Category Archives: Early Welsh History

A short history of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, Ystumanner, including Tywyn, Aberdovey and Bryncrug

Any research into the Tywyn and Aberdovey areas in the 18th and 19th Centuries runs into the landowning Corbets and the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, one of the top eight estates of Merionnydd in its heyday.  The Ynysymaengwyn Estate owned much of the land in and around both Tywyn and Aberdovey well into the Twentieth Century.

The Ynysymaengwyn Estate, showing Ann Owen’s 18th Century house and the servants quarters and kitchens in a separate building to the right. Source: Coflein.

The few material remains of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate are located 1 mile from Tywyn on the road to Bryncrug.  The name of the estate (pronounced Inis mine gwin) means island or river meadow (of)  the white rock.  In 1949  the piece of land that retained the last echoes of the estate was bequeathed to the people of  Tywyn by Mary Corbett.   Although it is now dominated by a mobile home park and campsite, parts of the former estate now contain woodland walks and some of the original features of the estate survive, although the house and most of the accompanying buildings were dismantled in the late 1960s.  These remnants are discussed at the end of the post.

North wing at Ynysymaengwyn used in the 18th and 19th Centuries for kitchens and servants quarters

The Ynysymaengwyn estate included both highland and lowland areas, and extends down to the south bank of the river Dysynni, stretching along a portion of its valley.  The Dysynni has silted up considerably and it is thought that it may have provided a natural shelter for small boats.  One of the earliest buildings in the area is St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn, parts of which date to the 12th Century probably developed out of the clas (a semi monastic church) that was founded near the shoreline.  There was also a small settlement at Bryncrug, where most of the land belonged to Ynysymaengwyn.  Llanegryn church is listed in the 1253 Taxatio, so must have been the centre for a small settlement before that time.  The core buildings of the Medieval Ynysymaengwyn estate would have been much nearer the sea than today.  A second estate that was present in the Medieval period was Peniarth, also on the Dysynni.  Gwynedd Archaeological Trust observes that “these two houses and their associated parks, together with the villages of Bryncrug and Llanegryn and the town of Tywyn emerges as focal points of this area in late Medieval and Modern times.”  There were also a number of early freehold properties such as Dolau Gwyn and Caer Berllan.

The commote of Ystumanner.  Source: Wikipedia

The history of the Estate can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I.  It passed through a number of families.  Like all these family histories, it is a bewildering succession of names that are quite meaningless to anyone not trying to trace their ancestry, and a substantial amount of this family history is captured in a well researched Wikipedia page dedicated to the Ynysymaengwyn Estate and and the Dictionary of Welsh Biography and will not be reproduced here, although some details are unavoidable.  The first name linked with certainty to Ynysymaengwyn was was Gruffydd ab Adda in the early 14th Century.  He was bailiff (legal custodian) in 1330 and 1334 of the Ystumanner cymwd (anglified as commote, an organizational division of an area into about 50 villages for the purposes of defence and justice).  His daughter Nêst married Llywelyn ap Cyunrig ab Osbwrn Wyddel, and from there the estate passed through the male line for over 200 years.

The family were noted patrons of Welsh poets.  Hywel, the great great grandson of Llywelyn was the subject of an elegy by Hywel ap Rheinallt when he died of the plague, and Hywel’s son Hwmffre ap Hywel ap Siencyn was in turn the subject of a famous cywydd (poem with a particular metrical form, in rhyming couplets) by Tudur Aled.  In the poem Tudur Aled (c.1465–1525) takes on the role of a conciliator between kinsmen.  Glanmor Williams describes the genre as follows:  “Quite apart from any disputes kindled by faction and war, there might be serious splits between kinsmen in ordinary circumstances.  Such quarrels could be more than usually bloodthirsty, ‘deadly feuds’ more dangerous than civil war . . . It was the intensity of such divisions that led poets to attach key importance to the role, which they shard with the priests, of being conciliators between kinsfolk.”  He says that the most celebrated of all the poems of this kind was Tudur Aled’s cywydd to reconcile Hwmffre with his kinsmen “by urging them to remember the tragic futilities of past internecine differences, from which only the English had benefited at Welsh expense (p.109).  I have been unable to find a translation of the poem, so please let me know if you have access to one.  Hywel ap Siencyn’s grandson Arthur ap Huw became vicar of St Cadfan’s Church in Tywyn between 1555 and 1570, and was another patron of Welsh poets.  He also translated Counter-Reformation literature into Welsh.

