Ruthin is one of the most picturesque historic towns in North-East Wales. It began as a Welsh settlement - its name means ‘the red fortress’ - on a strategic ridge above the Clwyd river, with a mother church to he east at Llanrhydd (Site 1c). Then, following decades of disputes, it finally fell under English control in 1282, becoming the site of a strong castle (1b). Under its new owners the baronial de Grey family, Ruthin developed into a prosperous Anglo-Welsh community, with a big church (1a) and a busy market. Despite a setback when Lord Grey’s Welsh rival Owain Glyndwr burnt the town in 1400, its prosperity increased in the early Tudor and Elizabethan periods, when it was described as ‘the greatest market town in all the Vale, full of inhabitants and well replenished with buildings’. This brief description will concentrate on the oldest of these buildings, beginning in the hilltop market place, St Peter’s Square.
The earliest building here is the Old Court House (now the National Westminster Bank), built in 1401 - after Glyndwr’s attack - as the local administrative centre, court, and gaol. Visible within are fine old roof timbers, and on the north-west outside corner is the stump of a gallows beam. The two neighbouring banks are also ‘half-timbered’, but were in fact built in the 1920s. In front of Barclays is the enigmatic boulder called the Maen Huail, traditionally the stone on which King Arthur beheaded a love-rival, variously reputed a giant, a bandit or a saint. Across the square is the imposing Georgian Castle Hotel, beside the 17th century Myddelton Arms with its triple tier of dormer windows, ‘the Seven Eyes of Ruthin’. Further along past another timber framed house, are the wonderful wrought-iron gates - made in the 1720s by the famous Davies Brothers, master craftsmen of Bersham - to St Peter’s churchyard.
The Church Close. The attractive group of buildings behind St Peter’s have very much the feeling of a small cathedral close. Originally the precinct of the medieval priests’ ‘college’, they were bought by Dean Goodman to house his benefactions. Much the earliest is the 14th century ‘Old Cloister’ with its pointed windows, attached to the church: now part Masonic Temple and part music rooms, this was the priests’ communal residence. At right angles to the cloister is the 18th century Old Grammar School, and, opposite, the (rebuilt) single storey ‘hospital almshouses’, founded by Goodman for ten men, and two women who did the washing. At the opposite corner of St Peter’s Square is Castle Street, the prettiest of all Ruthann’s streets. It begins with the colonnaded Wine Vaults and the attractively Dutch-gabled Corporation Arms. Further along is pink-rendered Sir John Trevor House with its jutting timbered gable, then big and impressive Nant Clwyd House with its overhanging porch. Once the home of Dean Goodman, this originated as a 14th century hall house, and is amongst the oldest town houses in North Wales. At the end is the Victorian gateway to the grounds of Ruthin Castle, now an hotel.
At the top of Well Street - formerly ‘Welsh Street’, because favoured by Ruthin’s Welsh inhabitants - are a fine row of timber-framed shops, including ‘Siop Nain’ where the Welsh national anthem was printed in 1860. In Upper Clwyd Street the originally 15th century bookshop bears the double-headed eagle arms of the Goodman family, and the long sweep of Clwyd Street has many timber-framed house fronts especially around the Eagles Hotel. At the bottom, opposite the Old Gaol, is the turning to Mill Street with its basically 13th century Town Mill, now flats but still displaying original pointed windows. These are other later Ruthin buildings are included in two town walks described in Exploring Ruthin, available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre in the Craft Centre on the by-pass.
Castle Street, Ruthin
Nantclwyd House, Ruthin
Ruthin Town Mill as it appeared in 1856: Denbighshire Archives
From the earliest Ruthin Court Rolls, 1294 Courtesy of the Record Office
Ruthin School's Royal Charter, 1595. The clerical taxation records of 1292 reveal that there was a school in Ruthin run by friars, attached to the collegiate church of St. Peter's Courtesy of Ruthin School
Sir Thomas Exmewe, born in Ruthin c.1454-1529, Lord mayor of London 1517, attributed to John Bettes: Courtesy of The Guildhall Library, London