Holt Castle, or Castle Lion, Denbighshire
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Holt Castle is one of those melancholic ruins with which the lover of ancient sites is so familiar: a place of great historic importance and fascinating architectural form yet which today is but a shadow of its former self. But appearances are deceptive, especially in this case...
Situated on the banks of the River Dee, just inside Wales on the opposite bank to the Cheshire village of Farndon, Holt was begun by Edward I in 1277 and was possibly designed by the Master of the King’s Works, James of St George.
It was granted to John de Warenne in 1282 for completion by him, following the death of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the same year. Although the connection with James of St George is moot, it does seem likely given the resultant design.
The castle which was to emerge was a spectacular pentagonal architectural statement. In the manner of Conwy castle, it was fashioned from the native rock on which it lay, minimising transport costs and maximising efficiency of building. Quarrying the natural sandstone of the valley, the masons were able to create an enormous rock cut defensive “moat” around his castle, using the quarried rock to form the castle itself.
The method was ingenious, leaving a central pentagonal block of sandstone to form a robust, supportive core of the building. Against this, numerous rooms and towers were constructed to form a solid, if compact, castle. However, although its footprint was relatively small (compared to Edward I’s great castles elsewhere in Wales), it was a castle of height and aesthetic substance which in many ways was years ahead of its time.
Plan and layout of Holt Castle
In its pentagonal plan we are reminded of the remains of the hexagonal Bolingbroke castle in Lincolnshire. Unlike Bolingbroke, which impressed with selected stonework being picked out to create a decorated finish in the manner of the castle at Denbigh, Holt was to impress by nature of its height relative to its area. In many ways, it resembled the castle as magical entity so defined in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.
Although little remains today, from plans and drawings of it which survive from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we know that this was a building to impress. The outer curtain wall was constructed some 20 feet or so away from the edge of the rock, enabling cellars and rooms to be created in the spaces between. There were to rise beyond the courtyard level into a rich suite of halls and chambers.
At four of the five corners was a stout round tower, capped with its own bartizan; the fifth corner, nearest the river, was also graced with a square addition, thought to have been the water gate to the Dee. Some plans show the entire fifth tower to be square, others to show it as a projection from the round tower.
Certainly, a painting in the collection of the National Library of Wales appears to show the remains of a round tower with a small stump of the possible projection towards the river Dee; this appears to be corroborated by drawings of 1562 in the British Library. Thomas Pennant, writing in 1773, talks of a quay which in dry weather can still be seen in the Dee at this point.
A contemporary view
Much of our knowledge of the castle today stems from plans and drawings made of Holt in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including the famous view created by Norden in c.1620 (left).
Access to the castle was gained first via an outer square entrance tower before the visitor entered via an archway flanked by two of the castle’s five towers. In the manner of Conwy and Chirk castles, the main entrance was through one of the castle’s walls rather than a dedicated gatehouse.
The old drawings also show that before passing through the main doorway, the visitor would have seen a carved lion above the entrance, much in the way that statues were placed above the entrance at Denbigh or Caernarfon, or coats of arms above that at Sheriff Hutton (Yorkshire).
Why the lion?
Some have suggested that the placing of the lion above the gate is the reason for the castle being known variously as “Castle Lion”, Castell Lyon(s) or Chastellion although the animal's significance is unclear. Certainly, de Warenne’s own arms were those of a chequerboard, as can be seen in the nearby church of St Chad, where the family arms appear on the font and elsewhere.
It is possible the name relates to nickname of John's eldest son, William, or that it may reflect a trend in naming castles after animals, such as Chateau Gaillard (Wolf’s castle) in France. Another possibility is that the castle’s lion sculpture was added later and reflects the birthplace the eighth earl’s wife, Chatillion-sur-Saone.
Entering the castle
Today, standing on the castle's sandstone boss, it is hard to imagine the scene which once impressed itself on the visitor.
On passing through the gateway, guests would have been confronted with a small courtyard surrounded by a variety of buildings including a kitchen and a hall. An inventory of 1485 provides details of 40 rooms and chambers including facilities for candle-making, a porter's lodge, numerous bedrooms, a "great chamber" and a "large chamber", no doubt for private audiences.
The impression would have been similar to entering the inner, or eastern, ward of Conwy castle today. Soaring above the courtyard and buildings, themselves imposing and impressive, the towers with their stair tower bartizans would have further provided an overwhelming and impressive visual statement to the visitor.
The puzzle of the towers
The towers themselves are subject to conjecture. The drawing of 1562 suggest a series of four stringwork courses in the manner of a fourteenth century castle such as Donnington in Berkshire; a later print, possibly derived from the same drawing, suggests three string courses. Either way, the feature is distinctive enough to have been recorded - but what was it?
If what is depicted is indeed an example of architectural stringwork, the castle would have been well ahead of its time; the drawing could be misleading. A possibility is that the earlier drawing may reflect the use of coloured bands of a varying stone in the manner of Edward’s masterpiece at Caernarfon. Certainly no other castles of James of St George in Wales carry a stringwork motif in this manner.
Equally, there is some confusion concerning the design of the towers at the base. The drawing of 1562 (and indeed Norden’s dramatic reconstruction of c.1620 which may be based upon it) seem to show the towers based on rounded platforms.
However, a study of the engraving made by the Buck brothers (right) of c.1750 suggests that these platforms may indeed have been splayed bases to the tower (known as a batter or talus). This is a more likely interpretation given the nature of which the castle was finally demolished and robbed out.
The contemporary landscape of the castle
Holt castle was not built in isolation. Instead it was part of a planned landscape which included an attached mediaeval borough, the street plan to which still survives, an outer "bailey" and a deer park.
The outer ward is perhaps best described as an enclosed area on the edge of the cliff, reached before entering the main gatehouse. Aerial photographs taken in the 1940s show the outline of the bailey's extremities. The deer park, located to the south of the castle, was small by the standards of the day but is still visible today.
The mediaeval bridge across the Dee into Cheshire (which still survives and dates from the fourteenth century) was also strongly fortified. However, its gatehouse, seen in an eighteenth century painting, has long since disappeared.
(Please see the links at the end of the article to see photographs outlining these features.)
Holt castle today
During the English Civil War, Holt castle was to change hands between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians until, in 1647 it was ordered to be slighted. Between 1675 and 1683, Sir Thomas Grosvenor demolished the castle and used the masonry to build his hall at Eaton, leaving behind the few remains seen in the Buck print; much of which have long since disappeared.
Over the many years since, the castle succumbed to the ravages of time, gradually becoming overgrown with brambles and undergrowth; certainly this was my first experience when visiting in 1980 and again in the early 2000s.
However, today the castle ruins have been consolidated and are fully accessible, complemented by an excellent series of interpretive panels. It is particularly fascinating to see the inner courses of the courtyard exposed once more, including the steps cut down into what would have been cellars of the ranges which surrounded the courtyard.
Although the castle is now surmounted by a series of mandatory metal fences to protect the visitor from injury, it is pleasing notwithstanding to be able to visit Holt castle properly and imagine for yourself just how grand this diminutive castle must once have seemed.
A veritable Conwy by the banks of the Dee and a one time treasure house for none other than Richard II, Holt castle is, despite its humble remains, an ancient monument which still inspires the visitor today.
Coflein listing here
Castle Studies Trust Visual Digital reconstruction here
Wrexham Council history page for Holt (including interesting photographs here
James Basire etching from the National Library of Wales (based on that by the Buck brothers 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.
You can support this book (jacket shown right) as a named patron here