Dydd Owain Glyndwr: last in a long line?

Castell Dolforwyn, Y Dref Newydd, Powys

Our summer holiday just beneath the castle walls in Tutbury near Derby were a revelation in many ways (see previous Blog), not least because it offered a reminder of the complex web of loyalty and betrayal existing between the Welsh and the Normans/English in the Medieval period. It's always a temptation to simplify history in order to create a clear and forward driving narrative, a cast of easily defined goodies and baddies, yet I love it when I catch my preconceptions tripped up; catch characters operating outside of cliche. In 1174 King Henry the Second ordered a seige of Tutbury Castle by Rhys ap Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth. As we sat in the garden sipping rose gin and watching the swallows hunting through the ruined castle battlements I enjoyed imagining the Welsh forces camped just down the hill. Far from being the paraochial and perennial victim, being always and only on the defensive, Welsh nobles were jostling for favour, serving the Crown, infighting, backstabbing, changing sides, empire building like the rest of them. Both disappointing and refreshing, acknowledging that the version of Wales as is often portrayed - the helpless little country peopled by heroic freedom fighters, belies the dynamic reality of the post Norman period. I grew up 'in exile' in Sheffield and from as far back as I can remember my fiercely patriotic ex-pat Welsh mother fed myself and my sisters on tales of Welsh resistance to English (Norman?) rule. It wasn't a lie. However, just like slavery isn't all about White on Black (something I didn't realise until studying Ancient history A level - I was the Roots generation) the road to losing an independent Wales, if there ever was such a unified entity, was not a straight one.

All that aside... As it's Owain Glyndwr's day, a figure who's become a symbol of the Welsh struggle for independence, known throughout the world, it's a fitting opportunity to explore one of the many Welsh leaders who went before him. We've driven past the sign for Castell Dol Forwyn so many times, saying "We must call and see what's there" but there's always a deadline, or a week's worth of luggage to be anxious about. This year though on our way back from Tutbury we were determined to stop and pay homage to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's stronghold in Powys. It was a touching experience. Like so many of the Welsh castles ( as oppose to the English castles in Wales) it's an intimate, almost domestic ruin. Hidden now amongst trees, you have to walk for 10 minutes to reach it and you come upon it suddenly rather than viewing it from afar. As a Welsh person, or indeed any person not keen on colonisation, the story of its last days as the seat of 'Ein Llyw Olaf' (Our Last Leader') is a sad one.

Thank you to Cadw for the following: 'Built by Welsh lord Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (Llywelyn the Last) in 1273 on a hill above the Severn Valley, Dolforwyn Castle was a flashpoint in Anglo-Welsh relations from the very beginning. When word reached King Edward I about the castle, he wrote to Llewelyn forbidding him to continue with the construction. Llewelyn responded that he did not need the king’s permission to build on his own land and carried on regardless.

Unfortunately, Llywelyn’s defiance was to be short-lived. Marcher lord Roger Mortimer took Dolforwyn in 1277 after a two-week siege. The castle was abandoned in the 14th century, falling into disrepair until comparatively recent excavations uncovered its crumbling remains.'

Apparently Mortimer then proceeded to move the original settlement from around the castle site to establish a new town at Dre Newydd (New Town!). The following years were brutal, ending in Llywelyn's defeat and death; the capture of his daughter Gwenllian and most of his extended family; execution of his brother Dafydd (who was hung, drawn and quartered) and the organised humiliation of and near total subjugation of Wales by Edward the First.

History is sobering indeed and even in modern Wales you can still see the results of Edward's 'plantation' policy, colonizing areas around the castles with incomers loyal to the English Crown.

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