Castell Dinas Brân
(On foot from Llangollen.) Take waymarked footpath beginning at the north end of canal bridge.
Note: This site is only accessible via a steep climb: boots necessary.
Crowning an isolated hill 750 feet above Llangollen, the dramatic ruins of Castell Dinas Brân are visible for many miles around. (Those who want a closer look must tackle a steep climb.)
Unlike many castles in Wales, it was not built by invading Normans or English, but by a native Welsh ruler (probably the local prince Gruffydd ap Madoc).
He adapted the site of a prehistoric hill fort, strengthening its defenses by hewing deep rock-cut ditches to the south and east: the north and west sides are naturally protected by steep drops.
At the east end (furthest from the footpath entrance) is a rectangular keep, with a gatehouse beside it. The keep is joined to a ‘D-shaped’ tower – a type favored by Welsh builders – by a hall, whose twin windows (now worn o gashes) figure prominently in distinct views.
Constructed in about 1260, Dinas Brân had a very short active life. In May 1277, during Edward I’s initial Welsh campaign, it was deliberately abandoned and fired by its Welsh garrison to prevent its use by the invaders. The English did nevertheless occupy the site but never rebuilt the fortress. All the same, a visit to Dinas Brân is well worth the effort: the grandeur of its setting is unmatched, and the views over the Vale of Llangollen are breathtaking.
When his neighbor Lord Grey of Ruthin seized part of his estate, Owain appealed for redress to King Henry IV and his own establishment contacts in Parliament – only to be contemptuously rebuffed. He reacted with striking suddenness, declaring himself Prince of Wales on 16th September 1400 – traditionally at the site of Owain Glyndwr’s mound (Site 15). Next, he set out with a small but determined force to raid and burn Ruthin (Site 1) – crowded with visitors to an annual fair – moving on to ravage the English settlements of Denbigh (Site 32), Rhuddlan (Site 36), Flint, Hawarden, Holt, Oswestry and Welshpool, all within a week. Then he was crushingly defeated by an English levy, retiring into the hills with only a handful of followers.
Apparently so soon extinguished, Glyndwr’s rising had in fact scarcely begun. News of it spread quickly through Wales and into England, drawing Welsh students at Oxford and Welsh emigrant laborers home to join his banner. Meanwhile, the English government enacted sternly anti-Welsh laws – which only served to increase support for Glyndwr. During the next two years, he struck unexpectedly in many parts of Wales, melting away before superior English forces to appear again at the other end of the country. In 1402 he achieved two spectacular coups – heralded, it was believed, by a blazing comet. In April, near Ruthin, he ambushed and took his arch-enemy, Lord Grey – later ransomed for a huge sum – and in June he routed an English army at Pilleth in Radnorshire, capturing their leader Edmund Mortimer. Moreover, when three avenging English expeditions advanced against Owain, they were driven back by appalling weather. The King’s own pavilion was demolished by a sudden storm. Such disasters, it was thought, could only be explained by Owain’s skill in wizardry – a legend recalled by Shakespeare in his play Henry IV Part I.
In May 1403, the King’s young son Prince Henry – later Henry V – began to emerge as Glyndwr’s most formidable opponent, ravaging his Denbighshire lands in a destructive lightning raid. But this setback was more than redressed by successes in south-west Wales, where Owain took fortress after fortress, and by the acquisition of powerful new allies – including the captured Mortimer (who married Glyndwr’s daughter) and Mortimer’s famous brother-in-law ‘Harry Hotspur’.
The years 1404 and 1405 saw the zenith of Glyndwr’s fortunes. He already dominated much of Wales, and when the strong English castles of Harlech and Aberystwyth surrendered to him he ruled undisputed from Cardigan to Caernarfon. Now, therefore, he began to act as an acknowledged sovereign prince, summoning Welsh Parliaments at Machynlleth and Harlech and drawing up a program for an independent Welsh church and two Welsh universities. As ‘Owen, but the Grace of God Prince of Wales’, he also negotiated a treaty with England’s opponent the King of France.
This bore temporarily hopeful fruit when a Franco-Welsh expedition advanced to within eight
Owain Glyndwr’s Great Seal (reverse). By permission of the National Museum of Wales
miles of Worcester – only to retire again after an indecisive stand-off with an English army.
Thereafter, Owain’s star gradually waned. Under energetic pressure from Prince Henry, outlying parts of his domain began to capitulate to the English. Aberystwyth Castle fell in 1408, and Harlech – after a bombardment by English heavy cannon – in 1409, leaving Owain’s wife and daughters in English hands and his prestige greatly reduced. Denbighshire apparently remained loyal to him, and from there he launched his last major raid on the Shropshire borders in 1410: it failed disastrously, and the rising was now a spent force.
Glyndwr nevertheless remained at large, rejecting a reconciliation and pardon offered in 1415 by his erstwhile opponent, now King Henry V. Soon afterward he simply disappeared. He was probably dead by 1417, and perhaps lies buried near his daughter’s home in Hertfordshire. But we do not know for sure, and some contemporary Welshmen believed he never died at all. Whether or not (like King Arthur) he still lies sleeping until his country’s greatest need, his memory certainly still lives on: nowhere more so than in his ancestral lands around Corwen (Site 13).
Monument to Owain Glyndwr’s great grandfather, Valle Crucis Abbey
Gilt bronze harness mounting bearing the arms of Owain Glyndwr, found at Harlech Castle. By permission of the National Museum of Wales