Length: 17′ 8”
Contributors: Jim M, Wayne N, and Nigel K
Bartlett, W. (2003). The Taming of the Dragon: Edward I and the Conquest of Wales. Stroud, Sutton Publishing Limited.
Kinross, J. (1973). Discovering Castles in England and Wales. Aylesbury, Shire Publications LTD.
Liddiard, R. (2005). Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism, and Landscape, 1066 to 1500. Macclesfield, Windgather Press Ltd.
Ohlgren, T. H. (2005). Medieval Outlaws: Twelve Tales in Modern English Translation. West Lafayette, Parlor Press.
Oman, C. (1989). British Castles. New York, Dover Publications.
The History of Fulk Fitz Warine (full text, via Google books)
There is a town in northeastern Wales, the county of Denbighshire, called Llangollen. The town itself is lovely and I’m sure we could spend a few hours discussing its history here, but what I want to talk about tonight is what is situated about a mile outside of the modern city. High atop one of the hills surrounding Llangollen are the ruins of a once-great fortress, an important castle sought after by princes and warriors and the site of its own battle or two. The ruins are what remains of Castell Dinas Brân, legendary referred to as Crow Castle and a few other similar names. It’s a beautiful spot in an enchanting country, and there’s more history surrounding it than one may think looking up at the hill from the River Dee and the apparent pile of rocks sitting at the top.
When working on the research for this episode, one thing about the history of Dinas Brân struck me, and that was its relative paucity. Lacking the ability to read any sort of Welsh primary sources, the English secondary sources to which I must refer largely mention Dinas Brân in passing, as it were. This only serves to increase the mystery surrounding the castle, as we have little on which to rely for information on its construction, inhabitation, and later ruin. Most of the early information which we have about Dinas Brân was written by authors already describing it in an historical sense; that is, medieval authors treated a castle already in ruins, and the story of its foundation is far less understood than its minor role in later history and the places it occupies in historical texts.
The first “castle” thought to have been built atop the hill was probably an Iron Age fort, simply being a large mound topped by a wooden palisade, with a village of roundhouses inside and a deep ditch on the outside for protection, certainly a far cry from what was originally the ruins one sees today when looking up from Llangollen. Later improvements, renovations, and new constructions on top of the hill have yet to be archaeologically proven, but historians speculate that some sort of wooden fortress dominated the hill prior to the 11th century, which we will hear about in one of my favorite medieval stories.
The most notable mention of Dinas Brân that we find is in the Romance of Fouke fitz Waryn, a prose tale probably adapted from a late-13th century poem in the early 14th century, most likely by a clerical figure. The part of the story that directly concerns us in relation to this episode occurs early on in the tale, when William the Conqueror is pacifying the Welsh marches and awarding his newly-won land to his Norman nobles. What is most interesting about this is that the story itself comes from the late-13th or early-14th century but is set in the decades immediately following the Norman Conquest, so keep that in mind as you listen.
The ruins which Peveral would have fought the giant in during the Romance are not the same as one encounters today at Dinas Brân. These are most likely what remains of the castle built sometime in the 13th century by a Welsh prince, possibly a son of Madoc, lord of Powys, who also founded the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey.
We know that in 1270, at least 4 princes of Powys met at the castle to sign some sort of document, and this does give us some clue as to its importance at that point in time. Only a bit over a decade later, however, the castle was doomed to ruin when Edward I of England put a decisive end to Welsh independence, and Dinas Brân and all the lands around it were awarded to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who allowed the castle overlooking Llangollen to fall into ruin, choosing instead to build a new castle at Holt on the Dee. This itself is a fascinating piece of “what-if” history, as just before the Earl of Surrey was granted the castle, another English noble, Henry de Lacy, recommended to King Edward that the castle be restored after the siege which had destroyed it. Edward disagreed, John de Warenne got the castle, and the rest is, quite literally, history. Owain Glyndwr briefly attempted to take the castle in the early 15th century, but this was to be the end of Dinas Brân glory. John Leland, well-know traveler during the reign of Henry VIII, described the castle in mid-century as a ruin. So the story ends for Dinas Brân.
Today, one can still easily visit the castle as it is open to the public at all hours – to my knowledge, there are no personnel who keep watch of the castle, and the only barrier to its exploration is the moderate-length hike from Llangollen that one must make up the hill. You could even follow the direction of Karl Baedeker, whose 1897’s “Great Britain” mentions Dinas Brân by saying:
“The ruins of Dinas Brân castle surmount the boldly-formed hill on the north side of the Vale of Llangollen. We cross the bridge over the Dee, proceed a few paces to the right, and then ascend to the left to a bridge over the Shropshire Union Canal. On the other side we find ourselves opposite a sign-post, pointing on the right to the Trevor Rocks, on the left to the Eglwyseg Rocks, and straight on to Dinas Brân. The path to the latter ascends through a few fields, crossing two cart-tracks, and reaches the open hillside at a gate just above a house where refreshments are sold. The ruins at the top are of very early origin, but are not so picturesque as they appear from below. The view includes the finely-shaped Eglwyseg Rocks on the north, the valley of the Dee on the east, Llangollen to the south, Moel-y-Geraint and the Berwyns to the southwest, and Moel-y-Gamelin to the northwest.”
From my one visit there, I know it’s not difficult to find and trek to Dinas Brân, and the friendly citizens of Llangollen are happy to give you direction. For simplicity’s sake, I quote directions from Dinas Brân’s Wikipedia entry:
“The castle may be approached from two directions. From Llangollen the path starts from Canal Bridge and runs beside Ysgol (ee sow goal)Dinas Brân. It gradually climbs past several cottages before opening out onto the lower slopes of the hill. A zig-zag path then climbs to the summit. The other route starts from ‘Offa’s Dyke Path’ on the north western side of the hill. This route is shorter but steeper. Official advice is to equip yourself with stout walking shoes and warm, waterproof clothing before climbing to the castle.”
Many thanks are due to kind supporters Jim M, Wayne N, and Nigel K who contributed to this show. I am available through email at BritishHistory101@gmail.com, on Skype on the name britishhistory101, through Twitter at maskaggs, and Facebook under Michael Anthony Skaggs. Feel free to drop me a bit of snail mail, too, at:
British History 101
PO Box 1177
Bloomington, Indiana 47408
Again, my sincere thanks and best wishes to you all. I hope you’ll join me again on our next visit to our green and pleasant land!
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