Category Archives: Ceredigion

Cefn Caer, Roman auxiliary fort, Pennal

Simplified reconstruction of Pennal Fort by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust: Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

The nearest Roman site to Aberdovey is the fort at Pennal, called Cefn-Caer (which translates roughly as ridge/hillside of the fort), 10.5km (6.7miles) away from Aberdovey.  Although there is a rock-cut track that stretches from Penhelig to Picnic Island along the estuary that is known locally as the Roman Road, this actually dates to 1827.  Cefn Caer at Pennal, however, is the real thing:  a Roman fort 600 yards from Pennal down a small B-road.  It formed part of a network of forts and roads that were key to the Roman plans to subjugate Wales.  When I first started looking into Cefn Caer for this post, it was simply because the site is part of this area’s history and I wanted to include it as a small representatives of Roman activity in Wales.  The word “small” is worth noting here, because I was expecting Cefn Caer to be no more than a very ephemeral way station for travellers (mansio) or a tiny watch-post.  In fact, it is a fairly substantial affair, as demonstrated by the above simplified reconstruction by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  The GAT work at the site reveals an auxiliary fort with all the features associated with a permanent installation, which had an important strategic role.

Pre-Roman Wales. Source: Wikipedia

The Roman Empire first made its presence felt on British shores first under no less a personage than the Emperor Julius Caesar, albeit only briefly in 55BC and 54BC.  Under the Emperor Claudius matters were taken far more seriously in AD 43 and there was to be no retreat, and after the invasion most of Britain was incorporated in the Roman Empire for for the best part of 400 years. The period of the Roman occupation of Britain is known as the Romano-British period (AD 43 to 410).

Iron Age Britain immediately prior to the invasion was divided into six main tribal areas, recorded in Roman documents, which were organized in social hierarchies that were based on lineage, status and military aptitude “cemented by the distribution of favours and hospitality; consequently equipment for eating looms large in the archaeological record” (Davies and Lynch 2000).  Parade gear, with a particular focus on horses and chariots, is also dominant in the archaeological record.  Subsistence practices depended very much upon geography, but combined herding of domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goat and pigs) with the cultivation, where possible, of emmer wheat and barley.  Hillforts are generally thought of as synonymous with the Iron Age, as places where political power was centred, but in mid-west Wales, where there are very few hillforts, suggesting that political power was more fragmented, and consisted of scattered farmsteads.  Although the Tal y Llyn hoard (covered on an earlier post) found at Cader Idris is very rich, it is entirely possible that it was hidden by someone travelling through the area, rather than a local resident.  Although in some areas life went on without disruption for some time, in the areas where the invaders first settled, they introduced substantial change very quickly.

The Emperor Claudius, Naples Archaeological Museum.

When Aulus Plautius, the chosen commander of the Emperor Claudius, led an invasion force to Britain and  landed in the southeast, he found the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe dominant, their territory extending from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus.  Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces.  Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy.  Caratacus realized that the partially low-lying territory of the Silures was vulnerable and created an alliance with the Ordovices, which had highland areas in its territory, to organize resistanc,.  The Ordovices were the main tribe occupying most of Gwynedd and Ceredigion, and “by creating a multi-tribe resistance he [Caratacus] offered the most effective bulwark against the Roman invasion to date” (de la Bédoyère 2003).

Cefn Caer, showing farm buildings with traces of the Roman fort in the field to its right. Source: RCAHMW (on the Coflein website) Catalogue Number C872327, File Reference : AP_2009_1671. By Toby Driver

It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales.  Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline.  It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription.  Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat.  The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.  A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military.  In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources.  Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.  In his book “Defying Rome,” de la Bédoyère comments that Caratacus “failed to appreciate that he was on the whole a dinosaur.  While he maintained his resistance he found the only place he could do so was amongst people who had no idea what Rome amounted to.”   The Romans did not have it all their own way, but although the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, it was only a matter of time before Wales was brought under Roman control.  There was a brief respite when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops.  Full-scale invasion was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border.

Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). Source: Wikpedia. Photograph by Alastair Rae

In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77) , and it is during his tenure that Wales was fully conquered.  Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Chester (Deva Victrix), and temporary camps were set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” (Arnold and Davies) which were used to maintain control over the rural and often highland zones.

Information about Iron Age and Romano-British exploitation of the western areas of west of mid Wales is particularly sparse, but it would be surprising if such rich natural resources as the Dyfi and particularly Dysynni valleys were not employed for cattle herding and some cultivation, with the surrounding highlands excellent for sheep herding.  It is by no means clear if the Ordovices occupied the whole area, as the boundaries of tribal areas are not known, and it is thought that other smaller and less dominant communities also occupied parts of Wales, but it seems clear that whatever happened to the Ordovices would have had an impact on other small communities in the area.  After their defeat under the leadership of Caratacus in AD 50, the Ordovician tribe again rebelled in AD 77-78 and was put down uncompromisingly by the British governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola.  Agricola went on to establish forts at Caernarfon, Caersws, Pen Llystyn (Bryncir),  Tomen y Mur (Trawsfynydd), Caer Gai (Penllyn) and Cefn Caer (Pennal), most of them in river valleys or estuaries.  Other sites in the mid Wales area established in this period were the fortlets at Erglodd in Ceredigion and Brithdir in Merionnydd.

Military installations c.AD 70-80. Source: Arnold and Davies 2000, p.16

The Roman architectural infrastructure in Wales took the same form as it did elsewhere, a hierarchy of military installations.  The most important in strategic, organizational and to an extent administrative terms were the legionary fortresses at Chester (Deva), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Caerleon (Isca Silurum).  These were, however, in a minority, and the main control over Wales was exercised by a large number of auxiliary forts dotted at strategic positions throughout Wales, often on rivers and estuaries, supplemented at intervals by small fortlets and watch towers.  Legionary and auxiliary forts each refer to the type of garrison stationed there.  Legions were the elite army of the Roman Empire, composed of c.5000 men, divided into ten cohorts.  They served for twenty-five years and were rewarded on retirement with a choice of land or a payment.  Auxiliaries were composed of non-Roman citizens, men who entered the army from throughout the Roman empire sometimes sometimes as volunteers but  sometimes extracted from their homes by force.  They were granted Roman citizenship once they retired.  They were far more numerous than the legionary forces and were essential to the Roman occupation of Britain.  Mid Wales in the Romano-British period  remains poorly understood, which means that wherever a Roman site or a contemporary Iron Age is identified in the area, it is potentially of considerable importance for understanding what was happening in mid Wales at this time.  The Cefn Caer fort was an auxiliary fort, the westernmost of Roman structures in Meirionnydd, established in the AD 70s.

Cefn Caer geophysical survey results. Source: Hopewell 2001

There are few visible features of Cefn Caer on the ground.  The ramparts to the southwest and northwest can be made out, but elsewhere they are low banks that cannot always be seen.  Before it was torn down and rebuilt in 1769  the church in the village of Pennal was reported to include a large number of Roman brick in its walls, and remaining obstructions to cultivation were probably moved in the distant past, and the land continues to be used by the local farm for cultivation.   The farm buildings, including a sub-Medieval farmhouse (which can be visited), sit within the west corner of the fort and the northern corner of the fort is crossed by a small B-road  Although the 1967 History of Merioneth provided dimensions derived from previous surveys of the fort, detailed knowledge of the scale and structure of the fort comes from more recent analysis of aerial photographs, the use of geophysical survey and field excavations, the latter only sampling certain parts of the site. The history of the archaeological work can be summarized as follows.  The site was first noted by Robert Vaughan in his Survey of Merioneth in the mid 17th Century, and in a late 17th Century letter by the rector of Dolgellau, Maurice Jones.  Amongst the 17th Century finds were a silver coin inscribed with the name of the Emperor Domition.  Subsequent visits to the site reported ditches, coins, bricks, a hard paved road, pottery and a tile relating to II Augustian Legion.   The main sources of information are the initial detailed report by Professor R. C. Bosanquet in 1921, which was further studied and commented upon in 1957 by H.C. Irvine in BBCS Volume XVII part 2, and these were the best sources of information on the subject prior to the work by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).  GAT used conventional survey, geophysical survey,  and excavated some sample trenches to investigate further (Hopewell 2001, 2003).

Cefn Caer was a small auxiliary fort (castellum) with traces of a ditch still visible at the northwest, outside the rectangular bank that encloses the fort.  It was built in AD 70s. It is more than 1.68ha (5 acres) in area, measuring 140m x 120m (c.550ft x 425ft) northeast to southwest with rounded corners.  An earlier site of c.2.4ha appears to have predated it, which may have been the temporary fort established before the construction of the permanent site.  The fort was located at the west end of a ridge or spur that rises 15m (50ft) above the floodplain north of the river Dyfi, c.10km (c. 6 miles) from the mouth of the estuary.  This offered it the dual benefits of having something of a view over the surrounding area, and in particular the river crossing.  It was only 100m (328ft) northeast of the marshy Dyfi floodplain and 1.6km (half a mile) from the river itself, where “tongues of the land extend opposite each other to both banks of the river” (History of Merioneth) providing an ideal place for fording the river, and where coastal vessels could unload.   Roman forts were built to a fairly standardized template, meaning that they could be built rapidly without resorting to labour beyond the personnel they had to hand, and Cefn Caer does not deviate from this basic form.  For comprehensive details see Hopewell 2003 (available to download – link also at the end of this post) but here are some of the key features that Hopewell describes, with numbers in the text referring to the site plan, copied here.

Resuilts of the GAT geophsyical survey at Cefn Caer. Source: Hopewell 2003, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Cefn Caer was arranged around two main axes that crossed the fort at right-angles to each other, one on a northeast to southwest axis, the other crossing it on a northwest to southeast axis, and the whole fort was surrounded by defensive ditches. At its centre, on a natural rise, were the fort’s stone-founded headquarters, the principia (principal buildings – no.5 on the above plan) measuring 25m x 28m.  Several other buildings also appear to have had stone foundations.  The entrance to the principia is on the south-west side, and “leads into a courtyard with a portico on four sides bounded by a cross hall at the rear. At the rear of the building stand a set of five rooms comprising a central shrine room (sacellum) with offices to either side” (Hopewell 2003).  There are two buildings either side of the via principia. GAT interprets the building to the north-west (10) as the praetorium (commander’s house).  In the retentura (rear part of the fort) one block of centuriae (military barracks) (12 on the above plan) can clearly be seen.  The officer’s quarters stand towards the corner of the fort. Part of the space in the praetentura (the front part of the fort) appears to be taken up by two ranges of centuriae.  Part of the big building complex (14) may be a stable block with the stalls.  Within the fort are a number of roads, which are standard for an auxiliary fort, as follows:

  • The via principalis (6 on the above plan), running from north-west to the south-east across the centre of the fort.
  • A short length of the via praetoria (7) runs at right angles to the via principalis under the farmyard
  • The via decumana (8) runs from the rear of the principia to the north-eastern gate
  • The via sagularis (9) runs around the inside of the ramparts

Beyond the main limits of the fort a vicus developed to the northeast and northwest.  A vicus is a small settlement associated with an auxiliary fort, a community of traders and their families, who supplied good to the garrisons within, but its inhabitants were rarely local, and were just as much outsiders as those within the fort.  Marriage was forbidden to Roman soldiers, but there is little doubt that less formal arrangements existed, and that families of soldiers also resided within the vicus.   The presence of a vicus next to the fort is indicative of its permanence and relative longevity.  Below the southwestern annex there was a small circular building that was probably a small temple, shrine or tomb.  A large rectangular building (33 on the above plan) measuring 34 x 22m may be a mansio (travellers’ way station).  A mid 19th Century visit by the Cambrian Archaeological Association mentions the remains of a hypocaust (sub-floor heating, sometimes associated with bath complexes), and this appears to have been located in an annex to the northwest of the fort (22) where there is plenty of Roman tile on the surface.

