Degannwy Castle - a stronghold brought to ruin by revenge
Degannwy (or Deganwy) Castle in the historic county of Caernarfonshire, was once one of the major fortresses of North Wales, comprising two powerful fortified hilltops joined by walls to contain an interlinking bailey. Today, little remains of this powerful castle although, thanks to some recent consolidation work by Cadw, the visitor can gain a strong impression of what once stood here.
History of Degannwy Castle
Originally a palace-fortress of the Welsh, Robert of Rhuddlan built his first Norman stronghold here as an act of political and military assertion. Upon his death in 1088, it was fought over by the princes of North Wales and the earls of Chester and was captured and destroyed on more than one occasion as each side sought control of this mighty stronghold.
Llewelyn Fawr took control of the castle in 1213 and rebuilt it but, following his death in 1240, Henry III secured the site for the English in reparation for expenses incurred by him in his Welsh ventures against Llewelyn’s son Dafydd. By this time, the site had become ruinous; Henry ordered it to be rebuilt in March 1244 with the work being overseen by the justiciar of Chester.
Dafydd’s continued fighting against Henry threatened to isolate the workforce; in 1245 the king himself marched as far as Degannwy and camped there for at least two months while the castle was begun. Although he himself withdrew in October of that year, construction work was to continue under the justiciar’s direction for a further 6-7 years.
It is known that the principal residence, that on the taller western hill-top, was not begun until 1247 and was still under construction two years later. This, and the eastern Mansel’s tower (named after John Mansel who took part in the king’s expedition), were initially linked together by two wooden palisades.
In 1249, the king ordered the palisades to be replaced by walls; the following year this instruction also included the construction of two gateways in these walls, each flanked by twin towers, not unlike those at Beeston castle in Cheshire.
It is unclear whether these instructions were fully carried out. The History of the Kings Works tells us that the accounts in the Pipe Roll “refer to the building of only one gateway, and to the walling of only half of the bailey, and it is doubtful whether more than this was ever done, for a survey of the existing remains shows that [the bailey’s] defences on the north side apparently consisted of no more than a bank and ditch”.
In 1254, Henry granted the castle to his son, the future Edward I, visiting the castle once more in 1257. In 1263, the garrison of the castle was starved into surrender by the welsh under Llewelyn ap Gruffydd who ordered it to be destroyed as an act of petulance and revenge. This work was undertaken with such brutal thoroughness that little today now remains above ground.
Description of the ruins
Degannwy can scarcely be described as a ruin as so little remains of what was once there, making the slightings carried out elsewhere under Oliver Cromwell seem like child’s play in comparison. Leland himself during his tour of Britain described the castle back then as being in “great ruin”; even if more survived than today it cannot have been substantial.
The castle is built upon a volcanic plug, perhaps 350 feet or more above sea level, with an accompanying isolated plain showing further signs of human habitation. The two most prominent outcrops above this plain house (to the west) a large fortified enclosure and (to the east) the footings of the Mansel tower.
Today, the castle can be approached from a number of directions. I chose to enter through the remains of the twin-towered gatehouse on the southern side. It is still possible to see from the foundations where the gatehouse once stood; a large section of wall, overturned by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd’s forces, still stands as a striking reminder of the violence once exacted here.
Turning left from the gatehouse, a steep climb takes us along a walkway (once walled) up to the main castle on its outcrop. It is possible that there was a barbican, or series of gateways, here which formed the original entrance to the castle although little now remains.
At the top of the outcrop, the view is dramatic (including over towards Edward I’s great castle at Conwy, which replaced Degannwy in significance and role). It is here that we see (on the southern side) the vestigial remnants of what once was the great hall and a tower. In the centre of the outcrop is a large quarry which may have served as some form of cistern, although I am told the geology would have been unsuitable for this purpose.
Around the perimeter of the outcrop, particularly on the northern side, are the remains of a tower, some latrine chutes and a substantial piece of revetment, perhaps 30 feet high. The tower on this side reminds the visitor of those at Beeston in Cheshire.
Descending the outcrop at its NE, we descend to the bailey between the two outcrops; here, on the northern side is a huge ditch and an accompanying rampart which was intended to have carried a wall but which (as we saw above) is more likely to have been left palisaded.
Here too is the stump of the northern bailey gatehouse. It is unclear whether this was ever completed; the survival of a draw-bar slot within its thickness is confusing, suggesting that the entrance may have been at right angles to the ditch. It is thought that the upland town of mediaeval Degannwy may once have stood here; certainly there are a series of earth features which demand some form of investigation.
Walking along the ditch, we follow it to the summit of the second outcrop on which stood the Mansell tower. Little remains save its foundations and a possible cross wall; from here we descend to the main twin towered-gatehouse we entered by.
Degannwy castle is that most strange of places: a centre of great significance of which little now remains. From Welsh palace to mighty Henrican stronghold and then to ruin and rubble. Only the gorse, the rocks and the mighty blowing wind now live to tell the tales of the folk who once worked, fought and even died here centuries ago.
Coflein listing here
Dextra Visual Digital reconstruction here
About the author
Michael Smith is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in 2018; he is currently translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke which publishes in September 2020.
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