Dinas Bran

That the castle might be early is suggested by the name of one of its lords, Owain, who was known during the Anarchy as Owain de la Tour - Owain of the tower.  This has been suggested as the Tower of London, but surely a prince of Powys would more likely take his name from the great tower keep he owned high above Llangollen and visible into the Shropshire plains - Owain of Dinas Bran Tower.

Other than this suggestion, the history of Dinas Bran is unfortunately particularly blank until the late thirteenth century.  It was first mentioned as Dynasbrin on 21 December 1270 when the 4 princes of Powys gathered there to dower their mother, Emma Audley (d.1278+), the widow of Prince Gruffydd Maelor ap Madog (d.1269).  Madog ap Gruffydd the eldest of the princes died before December 1277.  His next brothers, Llywelyn and Owain, were killed in the war of 1282, while the sole survivor, Gruffydd, went on to be ancestor of Owain Glyndwr (d.1415+).  On 12 April 1277 Madog ap Gruffydd came to an agreement with the earl of Warwick and Dafydd ap Gruffydd at Chester.  By this Madog and Dafydd agreed to decide the fate of Hope lordship by trail by a jury of 12 Welsh and 12 Chester men.  They also decided to dismember what remained of the kingdom of Powys amongst the four brothers, though they were all to share a quarter of Dinas Bran castle.  Obviously some did not agree with this agreement.  On 10 May 1277, after he and Roger Mortimer (d.1282) had taken Dolforwyn castle, Earl Henry Lacy of Lincoln reported that he had come to attack Castell Dinas Bran (Deneisbran).  However, that same day at Vespers the garrison had fired the castle.  On 12 May Henry himself arrived at the site and found that the house of the castle had all been burned, but that the tower and the walls were still intact.  He therefore recommended its repair and garrisoning as he reckoned that 'the castle was good and strong' and that 'there was no stronger in Wales or England'.  It would appear that this was not done and the castle was allowed to fall in disrepair and ruin.  This fate quite obviously met other castles, viz. Harlech and Criccieth, in the war of 1282/83.  The ruin of the castle remained with the king until 7 October 1282 when 'Dynasbran castle which was in the king's hands at the commencement of the present war in Wales' was granted to Earl John Warenne of Surrey.  The castle remained a ruin and the earl went on to build Holt castle as its replacement.  As no ditching was done by King Edward while he held the ruin, 1277-82, it seems logical that the great ditch must be Welsh work.

Dinas Bran began life as a bow shaped hill fort on a peak commanding the River Dee and ended its life in 1277 as a castle of the princes of Powys.  Entrance to this was gained from the SW via an inturned entrance.  Along its northern side a castle was built over a millennium and a half after the major hill fort building period, roughly 800-300 BC.  The fort had a single rampart and ditch except to the east where there is a short section of double rampart between the northern hillside and the modern track that winds its way up from the saddle to the castle.  Between here and the castle counterscarp low light shows up a grid pattern which presumably mark terraces or even plough strips.  As it is so regular it probably suggests a medieval settlement of some description.

The castle was constructed at the NW end of the straight side of the fort and initially consisted of a large rectangular tower, 60'x50', on the highest rocky point, slightly west of the centre of the hillfort.  The only similarly positioned tower keep on a hillfort would appear to be Bwlch y Dinas which is 60'x40'.  Similar
, but much smaller, rectangular towers on crags exist at Criccieth, Dinas Emrys, Dolwyddelan I, Dolwyddelan II and Dolforwyn.  The large tower at Dinas Bran is almost certainly the first medieval building built upon the site, as can be seen by the adjoining walls to the bailey butting onto it.  The tower sits upon a crag that has been artificially steepened when a rock cut ditch was dug around it to N, E&S.  This ditch runs from half way around the north straight front of the hill fort to the west side.  This ditch follows the line of the bailey and the projecting D shaped tower half way down the ward.  As the masonry of the castle seems to come from the rock cut ditch it makes sense that the two are contemporary as too does the way in which the ditch curves around the D shaped tower.  It has therefore been argued that the castle is pretty much one build.  However, this does not preclude the tower being built first and then ditched, or possibly having its ditch deepened when the castle bailey was built and the ditch on that side dug.  The keep ditch and the bailey ditch do not need to be contemporary, although it appears highly likely that the keep ditch was deepened when the bailey ditch was dug.  The countersarp, especially to the vulnerable east appears to have been walled in stone judging by the amount of rubble lying around here.

The bailey is oblong and runs west from the keep, from which it is separated by a fine rock cut ditch.  The ward is entered via an elongated early twin towered gatehouse commanded by the keep.  There must have been a fine bridge across the imposing ditch to reach it.  The junction of the gatehouse with the curtains shows that they were built simmultaneously, although the thick eastern curtain wall running up to the keep is thicker than all the other curtains and joins the south gatetower at an unusual angle. Various similar
English examples survive at Beeston, Bungay, Clifford, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington.  In Wales they exist at Caerphilly, Carmarthen, Chepstow, Criccieth, Degannwy, Llawhaden, Neath, Oystermouth, Powis, Rhuddlan, Tinboeth and White Castle.  In Scotland they can be found at Kildrummy and Urquhart and finally elsewhere in Ireland at Carrickfergus, Castle Roche, Limerick and Roscommon.  

Within the bailey there is a residential D shaped tower of Ewloe, Carndochan and Y Bere style.  This was of at least two storeys and the ground floor was residential with a fireplace.  Standing next to the D shaped tower was a hall which lay between it and the keep ditch on the sunny south side of the castle.  It's shattered windows still stare forlornly out over Llangollen.  Other buildings lay along the west and north curtains and there was a postern to the SW.  What is outstanding about the castle is the number of garderobes.  As this was purely a Welsh castle it must question the theory that the Welsh were backward in castle building, ditching and sanitation.

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


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry