The Early Castles of Gwynedd

Looking at the early Norman history of North Wales we have the fact that Robert Rhuddlan in 1086 had been paying the king £40 per year for North Wales, in the same manner as Rhys ap Tewdwr paid £40 for South Wales.  Although this has been argued as ‘a speculative grant' by the king, there can really be no doubt that such men would not pay such enormous sums per annum for nothing but a vague promise.  Certainly the historical and archaeological evidence (what there is of it) supports Robert's overlordship of North Wales from the late 1070s until his death in 1093.  Similarly Rhys ap Tewdwr had begun his rule in Deheubarth after 1078 and continued until his death some months before Robert in 1093.  Both men are liable to have been paying the Crown their money rent for their Welsh fees during this period.

The archaeological demonstration for Robert Rhuddlan being in North Wales comes from the evidence of castle remains - in this case low-lying Norman motte and baileys.  If we look for mottes commanding river crossings - the traditional early Norman form of castle - we find ‘eleventh century' Norman castles that we have historical evidence for at Rhuddlan, Degannwy (a reused Welsh hill site commanding the Afon Conwy and not a real motte at all), Aberlleiniog (a massive mound of uncertain provenance) and Caernarfon (an alleged motte that Victorian excavation proved to be the remains of a lime kiln turfed over and not a motte at all).  To this list can be added a second group for which we have no historical evidence, but where physical remains and geography make a Norman identification likely.  These are Aber (possibly referred to as Bangor in 1094), Nefyn, Dolbenmaen, Dinas Emrys (again not a real motte), Dolwyddelan I and Pentre Isaf, near Llangernyw.  To this group can be added Tomen y Mur which is a high lying site, in this case being a reused Roman fort that carries a motte on its summit.  King Henry I (1100-35) was certainly here in 1114 and William II (1087-1100) may have visited in 1098.  In short, all of Gwynedd and the western Perfeddwlad were encompassed by Norman mottes which substantiate the historical evidence for Norman occupation as is seen at the time of the Domesday Book.

If we look at castles that are likely to be Welsh foundations we get some interesting comparisons.  There is evidence before 1200 of Welsh occupied ‘Norman' fortresses at Rhuddlan (though quite where is another matter), Degannwy, Dinas Emrys and Caernarfon, while new Welsh fortresses had been built in the west at Cymer, Cynfal, Deudraeth, Garn Fadryn and possibly Tal y Cafn  and Pentrefoelas.  Beyond this we are in the world of historical speculation.  What we can state with certainty is that Aber motte and bailey castle shows no resemblance to the two Welsh built castles of Deudraeth and Garn Fadryn.  Both these are masonry structures lying on rocky crags and ostensibly founded in the 1180s.  The site at Caernarfon is apparently gone, while both Rhuddlan and Degannwy have no certain remains from this period.  It is a fair supposition that the site known as Rhuddlan Twthill never received stone components, while even its existence as a castle is suspect judging from the remains.  Cymer was a small motte on a promontory and was destroyed in 1116.  The site has a stone built eighteenth century house upon it.  Whether this lies on twelfth century castle foundations is impossible to say without excavation.  Cynfal was a motte surrounded by a rock cut ditch and surmounted by a wooden tower that was burned down in 1147.  Tal y Cafn and Pentrefoelas were both apparently abarrant motte and bailey castles occupied and possibly built by Dafydd ab Owain (d.1200/03) and destroyed in the late twelfth century by his nephews.

The main sites without indications of masonry defences in the supposed Welsh group of castles are Aberlleiniog, Nefyn and Rhuddlan Twthill.  However, Aberlleiniog has a folly on its summit which may disguise or obliterate any early structure, Nefyn is an alleged motte which has not been excavated, but has been mutilated almost to the point of extinction, while Rhuddlan Twthill has not been excavated and the sandy mound looks an unlikely structure to have held up a wooden keep.  The pre-Edwardian castle of Caernarfon is unknown, while Leland stated in the 1530s that the old castle had fallen into the Seiont saltwater haven.  The identification of its site as being underneath the current Edwardian structure is therefore at best debatable and based on no evidence, historical or archaeological - especially when excavation and clearances make it reasonably certain that Flint, Conway and Beaumaris were all built on virgin sites.

Of the masonry Norman castles Degannwy is so ruined that nothing can usefully be said apart from the round turret and wall to the north are reckoned, without evidence, to be Welsh, but could just as easily be Norman.  A round keep and hall of the 1240s were excavated at the other end of the crag to this.  Dolbenmaen motte looks as if it once supported a stone keep, while Aber castle motte most certainly did.  Both have fragments of wall core protruding from the motte tops.  Dolwyddelan I (Tomen castell) and Dinas Emrys both have traces of rectangular towers on their summits and both most likely date to the tenure of Robert Rhuddlan and Earl Hugh of Chester in the period before 1094 - although there is an unlikely chance that both are Welsh built post 1100.  The motte at Tomen y Mur contains much good quality probably Roman stonework and it is highly possible that this once consisted of a Norman stone building that has collapsed.  A similar ‘motte' made of a collapsed tower exists at the Welsh built Prysor.  The excavated rectangular tower at Dinas Emrys was previously thought to have been a motte, which again shows the dangers of judging a site without excavation.  The motte at Pentre Isaf is heavily overgrown although there are some slight indications that stonework once crowned this feature.

