Rhuddlan – meaning ‘the red bank’, from the colour of the riverside soil – owes its great historical importance to its position by an ancient crossing of the river Clwyd: whoever held this ford also controlled the easiest invasion route to (and from) the heartland of North Wales. Thus for five centuries Rhuddlan was a flashpoint in Anglo-Welsh wars, the site in turn of a great battle between King Offa of Mercia and the Welsh; a Saxon fortified borough; a Welsh princely palace; a Norman fortress (the ‘Twthill’); and finally a powerful stone castle.
Begun in 1277, this castle remains Rhuddlan’s outstanding medieval treasure. It was designed for King Edward I by the famous architect James of St. George, the first of the revolutionary’concentric’ fortresses – among them Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris – which Edward raised to hem in and control North Wales. Instead of the traditional ‘keep’, its defences consist of three concentric rings of fortification. The inmost and most impressive is a diamond-plan stronghold, with twin-towered gatehouses at two corners and single round towers at the others. Beyond this is an outer circle of lower turreted walls, and beyond again a deep moat linked to the river Clwyd.
By an amazing feat of medieval engineering, this then sluggish and winding river was converted into a deep-water channel to the sea, so that Edward’s ships could relieve the castle at times of siege. Some seventy labourers – conscripts from the Lincolnshire Fens, using only hand tools – took three years to complete the two mile long channel. Rhuddlan Castle thereafter became the base for Edward’s decisive invasion of Wales in 1282. According to the oldest versions of the tale, it was here – and not Caernarfon – that he proclaimed his baby son (‘born in Wales, and without a word of English’) the first English Prince of Wales, was promulgated by a parliament held here in 1284.
King Edward’s great stone castle, however, is only one element of Rhuddlan’s surviving medieval heritage. A short walk away (via a way marked footpath) stands the impressive earthen mound called ‘Twthill’ – ‘look-out hill’. Once crowned by a timber tower, this was the strongpoint of the Norman predecessor to Edward’s fortress. It was raised in 1073 by Robert of Rhuddlan, traditionally on the site of an earlier Welsh palace. At its foot was a stockaded enclosure, and beyond that again a ditched Norman town. This had its own priory of Dominican ‘black friars’, some of whose buildings form part of Abbey Farm (private).
The later medieval town
When Edward built his new castle, he also established a new town north of his fortress. Its original grid-pattern of streets – the present High Street, crossed by Castle and Church Streets and Parliament and Gwindy Streets – still forms the heart of modern Rhuddlan, and part of its ditched defences are still visible between Vicarage Lane and Kerfoot Avenue. At the corner of High Street and Parliament Street stands the (so called) Parliament House – not as its inscription laims the site of a parliament, but perhaps the medieval town’s court house.
The Church of St. Mary
St. Mary’s was founded in about 1300 to serve the new community. Some two centuries later it was doubled in size by the addition of a second nave – turning it into a typical double-naved ‘Vale of Clwyd’ church – and the tower was added. Later still, in 1820, a kind of fortified mausoleum was attached to the north side, as a secure burial place for the family of Bodrhyddan Hall (Site 37). Though much restored in 1868, the spacious interior of the church preserves earlier features, including the 17th century Welsh texts painted high on the north and south walls. There are 13th and 14th century monuments (mainly at the back of the south nave) brought here from the old friary at Abbey Farm. The most remarkable of these (by the altar) is the engraved slab to Friar William de Freney, wearing his full regalia as Titular Archbishop of ‘Rages’ or Edessa (in modern Turkey).
An excellent CADW guide to the castle and town is available at the castle, and a comprehensive guide to the church at St. Mary’s.
Church open Thursday afternoons during the summer months. Also possible to visit around service times. Castle open May – September, 10.00 am – 5.00 pm daily. Entrance charge.
Pillar of Eliseg