The main reason for Denbigh’s existence is the steep rocky outcrop on which its castle and old town stand. Here, overlooking the wide Vale of Clwyd, stood a residence and stronghold of the Welsh princes, the ‘capital’ of their district of Rhufoniog. Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last both held court here, and from here in 1282 the latter’s brother Dafydd launched the war which ended with Edward I’s decisive conquest of North Wales. Nothing now remains of this Welsh ‘little fortress’ the origin of the name ‘Denbigh’: taken by the English in the autumn of 1282, it was immediately superseded by the present mighty stronghold.
Among the biggest and most spectacular – yet among the least known – of all castles in Wales, Denbigh was built for Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, the English commander granted the site by King Edward I. Begun in 1282, it was intended (like Ruthin and Rhuddlan) as part of Edward’s ring of fortresses around the heartland of North Wales, and was doubtless designed by the King’s famous architect James of St George. Delayed when a new Welsh rising temporarily captured the half-built works in 1294, it took nearly thirty years to complete. A strong local tradition maintains that finishing touches were abandoned after de Lacy’s young son fell to his death in the castle wall.
The fortress consists essentially of a strong enclosure wall defended by seven towers and a mighty gatehouse, and additionally protected by a walled town occupying the remainder of the hilltop. On the southern and western sides, where the slope is steepest and most easily defended, the plain half-round towers are small – though this part of the castle was reinforced by an outer ‘mantlet’ after its capture in 1294. But on the northern and eastern sides – facing the town and the flatter, more dangerous approach – the towers are polygonal and much stronger. Strongest of all is the great gatehouse, still the castle entrance. Here three grouped octagonal towers cover a long passageway, originally defended by a drawbridge, arrow-slits, ‘murder holes’, three successive portcullises and two pairs of outward-opening doors. In a niche above the outer gateway stands a time-worn statue, most probably King Edward I.
The final act
The fortress of Denbigh played its final part in history during the Civil War. By then the abandoned walled town was part of the castle’s defences, though both were badly decayed. All the same, the elderly Royalist Colonel William Salesbury – ‘Old Blue Stockings’ of Rug (Site 11) – gallantly withstood a six month siege in 1646. The Parliamentarian attackers fruitlessly concentrated on bombarding the Goblin Tower, hoping to cut off the castle’s main water supply: the siege works they raised to protect their cannon can be still be traced in the playing fields below. Only when all hope of relief had gone – and then only after receiving the King’s written order – did ‘Old Blue Stocking’ at last surrender.
A leaflet describing four interesting ‘Town Walks’ is available from the Library. There is also an excellent CADW guide to the castle and old town.
Most sites visible externally. Castle open weekdays 10.00 am – 5.00 pm (not Mondays except Bank Holidays). Weekends 9.30 am – 5.00 pm. In winter, access to the grounds at all reasonable times.
Pillar of Eliseg