The raven at Ynysmaengwyn today

When Hwmffre died in 1545 his son John Wynn and then John’s son Humphrey each inherited the estate in turn.  On Humphrey’s death the estate passed to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Sr James Pryse of Goderddon, who was high sheriff of Merioneth (married in 1601).  Both died in 1642 and and their daughter Bridget inherited.  Bridget Pryse married Robert Corbet of Moreton Corbet, Shropshire, in about 1612, which was the beginning of the long association of the name Corbet with the Ynysymaengwyn Estate, which endured for the best part of the next two centuries.  Robert Corbet was a passionate Royalist.  During the English Civil War, to prevent Parliamentarians taking the property, the estate’s mansion was burned down in 1635 and had to be rebuilt.  The coat of arms of the Corbets of Moreton, whose name means “little crow” was a black raven, and the name Corbet is itself French, derived from “corbeau,” from the Latin Corvus.  It eventually gave The Raven Inn in Aberdovey its name.  The family  motto was Deus Pascit Corvos, God feeds the ravens.

Ann Owen Corbet c.1720. Source: ArtUK

The estate passed to their great granddaughter Ann Owen (1684-1741), who had married Athelstan Owen.  Athelstan Owen clearly contributed new buildings to the estate, one of which is now the the Dovey Inn (formerly the Dovey Hotel and before that The Ship) built by Athelstan Owen in 1729.  Above the door is a plaque inscribed “This house was built by Athelstain Owen Esq, Anno Dom 1729.”  He died in 1755, leaving Ann with three children.  She lived for another 30 years and did not re-marry.  She was known locally as Madam Owen, a woman of considerable personality.  Anne purchased the Caethle Estate in Tywyn from Richard and Margaret Braithwaite, absorbing it into the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  She also built the central block of buildings on the estate, added the dovecote for 800 birds that still stands and in 1717 donated almshouses for five widows in Tywyn.  According to Barbara Middlemass, however, her business methods could be ruthless:  “Her favourite method of adding to the estate was to lend money by way of mortgage to needy farmers and then, when she knew they could not pay, call in the mortgage and seize the land to swell the Ynys acreage.”

The dovecote and dog kennels

The interior of the dovecote

Ynysymaengwyn in c.1795 by etcher T. Bluck, T. Source: National Library of Wales

The two-storey house that Ann built in around 1758 was a built in a classic Eighteenth Century architectural style in local stone with details picked out in Portland stone, including an elegant pediment.  It was an unusual sight in Wales.  It was flanked by the two existing buildings, the north wing and the south wing, to make an impressive ensemble.  The stone-built dovecote has a truncated pyramidal slate roof, a deep segmental arch in the front wall inset with a much smaller flat-headed doorway.  She also appears to have been actively involved in building houses in Aberdovey.  A house on Copperhill Street bears a plaque reading “Built By Anne Owen Widow AD 1733,” and this was probably Madam Owen.  Although there’s a discrepancy on the dates (she could not have been a widow until 1755 if the date of Athelstan’s death is correct), the fanlight window on Anne’s plaque exactly mirrors the fanlights on the Dovey Inn, suggesting a close connection.

The Dovey Inn donated by Athelstan Owen and a row of three houses provided by Ann Owen

Richard Owen, second in line to inherit the estate after his elder brother Corbet, but both died childless so their younger sister Anne inherited. By Richard Wilson c.1748-50.  Source:  Richard Wilson Online

Of Anne and Athelstan Owen’s children, Corbet and Richard died childless so their daughter Ann Maurice (married to Pryce Maurice) inherited the estate.  To comply with Ann Owen’s wishes, the estate then passed to Henry Arthur Maurice, who was Ann and Pryce Maurice’s younger son, presumably chosen because Ann Owen disapproved of the elder son Edward’s youthful activities, which included fathering at least two illegitimate children.  An interesting twist in the tangle of family names is that when the property then passed to a male with a different last name (for example, where a daughter who inherited the estate married) those men were required in the terms of the bequest to change their last name to Corbet, ensuring that the name Corbet was always associated with Ynysymaengwyn.  This was the case even when the estate passed out of the Corbet bloodline.  Henry Arthur Maurice, grandson of Ann Owen, therefore changed his last name to Corbet.  When he died childless in 1782, his elder brother Edward Maurice (1741-1820) inherited the Ynysymaengwyn Estate against his grandmother Ann Owen’s wishes, and Edward also changed his name to Corbet.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion. Sources: Coflein (top) and Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodlands Park (plan at bottom)

Although Ann Owen had disapproved of him in his feckless youth, to the extent of cutting him out of her will, the more mature Edward was not unlike her in terms of his urge to make improvements to the estate and to benefit its dependants.  Lewis Lloyd says that he had travelled to London to learn from a physician “to acquire sufficient knowledge to dispense medicine to his tenants and others.”  He was a loyal supporter of Britain’s role in the Napoleonic Wars, and was a captain in the local militia.  During this period, much of the lowland and upland parts of the estate were enclosed and marshy areas were drained.  Edward was noted for breeding horses, cattle and sheep, and beginning in 1788, the drainage of some 260 acres of peat land for conversion to hay fields for use as livestock fodder, eventually producing 500 tons of hay annually.  This denied poorer members of the community access to peat cutting (turbary) and communal pasture, and many people left the area, some emigrating to the United States.  The upland parts of the estate that Edward enclosed were of potential interest for their mineral content, and he established copper works and searched for coal.  His loyalty to the English government and the crown led, at least in part, to his suspicion of Methodism, which he thought radical and borderline seditious, and which was growing fast in Wales.  His persecution of Methodists in Aberdovey, for example, resulted in their eviction from their premises with bibles and benches thrown out onto the street, with fines imposed on anyone who gave them shelter for their meetings.  Edward Corbet’s obituary records that he “was a cynic and a wit, a man of the world and when he pleased a very polished gentleman.  he was by turns petulant and affable, entertaining everyone.  With the flashes of his wit and the bitter but often just severity of his satire.”

Griffith Owen, butler and harpist to the Corbets at Ynysymaengwyn, portrayed in the last 1820s or early 1830s by Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835). Source: ArtUK

When Edward died in 1820, the estate passed to Edward’s nephew Athelstan Maurice, son of Edward (Maurice) Corbet and Henry’s brother Price Maurice, and he too changed his name to Corbet.  Athelstan continued Edward’s work building enclosures and draining land.  His main achievement was to invest in the local road network, which was in very poor condition.  He built a new road between Pennal and Aberdovey that opened in 1827 and improved the road from Pennal to Machynlleth.  This improved communications and soon stagecoaches began to arrive with passengers, some in the area on business, some visiting as early tourists.  Interestingly, when the Wesleyan Methodists were looking for somewhere to build their chapel, it was rented from the Ynysymaengwyn Estate in 1828, suggesting that Athelstan did not share his uncle’s violent dislike of Methodists.  The portrait to the right shows Griffith Owen (1750-1833) who fascinatingly combined the roles of butler and harpist to the Corbets before be became the landlord of the Raven Arms in Aberdovey.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1829. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

In 1829 Athelstan built the Corbet Arms Family Hotel and Post House at the western end of Aberdovey to cater to the needs of visitors.  It was right on the edge of the sea before the construction of the sea wall.  A bowling green was laid out in the front of hotel, and on the beach bathing huts were installed and donkey rides were available.  Writing in 1833, Samuel Lewis described how horse races were held at Ynysymaengwyn every September by the side of the Dysynni, and one can imagine how perfect the wide flat floodplain would have been for this purpose.  By the 1840s the estate comprised some 7201 acres, eighth in size of the 21 south Meiryonnydd estates.  The nearest estate in size in the immediate area of Tywyn and Aberdovey was the Peniarth estate of 4421 acres.

Corbet Arms Hotel 1867. Source: Hugh M. Lewis, Pages of Time.

In his account of Ynysymaengwyn Lewis Lloyd says that from the mid 1850s the history of the estate “was increasingly troubled.”  When Athelstan Maurice Corbet died, the estate passed to his sister Henrietta Maurice, who married Charles Decimus Williams with whom she had a daughter also named Henrietta.  The younger Henrietta married John Soden of Bath, who duly changed his name to Corbet.  In 1862 a Trust was established for running the estate and the trustees were given leave to raise £5000 for harbour improvements.  In 1865 the harbour area, including the wharf and jetty, were leased to the Cambrian Railways Company.  The Corbet Arms Hotel was rebuilt in 1867 to accommodate the  visitors were anticipated would follow in the wake of the opening of the railway in the mid 1860s.  The opening of the railway was discussed on a previous post.

Ynysymaengwyn 18th Century mansion. Source: Commando Veterans Association

Lewis says that most of the stewards of Ynysymaengwyn were local men until the late 1860s, examples being two former ship captains, after which English agents were apparently preferred, but he adds that not much is known about who they were and that this is research yet to be undertaken.  In the 1860s the half-yearly rent audit of the estate was held in Tywyn and a dinner was given for the tenants in the Town Hall, and any important local issues were discussed.   In 1863 this included the opening of the railway.  It is quite clear that there is a lot of information about people who worked on the estate in various records held in the National Library of Wales and National Archives and elsewhere (see for example the results of a National Archives search on Ynysymaengwyn), so a major research project is awaiting someone.

