The first of Edward I’s network of Welsh fortresses, Flint Castle was built on the shores of the River Dee enabling the garrison to be sustained by sea. It was attacked on multiple occasions by the Welsh and was where Richard II abdicated in favour of Henry Bolingbroke. The castle was slighted after a Civil War siege.
The thirteenth century had seen considerable peaks and troughs in Welsh power relative to the Anglo-Norman regime in England. The height of Welsh supremacy was achieved by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) who compelled the weak and ineffective Government of Henry III to seal the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) recognising him as overlord of Wales. However in 1272 Henry died and his warrior son, who was a veteran of the Barons War and a Crusader, became King Edward I.
Following years of weak rule and civil war, Edward's immediate priority was to restore the power of the monarchy. Although the new King initially upheld the provisions of the Treaty of Montgomery (1267), relations with Llywelyn soon broke down in particular over his failure to pay homage to Edward. Although the Welsh Prince had attended a meeting Shrewsbury in November 1274, Edward had been ill and unable to attend. Subsequent summons went unanswered; he refused to attend Chester in August 1275, Westminster in October 1275, Winchester in January 1276 and Westminster in April 1276. Following the latter, the English resolved to make war on Llywelyn and when no answer was received from this threat, a feudal summons was issued on 12 December 1276. Edward ordered his forces to rendezvous at Worcester for 1 July 1277.
First Welsh War of Independence
With a vast feudal host assembled, consisting of an army 15,000 strong and supported by a sizeable fleet, the First War of Welsh Independence was not a protracted affair. Edward marched along the North Wales coast and, faced by the prospect of overwhelming defeat, Llywelyn withdrew into the mountainous Snowdonia region hoping to draw the English King into a protracted, and costly, guerrilla war. He was to be disappointed for Edward concurrently launched a naval attack on Anglesey, the bread-basket of North West Wales, compelling the Welsh to surrender. In the Treaty of Aberconwy, signed in November 1277, Llywelyn was stripped of all his territory to the east of the River Conwy. Edward consolidated his victory with construction of a series of castles with Flint being the first; it was established on the shores of the River Dee just a days march from the Royal fortress at Chester. Rhuddlan Castle was built as the next outpost to the west whilst Aberystwyth Castle was constructed in the newly confiscated territory of Northern Ceredigion. The origin of the name Flint is uncertain but could be a reference to the ease with which the Welsh were defeated by Edward.
There was no existing settlement at Flint when Edward arrived especially as the site was overlooked by higher ground which would have deterred previous builders. However, for the English, this was outweighed by its proximity to the water enabling resupply by sea. It was constructed on a rocky outcrop that jutted out into the River Dee and a water filled (at high tide) moat was cut around the site. The configuration of the fort was likely inspired by Aigures Mortes, a walled town in Southern France dominated by a large Tower. Edward had spent some time here during his journey on Crusade and he replicated its design at Flint building a standalone Donjon Keep - the only one of his fortifications to have this feature. The remainder of the Inner Ward conformed to a concentric design that would be repeated in his later structures. A civilian settlement, laid out on a grid pattern and protected by a double ditch plus wooden palisade, was established to the south of the castle.
The workforce to build Flint was impressed into Edward's service. Knights were dispatched to 'recruit' from Chester, Devizes, Lancaster, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stafford and Warwick. Carpenters, Diggers, Dykers and Masons were invited to join the Royal force or have their homes burnt. By 25 July 1277, less than a month after hostilities had started, construction was underway on the new fortress. Initial work was supervised by Richard L'Engenour but by November 1278 was being overseen by Edward's famous engineer, Master James of St George. By 1282 the castle was nearing completion.
Second War of Welsh Independence
After the 1276/7 war Llywelyn had been allowed to keep the title Prince of Wales although the requirement for the other Welsh Chieftains to do homage to him was revoked and he himself had been forced into a humiliating act of homage to Edward in 1278. In addition, Edward had granted extensive lands (predominantly centred around Denbigh) to Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the brother of Llywelyn but who had fought against him in support of the English. But, despite the settlement, the English continued to expand the boundaries of their power prompting Dafydd to rebel against English rule in 1282. He attacked Hawarden Castle and this escalated into the Second War of Welsh Independence with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd supporting him. Edward I invaded with a significant army and overran all of Northern Wales where Llywellyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge (1282). Dafydd was captured and executed winning the dubious honour of being the first man to be hung, drawn and quartered.
