Castell Cynfal

Growing up in Tywyn I had so often passed below Castell Cynfal and thought I must go up there and have a look. Finally after almost 60 years I managed to achieve this minor ambition. The castle sits on a low saddle nestled under the summit of Corlan Fraith, but there is very little to see from the road except for the outline of a shelf jutting out from the side of the hill. To visit the site you need to want to go there. Although there are a few public footpaths that pass underneath the castle there is no direct path up to the castle. So one evening I began following the public footpath from Bryncrug through to Rhyd-yr-onnen before turning off to pass though the farm yard of Braich-y-rhiw. As I approached the farm’s dogs were a little noisy but harmless, and I had a long chat with the farmer in my long-forgotten Welsh. But he was very forgiving of my poor language skills. From here a little used public footpath passes below the saddle but there is a permissive path that climbs steeply up the hill to where the small motte and bailey castle once stood. Be prepared to get out of breath though on the climb. When you reach the saddle don’t expect to see stone walls, gate houses or ruins. This was a small and short lived castle, built in 1147 (or so it’s thought) by the Welsh Prince Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd ap Cynan, Owain Gwynedd’s brother. Sited here on the north side of the Dysynni Valley it provides a strong defensive position, with clear views over anyone coming or going below. In fact this has now become one of my favourite views across the valley floor, with Tywyn to the east, Beacon Hill to the north and Cadair Idris to the east. Standing there brought back memories of friends, adventures and a great childhood. But I digress.

After taking over England it wasn’t long before William the Conquerer’s land hungry allies turned their eyes on Wales, and quickly made inroads into Gwynedd from their secure bases like Rhuddlan in north east Wales. Gruffudd ap Cynan, the Prince of Gwynedd, struggled to prevent the Norman ingress into Gwynedd. However, after Gruffudd’s capture in 1088, the Normans quickly established administrative control over the area. One way they did this was to build defensive structures in the Maerdref (administrative township) of each Cantref or Cwmwd. Wales had been for years divided into administrative areas called Cantrefi (hundreds). The word itself is derived from Cant, meaning a Hundred and Tref, meaning township. The Cantref was the main administrative area and had its own court, presided over by the principle landowners. There was no definition of the area that a Cantref covered, and they vary considerably in size, possibly influenced by the population of the area. Later the Cantref was further divided into two or more Cwmwdau (singular Cwmwd and Commote in English).

Today, Meirionydd includes the Cantref of Ardudwy, north of the Mawddach, but the original Cantref of Meirionnydd was smaller and covered the area between the Mawddach and the Dyfi. It has been suggested that Tomen Ddreiniog, a small motte commanding the crossing of the Dysynni just north of Bryncrug and within sight of Castell Cynfal, may have been its administrative centre. The geographical influence of the Dysynni divided the Cantref into two cymydau (Commotes). Talybont lay to the north of the river and Ystumanner to the south. Mediaeval people seem to have identified particularly with their Cwmwd, which was the focus of their civic life. There is a good map showing all the Welsh Cantrefi and Cymydau on the RCAHMW site1.

Gruffudd ap Cynan escaped from the Normans sometime around 1094 and after a few more attempts, and with help from this Viking/Irish relatives in Dublin, he regained full control of the crown of Gwynedd. After destroying the the threat posed by Norman castles North Wales entered a relatively stable time for the next 70 years. During this time Gruffudd’s sons, Owain and Cadwaladr consolidated their control over the region, and expanded southwards into Merionydd and northern Dyfed. Owain was the more astute of the two and eventually succeed his father when Gruffudd ap Cynan died in 1137. Cadwaladr was given lands to rule in northern Ceredigion. Whilst the direct influence of the English on much of Wales at this time was muted, The convoluted relationships and alliances between the Welsh and English are illustrated when Cadwaladr joined with Ranulph, Earl of Chester in the attack on Lincoln in 1141, when King Stephen of England was taken prisoner. This alliance was probably linked to Cadwaladr’s marriage to Alice de Clare, daughter of Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare.

In order to consolidate control over the principality, new castles were built by the Welsh Lords and Castell Cynfael was one of them. However, its design and position differed from the pattern followed by the Normans, especially when you contrast this with the site and construction with the Norman built Domen Ddreinog only a mile to the north near a crossing point of Afon Dysynni. Instead Castell Cynfael is positioned on a saddle of the hill above a steep incline along the southern end of the Talyllyn, or Bala geological fault. On either side are the streams of Nant Braich-y-rhiw to the north east and Nant Cynfal to the south west which drain the water shed of the hills Corlan Fraith and Trim Gelli. That said the site does command superb views of the junction of the Fathew and Dysynni Valleys.