John Soden Corbet died in 1871 and his son Athelstan John Soden Corbet inherited.  Athelstan’s majority was celebrated lavishly in both Tywyn and Aberdyfi in July 1871, celebrations that were reported at length in the The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 7th July 1871.  Reading the account with hindsight, the optimism and happiness with which he was greeted seem rather sad.  Some highlights are copied here, but you can see the full account on the National Library of Wales website. The celebration shows just how important the Ynysymaengwyn Estate was to the local communities:

News report of Athelstan Soden Corbet attaining his majority. Source: National Library of Wales.

THE MAJORITY OF ATHELSTAN J. SODEN-CORBET, ESQ., YNYSYMAENGWYN.   Towyn and Aberdovey were on Thursday the scene of long to be remembered rejoicings in honour of the attainment of the majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., of Ynysymaengwyn. The Corbets are one of the best known and oldest families of which the county of Merioneth can boast; their connection with Towvn, Aberdovey, and their neighbour- hood can be traced back for a good many generations, and, upon the whole of the extensive estate connected with the family property, the name of Corbet is never mentioned but with feelings of the greatest respect, for the Corbets have always been identified as liberal, go d-hearted land- lords, who are respected by their tenantry, and held in high esteem throughout the length and breadth of the county. Liberal sums were subscribed both in Towyn and Aberdovey, to celebrate the event in a manner be- fitting the occasion, and the hearty enthusiasm which was evoked cannot but have testified to the young heir the good wishes which his tenantry and numerous friends entertain for him. Towyn was quite en fete on Thursday; the demonstrations were of a varied and pleasurable character in honour of the young heir. The decorations were of the gayest, and bunting was profusely displayed from the residences of the principal inhabitants. Handsome arches spanned the roads and bore flags, banners, and mottoes wishing health, long life, and happiness to Athelstan John Soden Corbet, Esq.

Here’s the account of the venue:

THE BANQUET, or complimentary dinner, given by the Ynys estate, to the friends and tenantry, took place in a large tent erected on the grounds adjoining the Corbet Arms, Towyn. The tent, with the decorations, was supplied by Mr Andrews, of Shrewsbury, and was embellished in a most tasteful manner. The sides were of scarlet, relieved with white and the supports were entwined with pink, blue, and white draperies, and suspended from them were festoons of coloured flowers. Each support bore a banner and armorial bearings of the county families, the principal being the shield of the Corbet family with motto Deus Pascit Corvos.

The food served must have been something to behold:

Soup.-Mock turtle, ox tail, green pea. Fish.-Salmon and lobster sauce, turbot, filleted soles. Entrees.-Yeal Cutlets, sweetbread, patties, steak and oyster pie, stewed pigeons, curried rabbit.  Champagne. Removes.-Haunch of venison, roast beef, boiled beef, roast mutton, boiled mutton, lamb, veal and ham, veal and pigeon pies, chicken and tongue, ducklings and green entremets, &c. -Sir Watkin’s pudding, plum pudding, strawberry, currant, and raspberry tarts, cheese cakes, jellies, blancmange, tipsy cake. Cheese and salad. Dessert.-Pine apples, grapes, strawberries, dried fruit. Claret, sherry, port.

The Corbet coat of arms, preserved today in the walls of the ballroom garden in the public area of Ynysmaengwyn today.

Athelstan married Mary Helen Annie Oldfied in 1873.  The marriage failed very quickly and divorce followed.  He was Justice of the Peace and became High Sheriff in 1875.  In spite of all the high hopes of the community, Athelstan Soden Corbet’s poor management of the estate combined with expensive renovations to the house, new furnishings, the costs of the divorce and heavy expenditure by Athelstan and his wife on luxurious lifestyles resulted in serious debts.  Lewis concludes that “he did not share the sense of duty and regard for his estate in Wales and its people which his predecessors had demonstrated.”  In 1875 he decided to sell the 9347 acre estate,  which earned an annual rent of £8241.  Athelstan fled his responsibilities by going overseas, living a rich life, but his letters to his agent demonstrate that he was suffering increasing financial stress, and the estate was barely able to support him.  Ynysymaengwyn was put up for sale in April 1876.  In 1877, still living vastly beyond his means, Athelstan was forced to take out a series of mortgages on the estate, which by 1878 had reached £42,000 (around £2,779,757.40 today, according to the National Archives Currency Converter). 

John Corbett. Source: Dodderhill Parish Survey Project.

Athelstan Soden Corbet must have been very relieved when John Corbett purchased the property for £51,000, which secured for Corbett the mansion, demesne and pleasure grounds.  John Corbett (1817-1901) was, somewhat confusingly, no relation to the Ynysymaengwyn Corbets.  He was a wealthy salt merchant who owned the Stoke Prior Salt Works near Droitwich, was the Liberal M.P. for Droitwich between 1874 and 1885 and the Liberal Unionist M.P. for Mid-Worcestershire between 1886-1892.  In Droitwich he was known as The Salt King.  He remained very involved with Worcestershire throughout his life, and like some of his predecessors  did not live at Ynysymaengwyn on a permanent basis, although his wife moved there with their children.  His Coat of Arms incorporated the symbol of the raven, an elephant and a castle.  It can be seen on the gate posts at the entrance to Ynysymaengwyn and on the porch of the Aberdovey Literary Institute.

The main staircase at Ynysmaengwyn. Source: Coflein

The property when he bought it was described in detail in the Book of Sale of 1878, and this has been reproduced by Lewis Lloyd.  Anyone wanting to see the full description should see Lloyd’s book, but here are some of the highlights, which also indicate the extent to which Athelstan Soden Corbet was living beyond his means.  The mansion was described, in typical estate agent speak, as “a commodious stone-built residence of commanding elevation,” containing “a magnificent Central Hall, 42ft by 26ft, surrounded by the Reception Rooms, over which are the principal Bedrooms and in Two Detached Wings are the Secondary Apartments, Private and Domestic Offices, possessing all the conveniences necessary for a well-ordered establishment.”  Athelstan’s renovations “in the most substantial manner and regardless of cost” were “in the purest feeling of the Adams’s time and school.”  Furnishings were described as “of mediaeval style, most exquisite in design and unsurpassed in quality and workmanship.  It is practically new, having been recently supplied to the owner, and is in admirable order, and in perfect harmony with the elegant surroundings.”  A London upholstery firm had been imported to restore the fabrics. Outside it lauded the “gardens and pleasure grounds.”   The estate itself was described as “a sporting estate” including pheasant, partridge, duck, widgeon, teal and snipe, and offered fishing in the river Dysynni with salmon, sewin and trout.   Further attractions listed include yachting, sea-fishing, the seaside resorts of Aberystwyth, Aberdovey and Barmouth and “the unsurpassed beauty of the Welsh Mountain and River scenery.” Details of the farms attached to the property and the rent they paid were also detailed. The house was home to Belgian refugees during the First World War.  The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust says that in 1879 the estate began to be sold off piecemeal, and that this resulted in a period of land-speculation and development.  It would be interesting to know more about how this happened and took up the opportunities offered.

When John Corbett arrived at Ynysymaengwyn he made many improvements to the property, including connecting the south wing and the north wing, which housed the kitchens, via stone corridors to the main house, which underwent extensive improvements.  Remnants of these walls still remain at the estate.  The south wing was gutted and provided with a ballroom, stage, gallery and additional bedrooms.  He also invested heavily in the gardens and by the 1880s the gardens were were thought to be amongst the finest in Wales.  The estate was expanded by the purchase of additional estates, farms and the Tonfunau granite quarry.

Literary Institute Verandah, with the Corbett coat of arms showing an elephant carrying a tower or castle in red, with the black raven beneath

John Corbett became a significant investor in Tywyn’s physical, social and cultural infrastructure. His investments, most of which followed the sale of his salt business in 1888, included the development of Tywyn’s water and sewage system, the construction of the promenade in 1889 (at a cost of £30,000), the Intermediate School in 1894, improvements to the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed the Corbett Arms Hotel) and the land for and £500 towards building of the new Market Hall as well as £70 towards the price for its clock. In Aberdovey he paid for the charming porch or verandah for the Literary Institute in 1897, topped with his crest showing a raven, an elephant and a castle.  He continued to invest in the school, as this short report in the Weekly Mail describes: “A meeting of the local managers of the Towyn Intermediate School was held on Saturday evening, Mr. Haydn Jones, J.P., presiding. Mr. J. Maethlon James announced that Mr. John Corbett, Ynysymaengwyn and Impney, Droitwich, had generously subscribed a sum of £100 per annum for three years towards enabling the managers to secure the services of an additional teacher and to increase the number of John Corbett’s Scholarships. The Chairman remarked that Mr. Corbett had already given over £2,000 in cash, towards the school.”  In January 1896 the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard reported “It is gratifying to find that Mr Corbett of Ynysymaengwyn, after having the matter brought under his notice, has given instructions that local tradesmen are to be allowed to lender for the work of constructing the Corbett Avenue and the Llechlwyd Tramroad. This gives a prospect of plenty of work for the spring and summer.”