Cefn Caer site plan. Source: History of Merioneth, page 239, figure 102.

The fort has four entrances, one in the centre of each side, and there have been some efforts to determine where the roads that terminated here linked to locally.  A small B-road cuts across the north corner of the site, shown in the plan from History of Merioneth to the left, and the History of Merioneth suggests that the sudden kink in the road indicates that for a short span it follows the Roman road that emerged from the site.  Evidence of the same Roman road a little further on appears to run along a nearby ridge.  There was also an earlier indication that portions of a road led from the southwest gate led down to the river.  The History of Merioneth suggests that this may have led to a quay at Llyn y Bwtri.  The southeast gate would have faced the river crossing. Cefn Caer appears to be linked to a number of national routes as follows.

  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir towards Tomen y mur (to the northeast of Llyn Trawsfynydd. Tomen y Mur is considered to have been the most important Gwynedd fort due to its strategic position, its size and its complex layout, with an amphitheatre, bath house, vicus, mansio and related structures, including a possible aqueduct.  Although the roads connecting it are not completely mapped, it is clear that it was an important link between mid (and south) Wales with the important sites of Caernarfon and Canovium (Caerbun) to the north, which were in turn connected to the regional capital at Chester.
  • Via the fortlet at Brithdir northeast towards the important fort of Chester), via smaller forts at Caer Gai and Llanfor.
  • Cefn Caer probably linked to another route, this time west to another ciwitas captial at Wroxeter via the fortlet at Pen y Crogbren and the forts at Caersws and Forden Gaer.
  • It was also clearly connected with sites to the south of the river Dyfi, in the first instance the fortlet at Erglodd and, in turn, the forts at Pen Llwyn and Cae Gaer.  These were on routes to the important southern Welsh fort Caerleon.

These are all shown on the map of Roman Wales above and although the road network cannot currently be completed, the map indicates how Pennal was linked to other sites in the area, providing an important intersection at the river Dyfi between north and south parts of west Wales.

Brithdir fortlet from the air. Source: RCAHMW colour oblique photograph of Brithdir Roman fortlet. Taken by Toby Driver on 11/12/2007. Published on the Coflein website.

Another Meirionnydd fort at Brithdir, 3 miles east of Dolgellau, was found in the early 1960s and is clearly connected by a contemporary road to Cefn Caer at Pennal.  It measured c.184x184ft (54m sq), so was much smaller than the Cefn Caer fort.  It has not been excavated and there are no extant remains, but it shows up very clearly in aerial photographs like the one at left, and in the early 1990s geophysical survey was carried out at the fortlet.  When a new housing estate was under construction nearby in the 1970s the opportunity was taken to excavate, and the results of these combined sources show a complex history at and around the site.  At least two and possibly three, ditches surrounded the fort, and there are indications that a bathhouse and workshops were present.  Brithdir was considered to have been built to guard an important intersection of a number of routes.

The fortlet at Erglodd in Ceredigion.  Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust

Looking to the south of Cefn Caer, the nearest site on the other side of the river was the fortlet at Erglodd, to which it was presumably connected by a road to the Dyfi ford.  You can read more about the results of the geophysical survey in the Gwynedd Archaeological Report on the subject (Hopewell 2007).

Unlike the other parts of England and Wales, there is no evidence for towns developing or villas being built in Mid Wales.  Arnold and Davies say that this “may be a silent commentary not just upon native resistance but upon the inability of the agrarian base to produce the necessary surplus.  Together with geographical constraints, this inhibited political co-operation and fostered continuation of highly segmented societies.”

In the period AD 78-83, again in AD 98-119 and then again in AD 125-6 troops were required in the north of Britain (eventually resulting in Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall) and overseas, when some troops were again withdrawn from Wales.  Some forts were abandoned whilst others, like Tomen-y-Mur at Trawsfynydd, were resized and operated with less manpower.  By AD 140 very few auxiliary forts were occupied in Wales and it is probable that Cefn Caer was abandoned either at this stage, or during the 3rd Century, when most of Wales was abandoned.

A lot of unanswered questions may be tackled in the future.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s Roman Fort Environs Project funded by Cadw is researching the environs of a number of forts using fluxgate gradiometer survey, which should help to develop an understanding not only of the forts but of their ancillary structures, roads and supporting settlements.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust has so far carried out surveys at Canovium (Caerhun), Caer Gai (Llanuwchllyn), Caer Llugwy (Capel Curig), Cefn Caer (Pennal) and Pen Llystyn (Bryncir).  These findings will be published in the future.  At the same time, a number of GAT and independent projects are looking for the remains of Roman roads in areas where the linkages are known only from small sections, in order to fill the gaps in knowledge about the roads between forts and the routes they followed.  Research by Hugh Toller, for example, is thought to have uncovered a number of previously unknown sections of the RRX96 road between Pennal and Brithdir.

Main sources:
Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002.  Roman and Early Medieval Wales.  Sutton Publishing
de la Bedoyere, G. 2003.  Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus
Bosanquet, R.C. 1921. Cefn Caer – Roman fort in An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire VI. County of Merioneth RCAHM
Bowen, E.G. and Gresham, C.A. 1967.  History of Merioneth.  Volume 1: From the earliest times to the Age of the Native Princes.  The Merioneth Historical and Record Society
Davies, J. 2007 (third edition). A History of Wales.  Penguin
Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age.  In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L.  Prehistoric Wales.  Sutton Publishing
Gwyn, D and Davidson, A. 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi.  A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No. 1824. Report No. 671.1. April,2007. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
Hopewell, D. 2001. Roman Fort Environs G1632, Report 416. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2001.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_416_compressed.pdf
Hopewell, D. 2003.  Roman Fort Environs 2002/2003, G1632, Report number 479. Gwynedd Archaeological Reports.  http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_479_compressed.pdf 
Hopewll, D. 2007.  Roman Fort Environs. Geophysical Survey at Trawscoed Roman Fort and Erglodd Fortlet. G1827(2). Report number: 667.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.  http://www.dyfedarchaeology.org.uk/projects/07romanergloddgeophys.pdf
Irvine, H.C. 195
7. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies Volume XVII part 2, (p.124-131)

Coflein entry on Cefn Caer:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/300159/details/cefn-caer-roman-fortpennal-roman-fort
Coflein entry on Brithdir fortlet:
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95480/details/brithdir-roman-site

Snow on the hills on the Ceredigion side of the Dyfi estuary

Snapshots today, walking down Balkan Hill for some odds and ends in the village.  Not very sharp, because I was using the tiny camera I keep in my handbag.  I didn’t dare take my good kit because I knew if I had it with me I’d end up walking along the beach for a couple of hours, and I didn’t have time today!  The very short video at the end is just the view over the estuary and Cardigan Bay beyond from my window as the sun went down, with pink smoke!  The days are getting noticeably a little longer, although it seems like a very long haul to get from the shortest day on 21st December to the end of March.

 

 

 

 

 

Mid afternoon over the Dyfi estuary towards Ceredigion in early winter

I took these yesterday afternoon (12th November), but have only just got around to taking them off the camera.  Nothing special, just snapshots of remarkable light as the sun begins to go down – slowly, over a two hour period, and so early at this time of year.

