Castell Dinas Brân
The first building placed at Dinas Brân was not the castle which now stands in ruins on top of the hill but an Iron Age hillfort built around 600 BC. An earthen rampart was constructed probably topped by a wooden palisade and this was further protected by a deep ditch on the shallower southern slope. The walls of the hill fort encircled a village of roundhouses. Dinas Brân is one of many hill forts in this part of Wales; Moel y Gaer is just a couple of miles to the north-west near the Horseshoe Pass, and another is close by at Y Gardden in Ruabon to the east. There are many others on the Clwydian Hills further to the north and in the Marches to the south.(Kightly, 2003)
Dinas Brân is in what was once the ancient Kingdom of Powys. The last Prince of Powys Gruffydd Maelor died in 1191 and the kingdom was divided into Powys Fadog in the north and Powys Wenwynwyn in the south. His son, Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor was lord of Powys Fadog and founded the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey. Although no archaeological evidence has been found some records suggest he ruled from Dinas Brân. If a structure did exist it would have been a wooden fortification probably consisting of a wooden palisade surrounding a hall and other buildings. These early records further say it was destroyed by fire and then the new castle was built on the same site, therefore little prospect for finding any archaeological evidence of the early building remains. An even earlier structure has been suggested, belonging to Elisedd ap Gwylog from the 8th century (Ried, 1973). It was this Elisedd who is named on the Pillar of Eliseg and is one of the founders of the kingdom of Powys, but again no physical evidence for any structure at Dinas Brân has been found.(Kightly, 2003)
The castle visible today was probably built by Gruffydd II ap Madog son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor sometime in the 1260s. At the time Gruffydd II ap Madog was an ally of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd Prince of Wales, with Powys acting as a buffer state between Llewelyn's heartland of Gwynedd and England. Dinas Brân was one of several castles being built following the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery which had secured Wales for Llywelyn, free from English interference. Indeed the castle at Dolforwyn Castle near Newtown ordered to be built by Llywelyn around the same time has some similarities to Dinas Brân and may have been the work of the same master mason. (Kightly, 2003)
Gruffudd died in 1269 or 1270 and the castle passed down to his four sons. Madoc the eldest son was the senior, but each of the sons may have had apartments at the castle. The peace between Llewellyn and Edward did not last long and in 1276 war started between England and Wales. Edward's larger armies soon invaded Wales and the support for Llewellyn crumbled. Two of the brothers made peace with Edward, the second brother Llewellyn and Madoc. However, the castle was not in Madoc's control as the surrender document with the English refers to conditions relating to the recapture of Dinas Brân. Meanwhile Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln arrived in Oswestry with forces to capture Dinas Brân. As soon as he had arrived he was told that the defenders of the castle, probably the younger brothers Owain and Gruffudd - who were still allies of Llewellyn Prince of Wales, had set fire to and abandoned the castle. The reason for this action is not clear but it may be that they had no confidence that they could defend the castle against the English forces, and did not want to let it fall intact into Edward's, or their elder brother's hands. The castle was not badly damaged, the fire being mainly limited to the timber structures within the walls and Lincoln recommended to King Edward that the castle be repaired and garrisoned with English troops. Edward placed some troops at the castle at least into the next year 1277 when Llewellyn sued for peace and ordered some repair work to be undertaken. (Kightly, 2003)
The history of the castle during the final war which restarted in 1282 is not recorded. It may have been recaptured by the Welsh like many other castles in the early months of the war but ultimately the English were victorious. Madoc had by now died and the three surviving brothers all fought for the Welsh Prince but to no avail and following the end of the war in October 1282 and the death of Llewelyn Prince of Wales most of Powys Fadog and the castle was granted to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Rather than rebuild Dinas Brân, De Warenne choose instead to build a new castle at Holt on the Flintshire, Cheshire border and Dinas Brân continued till the present day a picturesque and romantic ruin. (Kightly, 2003)
Dinas Brân is basically a rectangular castle with the longer sides running east-west. Beyond the northern wall the steep natural slope falls sharply several hundred feet whilst the southern and eastern walls are defended by a 20 feet deep ditch. At the south eastern corner where the ditch is at its deepest stands the Keep which looks out onto a relatively easy approach to the castle from the River Dee. The two-storey Keep would have been the strongest part of the castle with its own defended approach through a narrow passage. Next to the Keep at the north eastern corner is the gatehouse which was originally approached by a wooden bridge spanning the ditch. There is however almost no evidence remaining of the bridge and its supporting structure so that the exact configuration remains unclear. The bridge was also overlooked by the Keep which allowed archers stationed there to guard the entrance. The Gatehouse had two towers either side of a decorated covered passageway into the castle courtyard.
The Great Hall is sited on the castle's southern side, where some of the more visible remains still stand. This was a large room used for dining and receiving visitors. Its much enlarged windows still look south across the valley and an arched gateway leads from the west end of the room to what was once the Kitchens in the basement of the adjacent apsidal ('D' shaped) tower. This tower, called the Welsh Tower, is a typical feature of Welsh castles of the period. It would have protruded from the castle wall into the defensive ditch and provided archers with a clear view of any attackers attempting to approach the southern wall. The tower had perhaps three storeys with living quarters on the upper floors. In the south western corner was a Postern gate. This was an additional exit from the castle, designed to be used in times of siege to allow the garrison to 'sally' out and attack their besiegers. Fragments of the arch remain as well as the slot for the door's drawbar.(Kightly, 2003)
Legends and literature
Whilst the historical record for Dinas Brân is sparse, there are many myths and legends associated with the ancient site.
The popular Welsh song 'Myfanwy' was composed by Joseph Parry and first published in 1875. Parry wrote the music to lyrics written by Richard Davies ('Mynyddog'; 1833–77). The lyrics were probably inspired by the fourteenth-century love-story of Myfanwy Fychan of Castell Dinas Brân, and the poet Hywel ab Einion. That story was also the subject of the popular poem, 'Myfanwy Fychan' (1858), by John Ceiriog Hughes (1832–87).
The castle first literary appearance is in a 12th-century historical document entitled "Fouke le Fitz Waryn," or "The Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine." In this tale the castle, named "Chastiel Bran," is referred to as a ruin during the early years of the Norman Conquest. The tale continues to tell of an arrogant Norman knight, Payn Peveril, who hears that no one has had courage enough to stay overnight inside the castle ruins, for fear of evil spirits. Payn and 15 'knightly followers' determine to stay the night. A storm blows up and an evil, mace-wielding giant called Gogmagog, appears. Payn defends his men against the attacks of the giant with his shield and cross, then stabs Gogmagog with his sword. As the giant is dying he tells of the earlier bravery of King Bran who had built the castle to try to defeat the giant. Despite King Bran's attempts against Gogmagog the King had been forced to flee and since then the giant had terrorised all the land around for many years. The giant also tells of a great treasury of idols buried at Dinas Bran which includes swans, peacocks, horses and a huge golden ox but dies without revealing its location.(Oman 1926, 1989)
Castell Dinas Brân translates into English literally as Castle of the City of Crows, so the simple explanation for the name of the castle is as a place where crows live. However, Dinas is a name associated with several ancient hill forts in Wales and England (i.e. Dinas Emrys, Dinas Powys, Pen Dinas and Castle-an-Dinas in Cornwall) and so can be taken to mean fort or stronghold. The origins of the name Brân are more uncertain. There is a legend which says that Brân was a Cornish prince, the son of the Duke of Cornwall, another suggests Brân could be named for King Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed) also called Bendigeidfran, a Celtic God who appears in both Welsh and Irish mythology.
Visiting the castle
The castle may be approached from two directions. From Llangollen the path starts from Canal Bridge and runs beside Ysgol 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.
- The Castles of Wales, Alan Reid, 1973 (ISBN 0-85097-185-3)
- Dinas Brân Castle, Dr. Charles Kightly, 2003 published by Denbighshire County Council.
- British Castles, Oman, Charles W. C., 1926 The Great Western Railway, 1989 Dover Books
- Kightly, 2003
- Britannia, ed. Gough, iii, p.218
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