John Corbett’s contributions to Ywyn. Top line, 1893 Assembly rooms (which he did not build, but to which he contributed) and the land and contribution to the building of the new Market Hall. Middle row: expansion and modernization of the Corbet Arms Hotel (renamed Corbett Arms Hotel) and its stables. Bottom row: plaque commemorating the new promenade and esplanade, and one of the gateposts into Ynysymaengwyn

Corbett’s convictions was completely consistent with 19th Century beliefs in philanthropy, public education, the promotion of healthy activities and the social obligation for the rich to invest on behalf of the relatively deprived. This tendency was particularly prominent in industrial cities, where manufacturers and merchants like John Corbett conducted business, but as these successful city entrepreneurs became landowners in their own right, many of these philanthropic ideas began to spread into more rural areas. It also did local landowners no harm to invest in infrastructure to improve the local economy and boost their own incomes.  John Corbett died 22nd April 1901.  The Towyn-on-Sea and Merioneth County Times reported on the funeral, listing estate workers who attended the funeral in Droitwich, stating that all flags in Tywyn were flown at half mast.

Rear aspect of Ynysymaengwyn mansion.  Source: Coflein.

In John Corbett’s will, the estate was left to his brother Thomas Corbett, who besides Ynysymaengwyn inherited “Impney Hall and estates in the Droitwich district, brine baths and four hotels,” (Welsh Gazette and West Wales Advertiser).  John had been alienated from his wife, from whom he was legally separated in 1884.  The will was contested, but although financial compensation was provided for John’s children, Thomas retained the estate. It only passed to John and his divorced wife Anna’s son Roger (1863–1942) on Thomas’s death in 1906, on the fifth anniversary of John Corbett’s death.  Roger and Anna moved back to the property in the same year, news received with considerable enthusiasm by the residents of Tywyn, although Roger only used it as a summer residence.  Barbara Middlemass says that in 1908 the house and grounds were “maintained by a housekeeper, eight maids, a chauffeur, seen gardeners and two game keepers.  Among the activities of the last mentioned were the rearing of 500 pheasants for a single season’s shooting”   The Corbett Arms Hotel in Aberdovey, which had been rebuilt in 1867, burned down in 1914, remaining in ruins until it was knocked down to create space for a new primary school in 1968.  In 1935 a Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to St David was established in a former Predbyterian Chapel in Brook Street.  It has a rather fine stained glass window decorated with the Corbett raven.  It only closed in 1989 when it was replaced with a new St David’s.

Ynysymaengwyn mansion, interior views.  Source:  Flickr, Richard Griffiths

When Roger died in 1942 the estate passed to his sister Mary Corbett, who remained unmarried, and ended the line of inheritance at the Ynysymaengwyn Estate.  During the Second World War the army occupied the Ynysymaengwyn Estate as a Royal Marines’ Camp, although I have not found a date for when they took it over.  When the Ministry of Defence handed the estate back to Mary Corbett in 1949 she transferred it in trust to Merioneth County Council, together with £3300, suggesting it might be converted to an agricultural college for the county.  The house was in a state of significant disrepair, with extensive dry rot,  and there was insufficient income from the estate to pay for repairs, which the council could not afford either, and the theft of lead from the roofs added to the speed of decay.  Given the extensive revamps carried out by Athelstan Soden Corbet in the 1870s and John Corbett in the 1880s, it is frightening how fast the property deteriorated.  One wonders to what extent the occupation by the army was responsible, but it is also clear that the estate was no longer in any condition to pay for itself, perhaps because of the war, and perhaps because of changing economic and social processes from earlier in the 20th Century.

