At the bottom of the Llanberis Pass in North Wales, situated on a rocky promontory overlooking Llyn (lake) Peris, sits a massive slate-built tower.
This is Dolbadarn Castle, constructed in the 13th century by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great), a powerful ruler of the kingdom of Gwynedd. Standing 50 feet tall and with walls eight feet thick, it was obviously intended to withstand a violent onslaught; today, it’s considered to be the finest surviving example of a Welsh round tower.
Dolbadarn doesn’t look very welcoming, but medieval Welsh rulers didn’t offer bed and breakfast. Initially, its purpose was to stand guard over a strategic mountain pass, and it may also have acted as a safeguard for valuable food stocks in the form of cattle that grazed on the lower slopes during the summer.
It was during Llewelyn’s reign that the first sophisticated stone castles were built in Wales: Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan, Criccieth and Castell y Bere were all constructed from 1220 onwards, on natural vantage points such as outcrops and promontories. They bore witness to the ever-increasing territory of Gwynedd, which expanded to cover much of Wales.
Llywelyn died in 1240, and six years later his heir, Dafydd ap Llywelyn, followed him to the grave. Dafydd had no sons, and the seat of power in Gwynedd lay dangerously empty. Dafydd’s brother, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, had three sons: Owain Goch, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Dafydd ap Gruffudd, and a bitter struggle for supremacy broke out among them. A battle took place at Bwlch Derwin in Eifionnydd, where Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was victorious. Dafydd escaped, but Llywelyn imprisoned his elder brother, Owain Goch, in Dolbadarn Castle for over 20 years.
The status of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as the ruler of most of Wales was finally acknowledged by Henry III in 1267 in the Treaty of Montgomery. Llywelyn was now officially the Prince of Wales, paying homage to the King of England but nevertheless in control of an independent political power.
This peaceful interlude was short-lived, however. Just four years after the Treaty of Montgomery, Henry died – and he was succeeded by his son, Edward I. A powerful, ambitious and determined king, Edward became known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ for his ruthless campaigns over the Scottish borders. Llywelyn refused to pay homage to Edward, and the English king responded with force.
Edward’s aim was to deal a lasting blow to any lingering dreams of Welsh independence; and he set out on a mission to conquer Wales, invading its borders by both land and sea. Once Edward’s forces had gained a foothold, he encircled the country with a ring of impregnable fortresses: today, the concentric castles at Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Flint and Rhuddlan still stand as imposing reminders of his success.
Llywelyn retreated to his stronghold in the Conwy Valley. A temporary peace was agreed at Aberconwy in 1277, whereby Llywelyn was allowed to keep his lands to the west of the Conwy, and his brother Dafydd was granted territories in the east.
In 1282, Dafydd unwisely attacked one of Edward’s strongholds at Hawarden. Edward avenged himself on Llywelyn’s castle at Dolwyddelan, and the remaining fortresses soon fell. Llywelyn was killed under mysterious circumstances at Builth Wells, and Dafydd was captured and executed in Shrewsbury.
Some timbers and other structural features were taken from Dolbadarn Castle to reinforce Edward’s military stronghold at Caernarfon, a masterpiece of architectural design by Master James of Saint George.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is known to the Welsh as Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn, our last leader), and he is remembered by history in general as Llywelyn the Last. Wales was under England’s iron hand for good – or so it seemed. Just over a hundred years later a new leader would emerge, a nobleman descended from the Princes of Powys, who would inspire and unite the Welsh people into one last glorious rebellion. His name was Owain Glyndwr.
Dolbadarn Castle looks across Llyn Peris towards the vast terraces and spoil heaps of Dinorwig Quarry. Once the country’s second-largest slate quarry, Dinorwig began in the late 1700s and ceased production in 1969. At its peak, it employed 3,000 men and produced 100,000 tonnes of slate per year, which was transported by tramways, narrow gauge railways and (later) steam locomotives to ports in North Wales, from where it was shipped all over the world.
In Welsh names, ‘ap’ means ‘son of’, in the same way as the Scottish prefix ‘Mac’.
Some handy guides for pronunciation! I’ve put the emphasis in italics.
- Llywelyn = Llewell-in (I can’t approximate the first ‘Ll’ sound)
- Gruffudd – Griff-ith
- Dafydd – Davith (hard ‘th’ sound)
- Owain – O-wine
- Bwlch – Boolch (‘ch’ as in loch)
- Dolwyddelan – Doll-with-elan
- Criccieth – Crick-eth
- Eifionnydd – Ay-vi-on-ith (hard ‘th)
Images copyright © Colin Woolf