Belligerent Brothers and the Prisoner of Dolbadarn

Our pre-Christmas trail through the Snowdonian winter wonderland was still fresh in our minds when we returned to visit Dolbadarn Castle last week, not least because the weather conditions were strikingly similar and it was just as cold. But this time we were able to spend longer getting to know this unique Welsh stronghold whilst taking in the full splendour of its surroundings. Unlike Edward I’s formidable ‘iron ring’ of castles that took centre stage in my 2019 walking Quest, comparatively little is known about Dolbadarn, but in many ways the lack of information just adds to its charm and allure. Still, I was determined to find out as much as I could of this captivating ruin that sits peacefully in the foothills of Snowdon.

Dolbadarn Castle in its full glory.

Flanked by mountains and the two natural, glacially-formed lakes of Peris and Padarn, Dolbadarn castle is approached through a short uphill climb through a rocky, moss-clad woodland, making the reveal of its great tower as you emerge from the cover of trees all the more dramatic. But once up among the ruins it’s easy to see why this spot would have been chosen as the perfect location for a castle. It’s elevated position and rugged surroundings offer substantial natural defenses whilst providing an ideal location from which to keep watch over one of the most important routeways into the Snowdonian mountains.

The enchanting woodland that leads to the castle.

The great reveal: the first view of the castle site as you emerge from the wooded approach.

The creation of Dolbadarn is attributed to Llywelyn ab Iorweth, aka Llywelyn ‘the Great’ (d.1240), the heroic Welsh prince who, with guile and sword, ended some thirty years of dynastic conflict by thwarting his uncles and cousins to emerge as undisputed ruler of Gwynedd by 1201. That year he swore allegiance to King John who recognised his authority over all the lands he ruled, an honour enhanced in 1205 when the king awarded him the hand in marriage of his illegitimate daughter, Joan. Over the following five years, Gwynedd under the ambitious Llywelyn was to gain supremacy over the whole of native Wales.

By this time the Welsh had seen the benefits of building castles in stone like those of their Anglo-Norman Marcher neighbours. They’d watched as these powerful lords, appointed by the English crown to patrol and control the problematic borderlands, had constructed their Norman-style strongholds in order to assert their authority and keep the Welsh in check. Eventually the idea rubbed off on the Welsh rulers, who usually travelled between a series of undefended llysoedd, or royal courts, and they began building their own castles in stone. These tended to be smaller and less imposing than their Marcher counterparts as the Welsh rulers had less funds and resources to pour into their constructions, but nevertheless they functioned in much the same way. Dolbadarn, most likely built in the late 12th or early 13th century, was to be a vital link in Gwynedd’s defenses, its high visibility broadcasting a clear message of power and authority to everyone in sight.

What a setting! And what an effective statement of power.

Another way in which Welsh and English fortresses differed was that Welsh castles tended to be irregular in form, built to fit whatever rocky chunk of land they were to occupy. Dolbadarn is no exception, following the natural topographical boundary to look somewhat banana-shaped when viewed from above. It’s curtain walls, lingering now at just a few feet in height but believed to have once stood some 10-15 ft high, were made up of unmortared slate, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the impressive round keep, probably added by Llywelyn around 1230 when Dolbadarn became a local administrative centre. This is the finest surviving Welsh round tower, modelled on English examples such as the grand circular keep built by William Marshal at Pembroke Castle around 1200-01. By emulating the latest in English military design, Llywelyn was setting himself on a par with the powerful Anglo-Norman marcher lords, promoting himself as the main man of Wales and strutting his stuff on the wider political stage.  

Pembroke Castle’s great round keep. See the resemblance?
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The first floor entrance to Llywelyn’s great round keep, originally reached by a flight of timber steps that was later rebuilt in stone.

Even by the standards of Llywelyn’s day, Dolbadarn was a sophisticated building. The entrance doorway was protected by a portcullis that was lowered through the slot that can still be seen above the arch…

…and a spiral staircase that changes direction half way up.
The lower half leads upwards in an anticlockwise direction while this upper half becomes clockwise, so a sword-wielding enemy ascending to the battlements would be at a distinct disadvantage, unless he was left-handed!

But despite all Llywelyn’s hard work for the future of the dynasty, Gwynedd’s fortunes went downhill following his death in 1240. His heir, Dafydd, was drawn into a territorial conflict with his half-brother, Gruffudd and the English king Henry III, culminating in the loss of all his father’s lands east of Conwy. By 1246 both of Llywelyn’s sons had died, and with Dafydd having left no offspring, what was left of Gwynedd was to be divided between Gruffudd’s two eldest sons, Owain Goch (Owain ‘the red’) and Llywelyn. But these were tumultuous times, and in the ensuing land-grabbing fight Dolbadarn was, for one of these young men, to become not a princely residence, but a prison.

Looking across the low curtain wall towards Llyn Padarn and the village of Llanberis.

