Deganwy Castle on Deganwy travel guide
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Degannwy Castle is located above the village of Deganwy, on the east bank of the River Conwy estuary.

Maelgwyn built his castle on the Vardre in 520 AD - a wooden fortified royal residence, destroyed by fire after a lightning strike in 860 AD. Rebuilt twice, and finally destroyed by Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, in 1230 AD.

Like many other key medieval monuments in Wales, Degannwy Castle is barely known to the tens of thousands of visitors who pass by on their way to the picturesque seaside resort of Llandudno. Yet this hidden gem on the Vardre hillside in Deganwy has extraordinary stories to tell about the life and times of Wales’s native princes.

Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation, has been working to protect and to interpret the fragmentary and fragile remains of Deganwy castle. The early stages of the project included detailed archaeological and conservation surveys, followed by a challenging programme of masonry consolidation of the surviving walls on the twin hilltops of the Vardre.
In 2011 I visited the site while taking a walk along the Conwy estuary and there were three gentlemen, stonemasons and labourers I presume, who were working on the consolidation works. I asked their names, as previously I have been limited to the usual line “this castle was built by King Whatever” which was obviously untrue.

However they were not forthcoming, I felt they thought that it was inappropriate – maybe they would lose their jobs. Surely, Cadw cannot be that bad an employer, but then I suppose they are better placed than the original stonemasons who would lose their heads!

Copyright Frances Lynch 1995. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales. HMSO

The twin rocks of Degannwy have been the focus of settlement and warfare for more than a thousand years but because they have been fought over so ferociously, little survives for the modern visitor to see. However, though the castle walls have been reduced to little more than rubble, the hilltop is still an evocative place.

During the post-Roman period the hill became a place of major political importance, the court of Maelgwyn Gwynedd, the foremost historical figure of the 6th century in north Wales, patron of St Cybi and St Seiriol, but reviled as a drunken tyrant by the chronicler Gildas. Excavations on the western summit in 1961-66 confirmed occupation in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Documents show that the Norman, Robert of Rhuddlan, built a castle here in 1080, but nothing remains of it. It was later regained by the Welsh, and in 1191 Giraldus Cambrensis described it in the Itinerarium Cambriae as a "noble structure." However, it was soon to be destroyed as part of a scorched earth policy in the face of threats from King John.

When Llywelyn ap Iorwerth regained the castle in 1213 he rebuilt it in good style. Only a little of this castle survives today. In 1228 it is recorded that he imprisoned one of his sons here. After Llywelyn's death in 1240 his sons were not strong enough to resist the English advance and demolished the castle in anticipation of its loss. When the English arrived in 1245 they were forced to shiver in tents, so effective had been the Welsh destruction.

The campaign of Henry III saw the construction of walls and towers, the ruins of which survive today. The castle, with towers on each hilltop and a bailey on the saddle between, had an associated borough which received a charter in 1252. It was under construction from 1245-54 but was never completely finished.

As Henry became more embroiled with his own troubles, the power of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was growing. In 1263, after a long siege, he captured this outpost of English power and systematically demolished it. When Henry's son, Edward, advanced across this territory in 1283 he camped at the ruins of Degannwy, but recognizing the greater strategic value of a riverside site and also the political impact of a castle across the river Conwy, which up until then had been the frontier of the essential Gwynedd, he founded his new castle at Conwy. Degannwy was abandoned.

The ruins visible today belong mainly to Henry III's castle. The defences of the bailey - earth banks and ditches on the north side, the base of two D-shaped gatehouse towers, and the curtain wall hastily built by Edward I on the south - can still be recognized. The mass of fallen masonry near the base of the gatehouse is a relic of the demolition of 1263.

The western summit, which was the scene of all earlier occupation, has the more interesting remains. Having passed over the ruins of the gate to the bailey, turn left up a path on the line of the original access road, revetted and overlooked by a substantial round tower. It passes through the site of two narrow gates before turning up to the summit.

Henry 111’s wall continues along the west side of the summit, but just beyond the north-west corner it overlies the base of a round tower and a length of revetment wall which must belong to the castle of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Excavations showed that the earlier castle was better built than the later one and, to judge from a finely carved corbel (thought to portray Llywelyn himself), it was elegantly appointed. The quarry on the summit must have been the source of stone to build the castle; the wall foundations close are thought to date from 1215, while the range of foundations and the great tower on the south side date from 1247-8 (Henry 111).

The grass-grown foundations of a D-shaped tower (traditionally known as Mansell’s Tower) on the east summit also belong to the later phase. There is no easy path to the top. The curtain wall was never completed round the north side of the bailey, which retains an earth bank and ditch defence. Surface irregularities around the castle belong to the abandoned borough founded in 1242. Cultivation ridges can be seen, but no house foundations. Practice trenches from the First World War are visible on the south.





Review Deganwy Castle.

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