After the War
With the end of the Second War of Welsh Independence, Edward built further castles encircling Snowdonia. Flint continued as a Royal castle with the town growing in prosperity. The first charter was granted to the town in September 1284 whilst records note that 74 burgesses who had settled there were deemed wealthy enough to be taxed in 1292. Wales remained a troubled place however and in 1294 the town was burnt on the orders of William de la Leye, Constable of Flint Castle during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn. The castle held out and the town rebuilt. The site was clearly in a good state of repair by 1311 as it hosted a visit from Edward II.
The Overthrow of Richard II
Flint came to the forefront of national events in the late fourteenth century. In 1397 Richard II had exiled his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and heir to the vast Lancastrian inheritance. When his father (and Richard's Uncle), John of Gaunt, died in 1399 the King seized his estates. Exploiting Richard's absence on campaign in Ireland, Henry illegally returned from exile nominally to reclaim his lands. But he found little support for Richard and altered his plans to include seizure of the throne. Richard returned from Ireland, landed in Wales and made for Conwy Castle. There he met Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland - allied with Bolingbroke - who persuaded him to leave the safety of the fortress. Once the King did so he was captured and taken, via Rhuddlan, to Flint. He was held in the Donjon Tower during negotiations between the two men. Richard abdicated on 19 August 1399 and was imprisoned at Pontefract Castle where he was later murdered probably by starvation.
The Lancastrian Era
Henry Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV but his reign was blighted by an extended rebellion in Wales. Led by Owain Glyndŵr it started with an attack in September 1400 on Ruthin and quickly escalated into a widespread popular revolt fuelled by excessive taxation and crass management. In Flintshire, numerous attacks were made on the castle and settlement. A raid of 1403 all but destroyed the town whilst the garrison of the castle was increased significantly. It took years of further fighting but by 1408, Royal forces were finally getting the upper hand. The rebellion petered out although the fate of Owain Glyndŵr is unknown.
By the time of War of Three Kingdoms, in the mid-seventeenth century, Flint Castle was ruinous having long since ceased to have any military value. Nevertheless a local landowner, Roger Mostyn, repaired and garrisoned the structure at his own expense - it is estimated he spent around £60,000 of his own money on the war effort. The castle itself was key in the latter days of the war as Chester came under pressure from Parliamentary forces. But by this stage the collapse of the Royalist war effort was irretrievable and Flint was placed under siege on 1 June 1646. The old castle held out for nearly three months until the garrison was starved into surrender. On 20 August 1646 they marched out with banners flying and drums beating.
After the War
Flint Castle was slighted by the Parliamentarians and the structure drifted into ruin. Nevertheless the site of the Outer Bailey hosted the County Gaol between 1785 and 1880. The headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was based in dedicated buildings adjacent to the old castle from 1912 to 1969.
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Flint Castle was the first major fortification built by Edward I as part of his Conquest of Wales. Whilst there are only scant ruins associated with the Outer Bailey, the inner castle itself still stands to a good height and the Donjon Keep - unique amongst all of the Welsh Edwardian castles - is accessible.
Flint Castle Layout. The castle consisted of Inner and Outer Wards both surrounded by flooded (at high tide) moats. The Inner Ward was dominated by the Donjon - a large, circular Keep that could function as an independent fortification in its own right. It is likely the design was influence by Edward I based on fortifications at Aigures Mortes in Southern France where he stayed on his way to Crusade.
Inside the Donjon. The basement of the Tower.
Donjon. The large, standalone circular Keep known as the Donjon. Flint was the only one of Edward I’s castles to have such a feature. It was originally several stories higher.
Outer Ward Gatehouse. The slight remains of the Outer Ward Gatehouse which was destroyed by Parliamentary forces after the castle’s surrender in August 1646. The Donjon can be seen in the background.