The fragments of wall core projecting from the periphery of the summit of Aber motte towards the south and west, makes it all but certain that there was originally a small shell keep or large round tower here.  There is a tradition grown up that Normans did not build round towers.  This is simply a theory and unproven in scientific terms.  The Romans had round towers as too did the Anglo Saxons and Normans.  However, it was certainly less usual for the Normans to build round towers, but that does not exclude them from constructing the masonry on the mottes at Aber and Dolbenmaen.  Indeed it is far from certain that such structures were round and not small polygonal shell keeps of a common early variety.  That the bailey of Aber is virtually obliterated may suggest that it has been demolished in antiquity.  Certainly its position to the north is quite demonstrable where no housing has been built upon the site.

To sum up, there seems little doubt from the current evidence that Aber motte and bailey castle on the valley bottom started life as a Norman motte and bailey castle built in the decade before 1086.  It was then destroyed during the uprising of 1094 when all the castles of Gwynedd succumbed, the fall of some of which are described in great detail in the History of Gruffydd ap Cynan.  The castle then seems to have lain abandoned.  It has then been claimed that after a hundred years a mansion was built next to the motte and that this was the palace of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (d.1240).  This claim has to be examined against the evidence of what the excavations revealed and what the documentary evidence actually states.

Garth Celyn
In November 1282 Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd dated a letter sent to the archbishop of Canterbury at Garth Celyn.  This place in Aber parish has long been known to have been a major seat of the princes of Gwynedd.  Since the 1990s controversy has grown up over where that site was.  The evidence as suggested by site visits and research of the original documentation - not mere antiquarian opinions - has been summerised elsewhere.  The modern condenter to be the site of the llys of the princes of Wales is in the bailey of Aber castle.  Concerning this the following should be noted.

The site, locally known as the Mwd - and not Ty'n y Mwd - a name fabricated from a nearby twentieth century house name and disingenuously translated to the castle site for the 1993 excavation report, GAT 1092 - appears a typical lowland Norman castle site.  The buildings excavated in its southern bailey show no indication of a palatial residence, but of buildings that might be found in a castle together with a post military industrial complex.  As a castle site Aber motte and bailey makes perfect sense - a fortress to garrison 20 or 30 troops as well as followers to command the crossing of the river and dominate Bangor - just 6 miles or an hour away by horseback at a brisk pace.  It is a further 8 miles from Aber to Caernarfon - 15 miles being a reasonable distance to place between fortresses in a Norman zone of conquest - Degannwy being only 8 miles from Aber as the crow flies, but including a dangerous mountain pass and treacherous crossing of the Afon Conwy which could add several miles.  In short the earthworks and building traces are all that might be expected for a castle.  Could then the ‘Norman' castle have been converted into the palace or llys of the Welsh princes?

The modern idea that the buildings excavated would have been a royal llys used by the Gwynedd royal family, married 3 times into the family of the Plantagenets of England and France, simply does not hold true.  The small-scale building in the bailey, with an industrial complex that cuts through it[!], simply could not accommodate the royal family and court officers that we know existed and attended the Welsh princes.  There would be the prince, his princess and the royal children, plus their numerous body attendants.  There would be 24 officers, 16 for the prince and 8 for the princess.  The most important of these would be the captain of the household troops (who numbered 200 strong in 1258) and the royal priest - and we know that there was an important free royal chapel at Garth Celyn llys because the king makes note of it in the fourteenth century - stewards, falconers, justices, grooms and the chamberlain.  Plus all of these people would have had their own attendants.  When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd paid a visit to the abbot of Basingwerk in the 1260s the abbot complained that the prince came with over 200 people.  This is when he was on the move and not resident at his own primary llys when such a figure could be expected to be higher with children and full time servants as well as visiting uchelwyr.  Aber castle bailey simply does not have room for such an entourage.  The building in the bailey is claimed to be the royal Ty Hir mentioned in fourteenth century documents.  How can this be a long house when it is not long by any stretch of the imagination?  However the masonry that can still be distinguished built into the house now known as Pen y Bryn is obviously a long building and therefore could be classified as a Ty Hir.  The bailey site has revealed no cut masonry - yet cut masonry has been found at Rhosyr and Pen y Bryn and highly decorative freestone masonry has been uncovered at Degannwy, Criccieth and Castell y Bere.  All there is on the castle bailey at Aber are river boulders laid in clay, with part of what appears to be the fortress castle wall laid in a poor quality lime binder.

Finally there is the word Garth.  This has been stated, solely when related to Garth Celyn, to mean enclosure.  No such usage of the word is recorded in medieval Wales as a placename.  However Garth is commonly found throughout Wales and is universally applied to a jutting spur coming out from a line of hills.  Aber castle lies on no Garth.  The house of Pen y Bryn lies on just such a spur which is marked on the oldest tythe maps as Garth Celyn - the projecting spur of Celyn.  In short all the evidence points to the enclosure on the hill above Aber on the east side of the river as being Garth Celyn and the motte and bailey in the valley on the west side of the river as being the late eleventh century ‘Norman' castle, whose bailey was later used for industrial purposes.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry

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