead

Last time, I talked about the hidden history to be found along the trails in Padarn Country Park. It seemed that every time there was a clearing through the trees which offered a view, I could see Dolbadarn Castle in the distance. During my stay in Llanberis, most of my walks started from the castle, which is in the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hotel where I was staying.

Dolbadarn (stress on the middle syllable) is an imposing ruin and is notable for being a Welsh Castle. Yes, of course, you might be thinking; it’s a castle in Wales so it’s a Welsh castle, obviously! But what I mean is that this is not one of the ‘Iron Ring’ castles built by Edward I when he subjugated the Welsh, nor is it one which he remodelled - unlike, say, Rhuddlan where he even altered the water course.

Dolbadarn was built by a native prince, Llewelyn Fawr, ruler of Gwynedd, probably in around the 1230s. The very fact that however far I walked - up to ten miles most days - I could almost always see the castle, just shows what a good site he chose, and how imposing it would have been.

Situated at the tip of Llyn Padarn (Lake Padarn), it was built to protect the route from north to south. No one was getting through without being seen. Like another Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan, it appears that the entrance to the castle was on the first floor, (or second floor, for US readers) as seen here, but originally access might have been provided by a moveable wooden ladder which, when taken away, would make it hard to get inside.

Despite the fact that today it nestles in one of the most popular tourist areas, only a short walk from the foot of Mount Snowdon and the National Welsh Slate Museum, on many of my frequent visits I had the place to myself. Although of course when it was garrisoned, there would have been a lot of soldiers there, still one can have a sense of isolation, even today.

So how must it have been for the man who spent twenty years imprisoned here?

Although the castle was built by Llewelyn Fawr (Fawr means ‘great’), it was his descendants who created the ‘human’ story of this place. Despite being married to King John’s natural daughter, Joan, Llewelyn Fawr had an uneasy relationship with the king of England. Not much changed with the next generations. The Welsh were fighting for their independence, but unfortunately they were fighting each other, too.

Llewelyn with Gruffudd & Dafydd
There were separate Welsh ‘kingdoms’ which Llewelyn Fawr had, during the course of his reign, managed to incorporate into his sphere of authority. The trouble was that Welsh laws of inheritance meant that lands were divided amongst brothers, which led to fraternal discord.

Llewelyn Fawr had a son Gruffudd, who was not the son of princess Joan, but the product of an earlier liaison. Joan gave birth to a son named Dafydd. To cut a long and complicated story relatively short, Dafydd was the one who succeeded his father and Gruffudd was imprisoned, along with his son, at another Welsh castle, Criccieth. The prisoners were then handed over to King John’s successor, Henry III and incarcerated in the Tower of London. Famously, Gruffudd attempted to escape, but fell and broke his neck.

Gruffudd falls from the
The son who was imprisoned with him was called Owain, known as Owain Goch (Goch means red, so presumably he was a redhead). War broke out between Dafydd of Gwynedd and Henry of England, who no longer had the prisoner Gruffudd as leverage. When his Uncle Dafydd died without issue, it was not Owain, however, who succeeded.

Gruffudd had three other sons besides Owain and it was Owain’s younger brother, another Llewelyn, who was able to take control. Brotherly love was conspicuous by its absence. Of the four brothers, Rhodri, who might have been the youngest, played less of a part in the fighting between England and Wales and, indeed, between the Welsh siblings.

Owain, and another Dafydd, the fourth brother, were more prominent. Dafydd was often a thorn in Llewelyn’s side, sometimes fighting alongside him, sometimes throwing in his lot with the English.

To begin with, though, Llewelyn and Owain were allies. When their Uncle Dafydd died childless, technically the king had a legal claim to Gwynedd. Henry tried to stir up support for Owain, but Owain, held at Chester at this point, managed to evade his captors, fleeing into Wales, and catching up with his brother where the two were able to put up a united front.

They had to come to terms with the English, though, and the Treaty of Woodstock in 1247 saw Llewelyn and Owain forced to agree to Henry’s conditions. As has been pointed out by Michael Senior, the very fact that the brothers ‘had to arrange to meet [there], and under the auspices of a neighbouring king, implies that they were not that close.’ Had they already begun to argue? They controlled only a small part of their grandfather’s old kingdom, but seem at first to have managed to work together, forming alliances with neighbouring princes.

However, when Dafydd, their younger brother, came of age he ingratiated himself with the English king, paying homage to him and receiving land in return. His share was not as great as that controlled by his brothers though and he wasn’t especially happy about it. Owain took his side, happy for Dafydd to have a greater stake in Gwynedd. Llewelyn was not so well-disposed to the idea.

