Rhuddlan was a site of importance since at least the eighth century with a battle being fought here in 796.  By the eleventh
century it was a substantial llys of the Welsh princes with an attached port of some description.  It later became the caput of the Breton adventurer Robert Rhuddlan (d.1093) who built a castle here by 1075.  By 1188 this had been transformed into the substantial and palatial caput of Gwynedd under King Dafydd ab Owain (d.1200).  Traditionally the current remains of a masonry castle are said to have been established solely by Edward I in 1276.  This alleged movement from the nearby Twt Hill to the current site has never been proved, while the borough and castle site could well have been occupied since the earliest days.  Certainly the lower level of the castle inner ward consists of Old Red Sandstone and is distinctly different from the masonry above. The castle was slighted in 1648 after a long civil war siege.

The fortress is based on a quadrilateral inner ward, 140' square.  In 1283 Queen Eleanor had a garden laid out here around the well.  The inner ward has a round tower at two corners, with powerful twin towered gatehouses at the opposite two ends.  These gatehouse are quite common in the British Isles, although the Rhuddlan versions have deeper inner gateways. Various English examples survive at
BeestonBungay, Clifford, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington.  In Wales they exist at Caerphilly, Carmarthen, Chepstow, Criccieth, Degannwy, Dinas Bran, Llawhaden, Neath, Oystermouth, PowisTinboeth 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.  The inner ward was further defended by ground floor crossbow loops.  Such loops also appear at possibly Adare and certainly Dunamase in Ireland as well as at Beaumaris, Flint and Grosmont in Wales and in the early work at Goodrich and the 1220s work at Rochester in England as well as Aguilar in France.  

At Rhuddlan the enceinte is set within a roughly concentric outer enclosure with massed defences on the non-river side.  This side is also bounded by a broad stone-revetted ditch commanded by banks of crossbow loops in the outer ward curtain.  The ditch is also penetrated by turrets and sallyports leading from the outer ward.  In this respect the castle is a veritable killing machine, designed not so much to hold ground, but to entice an enemy to attack it and be destroyed.  This is achieved by luring the attackers to cross an open glacis under fire from the walls.  As they advanced over the glacis a long, slow decline began towards the ditch edge which eventually led to a stone lined 12' drop.  Once anyone was in the ditch they were therefore trapped and the crossbows and knights from the sallyports would have ensured that there were no survivors.  Rhuddlan is possibly the only castle in the world that was designed to destroy armies.  Such a killing machine would have needed thousands of crossbow bolts and these could be readily resupplied to the arblasters via a fortified dock cum port on the riverside.  This was commanded by a tall, square tower.  Further, two miles of the River Clwyd were diverted to supply the castle in the late 1270s - one of the great engineering feats of the era.

Edward's army killing machine was only put to the test once, when Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd attacked the castle in the spring of 1282 with troops and trebuchets.  The attack failed, but at what cost in lives is unknown.  Llywleyn's death in December 1282 made the castle largely obsolete and it played little part in later wars.  In 1645 the Parliamentarian attackers refused to assault the castle, and instead starved it out.

For more detailed descriptions of the castle see Archaeologia Cambrensis:

Why not join me at Rhuddlan and other British castles this October?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry