One of a number of fortifications built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the early thirteenth century, Dolwyddelan Castle controlled the road south from Conwy. Captured by English forces during the Second War of Welsh Independence, it was significantly expanded and garrisoned as part of Edward I's encirclement of Snowdonia.
Dolwyddelan Castle was allegedly the birthplace of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) around 1170. If so it was in a structure that pre-dated the ruined castle seen today for this was built by Llywelyn himself between 1210 and 1240. Overlooking the Lledr valley, it was positioned upon a rocky ridge forming part of the Moel Siabod mountain range and was in close proximity to the road south from Conwy. The two storey Keep was constructed first and was possibly intended to be a standalone fortification. However, soon after the stone curtain was added around the summit of the ridge. Dry ditches were cut out of the rock to augment the precipitous natural slopes. A single entrance, accessed via a timber bridge, provided access.
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was the son of Iorwerth Drwyndwn whose family had made Gwynedd - a region centred on North West Wales including Anglesey and Snowdonia - the pre-eminent Welsh Kingdom. However inheritance traditions meant that, unlike the Norman system where the eldest male son took all, Welsh custom saw titles and properties split between all sons. This inevitably led to a dilution of power and internal conflict that was all too often exploited by the Normans. Llywelyn was no different and it took him time to secure his full inheritance but by the early thirteenth century he had re-established the power of Gwynedd. His increased influence brought him into conflict with King John who invaded and swept through Wales. Yet this demonstration of Anglo-Norman power ultimately helped unite the Welsh Princes under his rule whilst King John himself became embroiled in internal troubles in England. Free from external influence, Llywelyn sought to cement his power by building a number of castles including Castell-y-Bere, Deganwy, Dolbadarn castles and Dolwyddelan itself.
The death of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1240 saw the native Welsh lose influence. Henry III sought to assert his authority and at the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) stripped Gwynedd of control of all lands to the east of Conwy. By 1255 though Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had defeated his opponents and at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) was recognised by English and Welsh alike as overlord of Wales. However when Edward I became King of England in 1272, relations with Llywelyn soon broke down in particular over his failure to pay homage to Edward. This led to the First War of Welsh Independence which was fought between 1276-77 but Dolwyddelan's remote location, in the heart of the native Welsh stronghold of Snowdonia, meant the castle saw no action. The war was a defeat for Llywelyn and he was forced to cede control of all of Wales to the east of the River Conwy. Peace did not last long though and the Second War of Welsh Independence was initiated in 1282 by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, brother to the Llywelyn. The Prince had little choice but to follow his brother and this time the English King resolved to conquer Wales in its entirety. The country was overrun and Llywelyn killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge (1282) whilst Dafydd fled to Dolwyddelan, then onto Castell-y-Bere and finally to Dolbadarn Castle. One by one the English took these strongholds with Dolwyddelan coming under siege in January 1283. Against such a large and well equipped army the castle rapidly fell and by 18 January 1283 it was reported as being in English hands.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Dolwyddelan was re-used by the English forces. Edward I had started a major castle building project to encircle Snowdonia - the formerly impenetrable redoubt of Welsh resistance - and Dolwyddelan was one of a number of Welsh built fortifications that was garrisoned by the English in support of this aim. Significant modifications were commenced including heightening the Keep plus adding a postern gate and the two storey West Tower. Royal records also record the allocation of a siege engine and white tunics - camouflage for mounting Winter operations in the snow-covered mountains. The castle was abandoned some time in the mid-late fourteenth century.
Dolwyddelan Castle was re-occupied in the late fifteenth century. Maredudd ab Leuan ap Robert purchased the lease of the castle in 1488 having moved from near Caernarfon. He allegedly found his new surroundings somewhat lawless and may well have made repairs to the curtain wall of the castle at this time.
It was not certain when the castle was abandoned as a residence for the final time but engravings from the mid-eighteenth century suggest it was ruinous by then. It remained so until it was 'restored' by Lord Willoughby de Eresby between 1848 and 1850. His work accounts for the seemingly good condition of the Keep but his modifications, which included the crenellations complete with arrow slits, were a Victorian fiction rather than a restoration of the origin design.
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Dolwyddelan Castle consists of the ruins of a fortification built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) and later expanded by Edward I. The remains are dominated by the Keep which is in an impressive structural condition due to Victorian repair (albeit with a degree of artistic licence). Set in a tranquil environment, there are good views over the surrounding countryside.
Dolwyddelan Castle Layout. The castle started as a simply Keep and was expanded with a curtain wall. In 1283, after it was captured by the English, the West Tower and postern access were added.
West Tower. The West Tower was built by English forces after they captured the castle in January 1283.
Keep. The Keep formed part of the original castle built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. It was 'restored' in the Victorian era hence the fake battlements.
Dolwyddelan Castle is easily found off the A470. A large dedicated car park is provided and is well sign-posted from the road. Visitors should be aware it is a relatively steep walk to the castle.