 

 

Where was Aberdyfi Castle?

Glan-Dovey Terrace with Pen-y-Bryn behind and the white 19th Century shelter on top.

Overlooking Aberdovey’s sea front is a little white shelter on a small hillock, a popular destination with tourists and dog walkers known in the 19th Century as Pen-y-Bryn, which translates as Head of the Hill.  The original name of the hill may have been Bryn Celwydd, Hill of Lies, which is recorded on a chart of the Dyfi Estuary dating to 1748.   A number of guides to Aberdovey place Aberdyfi Castle on that spot.  For example, in Aberdyfi: The past Recalled by Hugh M. Lewis has a page describing the castle, “possibly a motte and bailey castle or more probably a castle of wattle and daub which was defended by a stockade,” locating it at Pen-y-Bryn.  However, although it is recorded that certain historical events clearly took place at a castle of this name, and it receives particular mention in the late 12th-early 13th Century Brut-y-Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes) compiled at Strata Florida abbey, the identification of the castle with the bandstand hill, and even with Aberdovey itself, is very doubtful.

To begin with, Pen-y-Bryn always seemed to me a most improbable as the site of a castle, even a small one, even allowing for substantial alteration of the profile of the hill over time.  In a motte and bailey arrangement a fortification sits on a natural or artificial mound with an accompanying settlement in a walled/fenced area at its foot, sometimes surrounded by a moat or ditch.  Pictures of ruins and artistic reconstructions based on excavations indicate that the motte might support a fortification that was little more than an elaborate shed, as this reconstruction from the Dorling Kindersley Find Out website suggests.  That nothing substantial could have been built on the Pen-y-Bryn site does not rule it out of being Aberdyfi castle, but the events that are described below would indicate that a large structure would have been required to defend an important fortified settlement, particularly one selected for the vital political assembly that established the primacy of a Welsh prince as ruler of most of Wales.

Dorling Kindersley reconstruction of a motte and bailey castle showing the main features. Fortifications could be very small. Source: Dorling Kindersley Find Out website.

The Aberdyfi Castle was twice used as a base for important documented meetings of Welsh rulers, first in the 12th and then in the 13th Century, but the name is also connected with a much less secure event that allegedly took place in the 6th Century.  A rather more plausible alternative to Pen-y-Bryn for the castle is the site of Dolmen Las on the south bank of the Dyfi at Glyndyfi in Ceredigion, suggested by a number of authors.

What is clear is that wherever the castle was located, it was a Welsh one, rather than an English one captured by the Welsh.  The Norman invaders were innovators of the use of castles in Wales, but it was not long before Welsh leaders, observing and suffering the effects of this new powerful strategic device, were able to learn from it and build their own versions.  Rhys ap Gruffudd the powerful 12th century ruler of Deheubarth was amongst the first to take to castle building, and in his biography of Rhys, Turvey suggests that this castle was one of his.

Aberdyfi is first connected with Maelgwyn Fawr (Maelgwyn the Great, Maglocunus in Latin), descendant of Cunedda, and ruler of Gwynedd.  This is mentioned by Davies who says that “according to tradition it was at Aberdyfi that the suzerainty of Maelgwyn Fawr had been recognized seven hundred years earlier.”   This apparently endowed Aberdfyi with a certain status as a place associated with the triumph of a Welsh ruler in achieving a status approaching that of a king.

Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffudd from St David’s Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia

According to Turvey, Aberdyfi Castle itself seems to have been founded by Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-1197) in 1156, the ruler of Deheubarth, the second most important region in Wales, in order to counter the expansionist policies of  Owain Gwynedd (or Owain ap Gruffudd, 1100-1170), ruler of the most important region at the time, Gwynedd.  Rhys and his brothers had invaded Ceredigion in  1153, having already consolidated their position in Dyfed and Ystrad Tywi, and by the time Henry II came to power, John Davies says that Owain Gwynedd’s realm “extended almost to the walls of Chester,” taking in much of the earldom of Chester and the kingdom of Powys.  The northern frontier of Deheubarth and the southern border of Gwynedd met at the river Dovey, making the river strategically significant.  Rhys was continually at war with the Norman Marcher lords to the east, and in 1158 Roger de Clare captured the castle in but was ousted by Rhys in the same year. 

