After climbing mountains with Paul S during our holiday recently in North Wales it was time for something a little more relaxing. And what better place to visit than a welsh castle, and we have a lot to choose from here in Wales. Castle Dolbadarn stands proud on a small hill overlooking Llyn Padarn and Llyn Peris, but the whole area is dominated now by the remains of one of the largest slate mines in Wales. But this just add to the overall ambiance of the place. The severe juxtaposition of the beauty of Llanberis, nestling under the shadow of Snowdon with the severrity of the industrial exploitation of natural resources and the romantic mystery of castles (although they were built for real reasons of defence and violence) is striking. This tripartite conflict of concepts makes this place important. Add to this that it was built by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, one the hero’s Wales makes it a place to visit.
Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, had spent a great deal of his reign in consolidating his control not only over North Wales, but also of the rest of Wales. As if this was not enough Llewelyn was also in conflict with both King John and King Henry III of England. Once he had united most of Wales under his rule and resisted pressure from England there was a need to strengthen the defences and Castell Dolbadarn was an integral part of this effort to consolidate and protect his lands. Dolbadarn, along with similar castles at Dolwyddelen and Castell-y-Bere protected the main land access points into the stronghold of Gwynedd. Built sometime before 1230, Dolbadarn protected the Llanberis Pass, control access into Snowdonia and the valuable livestock pasture of the valleys below. Llewelyn’s ability to build a series of castles was an outward sign of security of his tenure and growing wealth. Building stone castles were expensive undertakings, and required not only money but skills and manpower to do so.
Dolbadarn was built over a period with different design features, and the tower or main keep is a rare example of a multi-storey round tower built by a Welsh Prince and uniquely it has been fitted with a portcullis. Documentation relating to the building of Dolbadarn is no longer available, if it ever was. Therefore architectural historians are not sure about the sequence of building. But it has been suggested that the keep may have been the last addition to the castle. As well as series of external walls and buildings there are two further ‘towers’, but these were much lower in height compared with the main keep. Another quirk within the castle design is the complex stairway within the keep in which the spiral reverses direction at the halfway point. Compared with the castles built by the English, it is not as large, robust or impressive, and even though it would not have survived a prolonged and determined siege, Dolbarn would still have presented a barrier to anyone entering the pass.
The Welsh were able to hold out against their much stronger and more populous neighbours in England for a considerable time following the invasion in 1066 by Norman the Conquerer. They were helped by multiple civil wars, power struggles and wars with the French over this time. Wales was also a small and poor country and didn’t really represent a major threat to the English Kings. Perhaps would should also remember that the concept of Nationhood as we understand today didn’t really exist then. The King did not “own” the country as such, and all the barons ruled their own areas on behalf of the King. To a certain extent this view was also replicated in Wales, and the Welsh Princes were allowed to rule, but only if they acknowledged the stronger English King as overlord. Throughout this time the Welsh sided with various Barons in the disputes with either the king or other neighbours. Likewise the English allied themselves with the Welsh princes when they fought amongst themselves to gain control. It was all about gaining more land and power. Either by battle or by alliances arranged through marriage. Llewelyn was married to King John’s illegitimate daughter, Joan. And two of their children were likewise married to powerful Marcher lords on the Welsh-English border.
However, the unification of Was under Llewelyn was shorted lived. After his death in 1240 Wales was broken up into the smaller kingdoms of previous years. The Welsh inheritance laws prevented the passing of all titles and power to a single heir, and areas were divided amongst his sons, with Llewelyn ap Gruffudd controlling Gwynedd. Henry III took advantage of this weekend state and at the Treaty of Woodstock (1247) stripped Gwynedd of control of all lands to the east of Conwy. By 1255 though, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had defeated his opponents and at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) was recognised by English and Welsh alike as overlord of Wales. During this period he imprisoned his elder brother, Owain ap Gruffudd, in Dolbadarn Castle; he would spend nearly 20 years incarcerated there living in the top floor of the Keep.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd came into conflict with Edward I in 1276 after the Welsh Prince failed to perform homage on multiple occasions. The English King invaded the following year and overran the eastern portion of the Principality although Dolbadarn itself, in the central heart of Snowdonia, was far removed from this conflict and saw little action. Nevertheless Llywelyn was defeated and in the Treaty of Aberconwy (1277) accepted the permanent loss of all lands east of the River Conwy. He was also required to release Owain ap Gruffudd from Dolbadarn Castle.
The Second War of Welsh Independence started in 1282 initiated by Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llewelyn’s younger brother. The Prince had little choice but to support this folly and this time Edward I was determined to conqueror Wales in its entirety. Llywelyn was killed in December 1282 at the Battle of Orewin Bridge whilst Dafydd fled first to Dolwyddelen then onto Castle y Beer and finally to Dolbadarn Castle. One by one the English took these strongholds and Dafydd was eventually captured on 21 June 1283. He was taken to Rhuddlan and subsequent hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.
Following the conquest of 1283, Dolbadarn Castle was plundered for building materials in support of the construction of Caernarfon. Nevertheless it remained the administrative centre for the Royal manor with some repairs being made in the early fourteenth century and the east building was added at this time. The castle may have been reactivated and used as a prison during the 1400 rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr for it has been suggested that Lord Grey, captured at Ruthin Castle, was held at the site. Little is known about the castle after this but the external stone stairway was added no later than the mid-eighteenth century by which time Dolbadarn had become a picturesque ruin, and was soon to be painted by Turner.