The fortress was possibly founded in the twelfth century, but the prefix ‘Den' probably refers to Dun, the early word for a fortification.  Further its situation on a crag would make the likelihood of it once having been a hill fort more certain.  In twelfth century royal documents Denbigh usually appeared as Tynbey.  There was certainly a fortress here by the early 1190s when it was attacked and taken from King Dafydd ab Owain in 1196 after various sieges beginning in 1194.  This would suggest that the castle had been built either under Dafydd's rule or that of his father, Owain Gwynedd (d.1170).  At the time of its fall the garrison was augmented by the troops of Richard the Lionheart, fighting under the Welsh lords of Whittington.  In 1211 Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth specifically quitclaimed Denbigh to King John, but he had regained it militarily by 1214.  Prince Llywelyn was found residing here in May 1230 when dealing with his enemy, William Braose of Builth.  Similarly in 1269 Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282) was residing here.

In 1277 Denbigh was granted by Edward I to Prince Dafydd ap Gruffydd (d.1283) and, after his rebellion, the castle underwent a month long siege by the massed forces of that king in 1282.  The fact it held out for a month strongly suggests it was no wooden castle standing on a hill.  It was then passed to Earl Henry Lacy of Lincoln (d.1311) on 16 October 1282.  Before that date the king spent the not too princely sum of some £22 ‘on the construction of the castle'.  The costs consisted of £19 18s for 1,200 clays, the bulk of the remainder being on 184 cartloads of timber from the nearby woods.  Such works may have been for scaffolding or reflooring the castle after it might have been damaged by fire, as had happened to so many other Welsh held castles in the war.

Earl Henry issued a charter for his borough of Denbigh by 1290, which again might suggest that something important was here before 1282.  Despite this, the earl lost both castle and town to rebel forces in 1294, but regained them, after losing a battle here, in 1295.  By 1305 the ‘old town' was largely abandoned with the bulk of the population now living outside the walls. The description of this as an 'old town' bears comparison with the 'old work' at Harlech.  Both would appear to have been Welsh fortifications.  Denbigh castle was finally heavily besieged in the Civil War and battered to pieces in 1646.

The original fortifications consisted of the entire rocky hill top that was protected by a wall a mile long and punctuated by D-shaped backless towers.  It would seem possible that the whole was envisioned by King Dafydd (d.1200), the brother in law of King Henry II of England.  At the same time as Denbigh may have been built, Dafydd's brother, Rhodri (d.1195), was also building castles in Wales, in his case 
Criccieth castle at the other end of Gwynedd and in opposition to Harlech.  This makes much more sense than the section making up the south and west sides of the castle being the work of Dafydd ap Gruffydd (d.1283) or Henry Lacy's pre 1293 operations which are described below.

Denbigh castle occupies the highest point of the rocky crag of Denbigh.  Its south and west sides consist of 4 sides forming an obtuse angle which is further defended by 4 boldly projecting D shaped turrets.  These run from the Bishop's Tower in the north, via the 2 towers either side of the Treasure house to the Postern Tower at the south-east.  The 2 southern towers have later stone backs added, but are blind on their ground floors.  The 2 western ones have a single loop facing west.  The upper storeys are all gone.  From the south-east or Postern Tower, a new, thicker wall ran in a semi-circle to the north-west of the Bishop's Tower.  Quite obviously this wall post dates the south and east curtain which continues as the town wall right around the crag.  The idea that Earl Henry (d.1311) first built the entire mile long enceinte in 1278 to 1281 and then the main castle after 1283 seems a poor guess in the face of the earl building the current polygonal towered castle after 1278 in the corner of the Welsh dun.
  To the south of the Postern Tower is a typical spear defended Welsh long barbican which bears comparison with the ones at Castell Carreg Cennen and Castell Y Bere.  This structure has 3 dog-legs against Carreg Cennen's 2.  On the east side of the enceinte, under the Bishop's Tower, is a convoluted postern of ingenious design.

The earl's Edwardian fortress has a unique 3-towered gatehouse, while the 3 towers of the enceinte mirror the work at Caernarfon which was built by Edward I (d.1307) and Edward II (abdicated 1327).  Built around the walls of the enceinte were the buildings of the castle, the hall and 'green chamber' to the east, the treasure house to the south and other buildings along the west and north walls.

The Welsh-built town walls, most likely built by King Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd (1170-1200/3), are spectacular and can still be walked for half their length.  Commencing at the Red Tower of Denbigh castle the walls ran north to the rectangular twin towered Exchequer gate.  This has been largely destroyed.  From here the wall swang north-west and then north again before turning north-east and running to the Burgess Gate.  This ashlar built twin towered gatehouse is quite obviously of a different built to the rubble town walls.  The building generally has shoulder headed and triangular topped apertures which point to a late thirteenth or fourteenth century origin.  The gateway is also well equipped with murder holes and portcullises.  From here the town wall followed the contours of the hill east to a D shaped tower from where it ran on to the south-east to the rectangular Countess Tower.  From here it again followed the contours of the crag back towards the castle where it joined the Postern Tower after passing through a similar D shaped tower which emphasises the unity of the town walls and the castle south and west walls.  When the earl of Lincoln took over the castle in 1282 he added the polygonal Goblin Tower and associated structures to the east end of the wall to bring another water source within the defences.  This matches the towers of the north and east of the castle.  This area was bombarded into submission in the Civil War.

Why not join me at other Lost Welsh Castles next Spring?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry