New Book puts Princes' Castles in the Spotlight

A book published this week by a Bangor University academic aims to change our perceptions of native Welsh castles.

The book, Princely Ambition, covers the castles built by the princes of Wales – Llywelyn I (the Great), Dafydd II, and Llywelyn II (the Last) – in the thirteenth century, before Wales was conquered by Edward I.

The book’s author, Craig Owen Jones, wrote the book to correct common misconceptions about the castle-building abilities of the native Welsh princes.

‘Native Welsh castles have suffered by comparison with Edward I’s castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech,’ Jones said. ‘But the castles of the two Llywelyns are impressive in their own right. They’re strongly built and intelligently sited. The princes knew what they were doing.’

Dr Jones also pointed out that many books and guides fail to recognise that Welsh castles changes in form and function as time went on, citing Castell Dolbadarn near Llanberis as an example.

‘The castle’s big round tower was built much late than the rest of the castle, when Wales and England were at peace,’ Jones said. ‘There’s no military reason why Llywelyn the Great would have spent money on it.

‘However, Llywelyn was building his castle at Cricieth at the same time, and we know his eldest son, Gruffudd, was given it as his seat. So it’s possible Llywelyn extended Dolbadarn at the same time for his other son, Dafydd, who is named in poetry as the lord of Dinorwig, which is just across the lake from Dolbadarn.’

Jones added that criticisms of native Welsh castles on account of their building methods were often wrong.

‘Their construction is very sound,’ Jones said. ‘Several made use of galletting to protect the walls against undermining, most of them used portcullises, and when poor-quality mortar has been used, it’s due to lack of money rather than a lack of expertise or knowledge.’

The main culprit in that respect, Jones said, was Llywelyn II.

‘His early work, such as the outer ward at Cricieth, is very solid. But in the final years of his reign, he just ran out of money,’ Jones said. ‘He was having trouble paying his bills in the 1270s, and we can see the effects of this in his castles.

‘Dolforwyn was never finished, and the surviving mortar is very sandy. The castle was badly damaged during the English siege in 1277, whereas older castles, like Castell Y Bere, fared far better during sieges.

‘Of course Welsh masons knew how to mix mortar – Llywelyn skimped on it, because he couldn’t afford to do anything else.’

The book is published by the University of Hertfordshire Press, and an online book launch will be held in conjunction with the Mortimer History Society on 2 March.