The interior of the Ynysmaengwin ballroom wing. Source: Flickr, Richard Griffiths

Mary died in 1951.  In 1957, under the terms of the 1906 Open Spaces Act, Merioneth County Council transferred the property to the Urban District Council of Tywyn “for securing the enjoyment of the said open space.” New trees were planted between 1958 and 1962 and two fields were let out for livestock grazing. Initially the house was converted into a base for training and practice facility for the fire brigade and army, but was demolished in around 1965 (there is some disagreement about exactly when it was taken down).  It was set on fire as an exercise by the Fire Service, and was finished off by the Royal Engineers who blew it up during a demolition exercise.  It was a sad but far from prosaic end to its life.  In 1966, part of the grounds were turned over to 115 static caravans, with an additional 4.5 acres developed as a campsite for tents, caravans, and campervans.   This destroyed the mansion’s pleasure garden, of which according to the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust there are now no traces.  In 1984 the local government organization of the area was changed, and the following year a dispute erupted between Bryncrug Community Council and Tywyn Town Council regarding the management of Ynysymaengwyn, with the result that Tywyn Town Council took over the Caravan site, with profits being re-invested into the estate for its maintenance.  The ballroom wing was demolished in 1989.  In 2008 Tywn Town Council, with a £47,000 contribution from Cydcoed (Woods for All) completed the restoration of the woodlands, which had become dominated by conifers and were replanted with broadleaf trees, which are far more friendly to other wildlife, letting in more light and providing good mulch following leaf fall.

The video below shows the remains of the ballroom and the walled ballroom garden, some of the walled kitchen garden, and local scenery that would have been enjoyed by the occupants of Ynysymaengwyn (February 2019 – and sorry it’s a bit jerky, I am still new to a camcorder).

Of the projects that John Corbett initiated in Tywyn and Aberdovey, the Assembly Rooms are still in use as a cinema, the market hall has been divided into three retail properties, the promenade is still going strong, the porch at the Aberdyfi Literary Institute is in excellent condition, but the Corbett Arms Hotel in Tywyn, a Grade 2 listed building, is in an appalling state of disrepair and is empty.  I’ll talk about each of these buildings in more detail on future posts.

Finally, there are two puzzling carvings flanking the last surviving remnant of the north wing, its porch, shown in the image below.  The one on the right is still well preserved, but although there was also one on the left this is now very difficult to make out.  I have seen no suggestions about when they were added or what they were supposed to signify.

The carvings flanking the porch of the north wing.  Source of photograph at left: Coflein

A rather depressing adjunct to the story of modern Ynysymaengwyn was reported in the Cambrian News.  In 2016 the neighbouring Ysguboriau farm and campsite attempted to claim between five and seven acres of the bequeathed land, having grazed sheep there for sufficient time to attempt to legally sequester the land for themselves, planning to fence it off. As Tywyn town councillor and trustee of Ynysymaengwyn, Cllr John Pughe, said: “the land they are claiming should be for the benefit of everyone.” The dispute was still ongoing in 2018.

If you would like to visit, and I do sincerely recommend it, the surviving portion of the estate is open to the public as a woodland walk, with access to walks along the wonderful Dysynni river.  Just drive through the gate posts on the A493 and head down the short lane, watching out for a left turn that will take you into the carpark. In the bottom left hand there’s a map that shows you three woodland routes, the longest of which takes 30 minutes, but you can lengthen this by doing a section of the Dynsynni.

On the right is a noticeboard showing the walks, which are positioned at strategic places around the woodland. I have annotated a Google map on the left with approximate locations of some of the features (you can click to expand the view). The porch of the servants and admin quarters is to the right of the ballroom, minus the Corbet coat or arms, which was spectacular and is now preserved in on of the remaining walls of the ballroom garden.

One of the twin gateposts of the Ynysymaengwyn Estate today, with part of John Corbett’s coat of arms

There are a few features of the 19th Century estate still visible, most notably the dovecote, the former vast kitchen garden (now just an enclosed area of grass, the remains of the former ballroom and its garden, the old entrance to the big block of servants quarters with figures carved into the stonework each side of the entrance, and several sections of wall.  The snowdrops are splendid in February.  Take a bag full of bird seed with you if you like bird life – the wild birds are borderline tame, and all expect to be fed, and yell vociferously if you stand there looking at them and don’t provide sustenance!  Here’s the address:
Ynysymaengwyn Caravan & Camping Park
The Lodge, Ynysymaengwyn
Tywyn, Gwynedd
LL36 9RY
See the website for directions:
https://www.ynysy.co.uk


References:

The starting points for this post, with my thanks, were Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport, and the Coflein website, supplemented extensively by other information resources, all listed below.