Llywelyn the Great with his two sons, by the Benedictine monk Matthew of Paris (1200-1259). Source: Wikipedia

In 1216 an important meeting took place at Aberdyfi Castle, 15 years after the death of Rhys.  Its purpose was to formalize the position of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (c.1173-1240), grandson of Owain Gwynedd who became known as Lywelyn Fawr (Llwelyn the Great), to receive the homage of other Welsh rulers and to divide Deheubarth among the descendants of Rhys ap Gruffudd.  Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was born in Gwynedd, which throughout the early Middle Ages had shown the most promise for becoming the leading territory in Wales and a unifying force for the various regions that made up Wales.  The assembly was intended to reinforce the position of Llywelyn as pre-eminent ruler in Wales.   At the Aberdyfi castle gathering minor rulers of the Deheubarth territory confirmed their homage to Llywelyn, and in return Llywelyn divided Deheubarth amongst the descendants of its deceased ruler Rhys ap Gruffudd.   Aberdyfi Castle was probably chosen for the meeting partly because of the Maelgwyn Fawr connection, lending historical gravitas and integrity to the event.

The location of Domen Las

So where was Aberdyfi Castle?  Even though it has been claimed that there may have been a Welsh fortification on the bandstand site, it is clearly not a suitable venue for the types of assembly described above.  Instead, a far more probable venue is Domen Las, which appears to be the remains of a motte at Ysgubor y Coed near Glandyfi (translating as bank of the river Dyfi) on the south side of the river Dyfi in Ceredigion, map reference SN68729687.  This fits in with the identification of Rhys as its builder and its location in his Ceredigion territory in Deheubarth.  The name Aberdyfi simply means “mouth of the Dyfi” and although Glandyfi is not at the mouth of the estuary, it is located at the point at which the river begins to open out into the estuary and may have been a crossing place. More significantly, Domen Las faced the mound of Tomen Las near Pennal in Gwynedd (SH697002), which may have been a motte established by one of the Gwynedd rulers, and possibly in use at the time that Aberdyfi Castle was built.  In addition, from Owain Gwynedd’s point of view, there would have been an obvious strategic link between Gwynedd and Deheubarth.  Dividing up Deheubarth from a point within Deheubarth but just over the border from Gwynedd and in sight of it would have been a powerful message to the descendants of Rhys.  Finally, although the 6th Century Maelgwn association with Aberdyfi pre-dates Rhys’s castle by five centuries, it may have had something to do with the castle’s name.

Domen, meaning mound, and las meaning green in old Welsh (blue in modern Welsh) describes the site perfectly.  It is an overgrown mound on the edge of the river Dyfi.  John Wiles describes it as follows on the excellent Coflein (The online catalogue of archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage in Wales) website:

The medieval castle of Domen Las is represented by a castle mound or motte. This is notable for the way that it is fitted into the natural topography and for the remarkable configuration of its ditch.

The castle faces north-east across the upper Dyfi estuary towards Pennal, the court of the Princes of Gwynedd in Merioneth (see NPRN 302965), and was built in 1156 to counter those Princes’ ambitions in Ceredigion. It may then have been the sole castle in Geneu’r-glyn commote, as Castell Gwallter at Llandre is not heard of after 1153 (see NPRN 92234). Domen Las is probably the castle of Abereinion mentioned in 1169 and 1206.

