Enjoy Medieval Denbighshire

  • search

The Lands Between

Throughout the Middle Ages, the region covered by this trail was a borderland - and generally a disputed borderland. The old name for much of it, indeed, was ‘Y Berfeddwlad’, ‘The Middle Country’ or ‘The Lands Between’: between, that is, the Welsh principalities of Gwynedd to the east and Powys to the South, though more crucially it also lay between England and the heartland of North Wales.

It was itself divided into districts or ‘Cantrefli’ - literally ‘a hundred settlements’ - which even now retains a recognizably distinct local character. In the north were the ‘Four Cantrefs’: Rhos between the Elwy and the Conwy; coastal Tegeingl, between Rhuddlan and the Dee estuary; mountainous Rhufoniog, with its capital at Denbigh and its sub-district of Cinmeirch; and fertile Dyffryn Clwyd, the southern Vale of Clwyd, centred on Ruthin. Further south still, between Corwen and Llangollen, was the Deeside cantref of Edeyrnion; and to the east the upland cantref of Iâl or Yale - which would be much later give its name to an American university.

When early medieval Wales emerged from the wreck of Roman rule - during the little-known, legend-haunted period sometimes called the Age of Arthur - the Middle Country was already disputed between rival native rulers. These Welsh warlords - as recorded on Eliseg’s Pillar (Site 20) - claimed descent from Roman Emperors and founding heroes, and sought the blessing of Christianity. For this was also the Age of Saints, when the region's multitude of holy men and women founded the churches which still bear their names.

Meanwhile a new and terrible threat was brewing in the east, from the initially pagan and ever-encroaching Anglo-Saxons. At first the dominant Kings of Powys - men like Cyngen and Eliseg of the pillar - bore the brunt of their attack: then, weakened by it, they gave way to the mightier rulers of Gwynedd, who stemmed the Anglo-Saxon advance at the mouth of the Clwyd.

After 1066, however, the eastern threat was renewed by the still more formidable Normans, spearheaded by the freelance adventurers called 'Marchers' or borderers men like Robert of Rhuddlan, who raised the big 'Twthill' fortress there. By the 1100 the Norman war-machine of castles and mounted knights seemed likely to overrun not only the Middle Country, but all Wales. Then a powerful Welsh counter-attack, again led by the princes of Gwynedd, forced the invaders back and re-established a frontier east of the Lands Between, guarded by Welsh-built strongholds like Tomen-y-Rhodwydd (Site 24) and Tomen-y-Faerdre (Site 27).

But the struggle was by no means over. Throughout the 12th and early 13th centuries, Welsh rulers and Anglo-Norman Marchers - sometimes backed by the intervention of English kings - bickered intermittently for dominance of the Middle Country. On the whole the Welsh prevailed, and during a period of peace a local ruler founded Valle Crucis Abbey (Site 19) in 1201. Eventually, in 1267, Prince Llywelyn (the Last) of Gwynedd was formally confirmed by the English as Prince of Wales and undisputed ruler of the Lands Between.

Ten years later disaster struck. Heading a powerful English army backed by Marcher forces and Welsh malcontents - including Llywelyn’s own brother Dafydd - King Edward I invaded Wales and drove Llywelyn back into the heartland of Gwynedd, founding castles like Rhuddlan (Site 36) to hem him in. For a few years Dafydd ruled the Middle Country, but in 1282 he turned on his English allies, sparking off the decisive campaign of conquest which left all Wales - including the Lands Between - under firm English rule.

To keep it so, Edward commissioned his lieutenants to build new castles, granting Denbigh (Site 32) to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and Ruthin (Site 1b) to Reginald de Grey. These were the centres of new English Marcher ‘lordships’, and beneath their walls new fortified towns were founded for English immigrants, as sources of supply for the fortresses and (more important) a colonial presence in the conquered territory.

To these English enclaves flocked colonists from the northern English estates of their lords: it is notable that many of the families which later rose to prominence in the area - Goodmans, Myddeltons, Thelwalls, Salesburys and Cloughs - bore distinctly English names. Their descendants would inter-marry and merge with local Welsh families, but at first their presence (and the commercial privileges they enjoyed) was deeply resented. After initial unrest, however, the English dominance of the Middle Country was peacefully consolidated.

The 14th century was a time of comparative tranquillity, when St Asaph Cathedral (Site 35) was rebuilt, churches like St Peter’s Ruthin (Site 1a) were founded, and fine monuments to Welshmen and Englishmen alike were erected (as at Tremeirchion Site 40) and Llanarmon-yn-Ial (Site 26).

In the very first year of the 15th century, nevertheless, smouldering resentment against English rule flared up into Owain Glyndwr’s* Rising. For years terrible damage was wreaked on the area by both sides: Owain, for instance, burnt not only Denbigh and Ruthin towns, but also St Asaph Cathedral; while the English ravaged Owain’s lands along the Dee valley. Recovery was slow, and hindered by the endemic lawlessness which plagued the Welsh Marches during the middle years of the 15th century. This culminated in the Wars of the Roses, when Denbigh Castle (a Yorkist stronghold) was three times attacked, and Denbigh town twice burnt. Only after the final triumph of the part-Welsh Henry Tudor in 1485 did the Middle Country at last begin a long period of settled peace and prosperity.

During the decades between 1490 and 1540, the Middle Country blossomed like a desert after rain. Users of this guide will find that this is no exaggeration, for the overwhelming majority of medieval treasures in it belong to this period. Of the thirty churches covered, for instance, no less than twenty-two were rebuilt, enlarged or substantially embellished during this time. All the region’s surviving medieval stained glass was now installed, and so were nearly all the roofs, rood screens and other carved timberwork for which the Lands Between are famous. (Medieval Parish Churches*, Roofs and Rood Screens*.)

The Lands Between, however, were about to take on a new name: for between 1536 and 1543 sweeping changes in Church and State were under way. The first was the Protestant Reformation, which destroyed many medieval church treasures but greatly enriched the many local landowners who acquired monastic estates. At the same time Acts of Union were passed, removing medieval legal discrimination against Welshmen and giving them representation in Parliament for the first time.

The Acts divided the medieval ‘Marches of Wales’ - which had included the Middle Country - into new countries. Thus the Lands Between became the County of Denbighshire.

The gentry, merchants and clergy of newborn Denbighshire flourished exceedingly under the new order. Their path to prosperity now lay open as magistrates or MPs; courtiers or entrepreneneurs; bishops or deans. And though religious changes meant that they no longer built or embellished churches, they proclaimed their success instead with grand houses and sumptuous monuments. During the Tudor and early Stuart periods, indeed, Denbighshire became the Power House of Renaissance Wales*, ending the Middles Ages in a blaze of glory.

Note: * signifies separate article.

Back to top

The construction of the Motte at Hastings (1066) as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. Robert of Rhuddlan's father was in charge of building here.

Castell Dinas Bran, Llangollen. Photo: John Marjoram

Llwyd's Map of Wales, 1573: By kind permission of the National Library of Wales

Denbigh Charter, 1510: Denbighshire Record Office

Sir Thomas Myddleton, 1586-1666: By permission of The National Trust, Chirk Castle

Burgess Gate, Denbigh town walls