The outlines of the key rooms within the courtyard remain. The foundations of the large rectangular building that spans the northern end of the courtyard show the site of Llywelyn’s great hall.

Matters weren’t helped by a younger brother, Dafydd, wading into the conflict with his own agenda. Demanding a share in Gwynedd’s lands, he was supported by Owain, and in 1255 the three brothers met in battle at Bryn Derwin in north-west Wales. It was two against one, with Owain Goch and Dafydd pitted against the middle brother, Llywelyn. But the seemingly uneven contest didn’t faze the fearless Llywelyn, and a contemporary monastic chronicle tells us that:

‘Llywelyn and his men, trusting in God, awaited unafraid on Bryn Derwin the fierce coming of his brothers, and a mighty host along with them. And before the end of one hour Owain Goch was captured and Dafydd fled, after many of his host had been slain and others had been captured and the remainder had fled.’  

The triumphant brother was none other than Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, or Llywelyn ‘the Last’ as he is known to history, the final native Welsh prince who went on to take on Edward I in the fateful Welsh wars of my Castle Quest. The battle against his brothers at Bryn Derwin indicates just how determined Llywelyn was to rebuild and take on his grandfather’s status as chief ruler of Wales. Following his victory he seized Owain’s lands and set about reasserting his authority first over Gwynedd, and in turn over most of the rest of Wales. But rival brothers had to be dealt with, so Llywelyn imprisoned Owain, it’s believed within the great round tower of Dolbadarn, keeping him locked up here for over twenty-two years. That’s a long time by any standards, particularly during the middle ages when life was so short. Even with those amazing views and what would have been very comfortable accommodation, the tower was still Owain’s prison, and Llywelyn’s treatment of his brother earned him the scorn of a contemporary Welsh poet, who lamented that:

‘There is a hero in a tower, in long captivity,
A brave, kingly, sovereign hawk,
A hero whose loss I feel from among the living’…

…and he chastises Llywelyn:

‘Why does brother not forgive brother?
It pertains only to God to dispossess a man’.

The second floor of the keep – unusual in Welsh castles which usually have only two storeys – contains the principal chamber. This was well appointed, with an attractive fireplace to the left and four windows – three with window seats. This is the room that may well have housed poor Owain in his long captivity.

Owain’s experiences as Llywelyn’s long-term captive must have pretty much broken his spirit, because when he was finally released in 1277 following Llywelyn’s defeat in the first Welsh war, he withdrew  to his estate in north-west Wales and never seriously challenged his brother’s rule again, keeping largely out of the limelight until his death around 1282.

Of course, as we know from my Castle Quest, things didn’t work out well for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd either. In the same year Owain died, the younger, self-serving brother Dafydd kicked off the second Welsh war, during which Llywelyn was killed and Dafydd was executed at the hands of the conquering English king. ‘The Last’ had finally breathed his last, along with the dynasty of Gwynedd and the rule of the native Welsh princes.

Looking out from the roof over Llyn Peris and the lost lands of the Welsh princes…

As for Dolbadarn, King Edward didn’t bother with any updates as there would be no need. His magnificent new fortresses that were springing up across the region, all within a day’s march of one another, would be more than enough to dominate North Wales. Instead, Edward decided to dismantle Llywelyn’s stronghold, ordering that its roof timbers be removed and carted off for use in the construction of Caernarfon. But the place wasn’t completely abandoned. It continued to be used as a royal manor, and as such it merited some attention. Records show that repairs to various buildings were undertaken in 1303-4 by the sheriff of Caernarfon, and a new east building appeared around the same time.

The first floor accommodation of the keep, complete with its fireplace in the wall behind.

So Dolbadarn struggled on, even after it was finally deserted and left to slide into decay after the Middle Ages. As the centuries progressed the romantic appeal of the ruinous fortress in its starkly picturesque setting attracted the eye of travellers and artists alike. Among those who took a keen interest was a certain J M W Turner, whose moody and atmospheric painting of the castle was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800.

J M W Turner’s sublimely moody painting of Dolbadarn exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800.
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Our visit to Dolbadarn has inspired me to seek out many more Welsh castles. Smaller and more modest than their English counterparts they may be, but they’re certainly no less intriguing and beautiful. Indeed, like Dolbadarn many are situated amid the most breathtaking scenery, something they can often claim over English fortresses. And, as I discovered as we wandered around this special stronghold that saw out the two greatest rulers of medieval Wales, these tantalising relics from all those centuries ago have just as many stories to tell. The echoes of all the human dramas and dreams, the conflicts and no doubt the festivities that played out within them still linger deep in the fabric of their crumbling walls, and it will be a pleasure, if a challenge, to tease out those memories and try to do them justice. So Dolbadarn was a good start. I discovered just enough to keep us coming back again and again to this medieval gem set within some of the most inspiring scenery Snowdonia has to offer.