Standing among the sheep that now populate the remains you need some imagination to get an idea what it must have looked like almost a thousand years ago. The castle mound has been built by cutting off the hillock at the end of the spur with a deep ditch. But it is easy to see the circular ditched mound that is 42m in diameter and in places 5.0m high. It couldn’t have been easy to dig out the rock-cut ditch that is about 3.0m across and 1.0m deep 2 . I can only assume that originally it would have been deeper and more impressive, especially with the high wooden defensive walls.

Welsh royal families are famous for their dysfunctional status, and the relationship between Owain and Cadwaladr was no different. Although Cadwaladr built Castell Cynfael, he became the victim of those all-too-common family struggles. In 1143 Cadwaladr’s men killed Anarawd ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth by treachery, apparently on Cadwaladr’s orders. In order to prevent open warfare between the two powerful principalities of Gwynedd and Deuheubarth, Owain Gwynedd was forced to respond and he sent his son Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd to deprive Cadwaladr of his lands in Ceredigion. In time honoured fashion like his father, Cadwaladr fled to Ireland and persuaded Óttar the Norse-Gael king of Dublin to provide him a with fleet of mercenaries. In 1144 he landed at Abermenai in an attempt to force Owain to return his lands. Things didn’t go directly to plan and it seems that Cadwaladr abandoned or escaped (maybe Ottar had other ideas) from his allies and made peace with his brother, who obliged the Irish to leave.

The brothers peace did not last for long, and in 1147 Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd and his brother Cynan were sent to drive Cadwaladr from his remaining lands in Meirionnydd. Following this King Henry II later gave him lands at Hess in Shropshire. When the brothers arrived at Castell Cynfael they found that Cadwaladr had placed his castle in the care of Morfran, abbot of the Tywyn clas. The brothers hatched a pincher plan of attack, with Hywel attacking the castle from the north and Cynan from the south.

The Cottonian chrionicle for the year 1147 notes: Kenan et howel filii oweín vi abstulerunt meironít a cadwaladr3.

Cynan and Hywel ab Owain took Meirionydd away from Cadwaladr by force 4.

The battle is also recorded in Brut y Tywisogion.

And thereupon they led a host towards Cynfael, Cadwaladr’s castle, which Cadwaladr had built before that, where Morfran, abbot of Whitland, was steward, who refused to tender his homage to them though he was tempted at times with harsh threats, at other times with innumerable gifts that were being offered to him, for he preferred to die worthily then lead his life deceitfully. And when Hywel and Cynan saw that, they led a furious assault on the castle and took it by force5.

Despite the forces arraigned against him Morfran refused to surrender and eventually the castle was burnt down. Cadwaladr was exiled in England, where King Henry II later gave him lands at Hess in Shropshire. Maybe a case of my enemies enemy is my friend.

This convoluted relationship took another twist when Henry II invaded Gwynedd in 1157. During the peace negotiations between Henry and Owain, one of the stipulations was that Cadwaladr should be given back his lands. From this time on Cadwaladr was careful to cooperate closely with his brother, helping him to capture Rhuddlan and Prestatyn castles in 1167 from the English. In 1172 Cadwaladr died having survived his brother by two years, and was buried in Bangor Cathedral next to Owain.

It may be that after the destruction Castell Cynfal was never repaired. Eventually both Tomen Ddreiniog and Cynfal were probably eclipsed by Castell y Bere, built by Llewelyn the Great in 1221. It, in turn, became more or less redundant after Harlech Castle was completed in 1289.

  1. Mapping the Historic Boundaries of Wales: Commotes and Cantrefs. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments in Wales. Accessed 11 April 2022.
  2. Castell Cynfael. Coflein. (Accessed 12Aug 2020)
  3. Gough-Cooper, Henry (ed.) The Cottonian Chronicle: Annales Cambriae, The C Text from London, British Library, Cotton MS Domitian A. i, ff. 138r–155r, online edition.
  4. Remfry, Paul M. Annales Cambriae: A Translation of Harleian 3859: PRO E. 164/1:
  5. Jones, Thomas (ed. and trans), Brut y Tywysogyon or the Chronicle of the Princes: Red Book of Hergest Version (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1955).

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