Now, brother fought brothers. At the battle of Bryn Derwin in June 1255, Llewelyn took on Owain and Dafydd, and won. He then went on to breach the terms of the Treaty of Woodstock, retaking the Perfeddwlad, an area of Gwynedd which had been under Henry’s control.

Thereafter, Llewelyn’s story became inextricably linked to that of Simon de Montfort - he married Simon’s daughter - and the fighting with King Henry’s son Edward which eventually saw the deaths of both Llewelyn and, fighting at that point on Llewelyn’s side, Dafydd, too.

But what of Owain Goch? The brothers initially worked together to control the lands confirmed by the Treaty of Woodstock, but when Dafydd came of age, bent the knee to the English and received land in return, Llewelyn got cross, and Owain did not support him. The battle of Bryn Derwin apparently lasted only an hour or so, and Llewelyn emerged the victor. Both of his brothers were then imprisoned. Dafydd was released not long after, but Owain was not so lucky.

The Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes) describes the fight: "Llywelyn and his men, trusting in God, awaited, unafraid on Bryn Derwin the fierce coming of his brothers, and a mighty host along with them. And before the end of one hour Owain Goch was captured and Dafydd fled, after many of his host had been slain."

Owain remained a prisoner until 1277. Not everyone agrees that he was incarcerated at Dolbadarn, but it is generally assumed that this was where he spent his years as a prisoner. The sixteenth-century antiquarian John Leland believed he had been held in a tower, and the thirteenth-century court poet, Hywel Foel ap Griffri ap Pwyll Wyddel, described how the prisoner was kept in a tower as a ‘guest’ for a long time: "Gŵr ysydd yn nhŵr yn hir westai." Surely this was the tower?

Imprisoned first with his father in 1239 at Criccieth, then again at the Tower of London, and now in the stronghold at the head of Llyn Padarn; Owain must have wondered at his ill-fortune. He was released under the terms of the Treaty of Aberconwy, in 1277, when Llewelyn was forced to submit to Edward I at Rhuddlan. By the terms of the treaty, Llewelyn was allowed to retain the title of Prince of Wales, but he was no longer an overlord, although he was now finally able to meet and formally marry his bride, Eleanor de Montfort. Perhaps all might have been peaceful, had Dafydd not risen up and attacked Hawarden Castle and provoked Edward's ire. Perhaps Llewelyn might have stayed out of things had his wife not died in childbirth. The attack on Hawarden occurred in March, 1282, on Palm Sunday. Things 'escalated quickly', and were not destined to end well for these two brothers.

What did Owain make of it? After he was released, he lived quietly on his estates and is believed to have lived until around 1282. Long enough to see his brother seemingly triumphant over the hated English king? Or a little longer, enough to learn that Llewelyn, apparently betrayed, lost his head in an ambush in Powys?

Standing at the foot of this imposing castle, on a quiet sunny evening, I couldn’t suppress a shiver. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it is bleak too. How must it have felt, to be a prisoner here for over twenty years? How much would it have worsened the suffering to know that one was a prisoner at the command of one’s own brother? Owain’s story does not occupy much space in the books about Welsh history. Most of it, after all, was spent here in this tower. But it’s certainly a story worth thinking about, if we want to think, write, and learn about the human stories which lie in hiding amongst the pages of those books.

Further reading: A Time for Princes - Michael Senior
The Welsh Kings - Kari Maund
The Welsh Princes - Roger Turvey
Brut y Tywysogion - available online here

Illustrations: Public Domain images via Wikipedia - Mss from Matthew Paris
Photographs: taken by and copyright of Annie Whitehead


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. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is published by Pen & Sword Books. 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


  1. Beautiful but bleak indeed. I loved visiting Dolbadarn.

    1. It's wonderful isn't it? I can't wait for my next trip to North Wales!

  2. Another great post on crucial Welsh history. I'm using Dolbadarn Castle - and Dolwyddelan plus others - as key settings in my modern police procedural, with the history playing a role in a series of murders, I'm filing this away for research. Thanks, Annie.

    1. Thanks Roland - what a great way of incorporating those castles into a modern setting!

  3. Thank you for the concise and fascinating history and lovely photos of this remote tower.

    1. Thanks so much Pamela. Staying so close to the castle I was able to visit multiple times and must have taken close to fifty photos - it was a hard job deciding which ones to use. It's such a beautiful yet haunting place that it photographs really well. And the changing light changed the mood too. Glad you enjoyed the post :-)


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