Domen Las in the bird sanctuary Ynys Hir. The small wooden building is a bird hide. Source: Castles of Wales website. Photograph by John Northall, copyright John Northall

The castle mound is set near the northern tip of an isolated straggling rocky ridge rising from the marshes. It is a circular flat-topped mound roughly 34m in diameter and 5.0m high. It is ditched around except on the south-east, where the ground falls steeply into the marsh. On the west side a rocky ridge serves is co-opted as a counterscarp. On the north side the ditch has the appearance of a regular basin, closed on the east side by a wall of rock pierced by a narrow gap. This could be a pond or cistern, and is surely an original feature.

There are no traces of any further earthworks. The castle mound was probably crowned by a great timber-framed tower and it is likely that a princely hall and associated offices stood nearby. These could have occupied the irregular platform on the northern tip of the spur above the river, although there is a more a more amenable location on the south side of the motte, where a level area is sheltered by the rocky ridge. A little to the south a small bank cuts across the ridge. This was probably a hedge bank and may be comparatively recent.

The identification of Domen Las as Abereinion castle by Wiles and others is interesting and muddies the waters more than somewhat.  The River Einion flows into the Dovey very near Domen Las but there is also a River Einion to the south, and in The Welsh Chronicle it is listed as having been built by Malgwn in 1205 and is sometimes identified with the mound at Cil y Graig in Cardigan as Abereinion Castle.  It is entirely possible, of course, that both names were applied to the same castle.  If that were the case, the Domen Las site is the most plausible location as it is both at the mouth of the river Dovey, where it spreads into the estuary, and at the mouth of the river Einion, where it joins the Dovey.

Location of Tomen Las (click to expand the image). Sources: Main map from Google Maps; Insert from the Coflein website.

Another candidate for Abyerdyfi Castle is Tomen Las near Pennal.  This is actually within Gwynedd with clear views over the estuary to Ceredigion and to Domen Las.  At the south of Gwynedd, near the borders with Deheubarth, this is yet another plausible site.  The Coflein website suggests that it was a former court (llys) of the princes of Pennal and describes the surviving remains as a circular mound 26m in diameter that rises 3.0m from the traces of its ditch with a level summit 15-17m across. There are no traces of further earthworks.

The short answer to the question posed in the title of this post is that there is no definitive location for Aberdyfi Castle. I have searched for but failed to find any records that the Pen-y-Bryn or Domen Las sites have been excavated, but it would certainly be interesting if future research into the question were to extend beyond analysis of the late Medieaval texts and into the field.  If I had to put money on it, I would go for the Domen Las site, mainly because of the political significance of the location just over the border of Gwynedd in Ceredigion, a good location from which to make a statement about the dominance of  Llewelyn ab Iowerth over both Gwynedd and the Deheubarth territories to its south.

Finally, returning to Pen-y-Bryn, a booklet by the Aberdyfi Chamber of Trade says that the castle on the hill was built by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1151, when it was called Bryn Celwydd and was destroyed in 1157 by the Norman Earl Robert de Clare.  The little shelter at its top was a gift from a local landowner in 1897.  It can be approached from a footpath on the left as you head up Copper Hill Street, or from the seafront road just on the town side of the railway bridge, along a track that has recently been restored after several years of closure.  It looks as though you are heading into someone’s garden, but the steps that lead up on the far right are part of the footpath.  From the shelter there are beautiful views over the Dovey estuary and Cardigan Bay.

References

Aberdyfi Chamber of Commerce 2003.  Aberdyfi Aberdovey Walks.
Davies, J. 2007 (revised edition of the 1990 and 1992 editions). A History of Wales.  Penguin
Jenkins, G.H. 2007.  A Concise History of Wales.  Cambridge University Press
Lewis, H. M. 2001. Aberdyfi: The past Recalled. Dinas
Turvey, R. 1997. The Lord Rhys: Prince of Deheubarth. Gomer.
Wiles, J. 2008.  Domen Las or perhaps Abereinion Castle. Coflein. http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/303600/details/domen-las-or-perhaps-abereinion-castle