Anon. 1829. Wanderings in Wales. Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repertory, vol.1, 1829. https://bit.ly/2DujYjq
Eade, S. 2017.  Towyn on Sea, Merionethshire.  Volume 2.  Sara Eade
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007.  Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment.  GAT Project  No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011.  Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project  No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007
Lewis, H.M. 1989. Pages of Time. A Pictorial History of Aberdyfi. Published by the Author.
Lewis, S. 1833.  A Topographical Dictionary of Wales. Brython Press
LLoyd, L.  1996.  A Real Little Seaport.  The Port of Aberdyfi and its People 1565-1920, Volume 1.  ISBN-1874786488
Marshall, D. 2009. Local Walks Around Tywyn in the Snowdonia National Park. (Walk 17).  Kittiwake Press
Middlemass, B. 2017 (second edition).  John Corbett.  Pillar of Salt 1817-1901. Saltway Press
Williams, G. 1987.  Renewal and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642.  Oxford University Press.

Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard.  The Majority of Athelstan J. Soden-Corbet, Esq., Ynysymaengwyn. Welsh Newspapers Online – The National Library of Wales.
Coflein. Ynys-y-Maengwyn Estate Cottages. http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/28895/details/ynysmaengwynynys-y-maengwyn-estate-cottages-bryn-crug
Geni.com.  Historic Buildings of Merionethshire. https://www.geni.com/projects/Historic-Buildings-of-Merionethshire/25169
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Dysynni Historical Themes. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynnithemes.html
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. Tywyn. http://www.heneb.co.uk/hlc/dysynni/dysynni3.html
Jones, A.  2016. We’ll fight to keep land for the town. Cambrian News, 17/11/16. https://bit.ly/2N3dp79
Jones, A.  2017. Fence row erupts in Trust land dispute. Cambrian News, 02/01/17. https://bit.ly/2NJfav8
North Wales Daily Post 2008. New Life Breathed into Old Woods. Daily Post (North Wales) 03/07/08. https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/new-life-breathed-old-woods-2824545
Owen, Athelstan (1676-1731) of RHIWSAESON, LLANBRYN-MAIR, MONT.
https://Biography.wales/article/s-OWEN-ATH-1676
Wikipedia. Ynysymaengwyn. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ynysymaengwyn
Wynn, Pryse and Corbet families, Ynysmaengwyn, Mer., and Gwyn And Nanney  families, Dalau Gwyn, Mer.
https://biography.wales/article/s-WYNN-PRY-1275
The Ynysymaengwyn Papers. Archives Wales. https://archiveswales.llgc.org.uk/anw/get_collection.php?inst_id=38&coll_id=1246&expand=&L=1
Ynysymaengwyn Camping, Caravan and Woodland Park website, history page https://www.ynysy.co.uk/history.html

 

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

A visit to St Peter Ad Vincula Church, Pennal

There are six churches in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area, which covers the Dyfi Estuary and Dysynni Valley.  I intend to write about all six of the churches, which include St Peter’s in Aberdovey and St Cadfan’s in Tywyn, but am starting with St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal.  The story of St Peter ad Vincula comes in three parts:  1) as a piece of architectural and ecclesiastical heritage in its own right, 2) as the site at which Owain Glyndŵr’s Llythyr Pennal (Pennal Letter) was signed, and 3) as a modern, fully functioning community church.  I was lucky enough to be given a full tour of the church by church warden Hugh Ramsbotham, to whom my sincere thanks.

The unusual name of the church refers to a story in the Acts of the Apostles XII.  St Peter ad Vincula translates as St Peter in Chains and refers to an event when St Peter was jailed in Jerusalem by Herod.  The night before his trial he was asleep, flanked by two soldiers and chained in irons, awaiting trial for preaching about Jesus.  An angel is said to have woken him on the night before his trial, releasing him from his chains with a touch, guiding him out of the prison past unseeing guards.  Today, the chain is kept in a reliquary under the main altar of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome), which was built in the 5th Century to house the chains.

Aerial view of Pennal, with the church of St Peter ad Vincula surrounded by an oval wall. Source: Coflein website

The village of Pennal lies on the River Pennel, which runs into the River Dyfi, and it is probable that this was the main Dyfi river crossing throughout the Roman and Mediaeval periods.  The village was occupied from at least the Roman period, if not earlier, with a small fort, Cefn Gaer, established near to the river.  The site of the church itself had probably been occupied by a pre-Christian structure, suggested by the oval perimeter wall of the churchyard.  Oval and circular churchyard walls are often associated with a number of early structures including Roman era churches that survived the departure of the Romans, early burial grounds, pre-Christian shrines and Anglo-Saxon defended sites.  Such circular and oval churchyards are common in Wales.

The first church was established in around the 6th Century by Saint Tanwg and Saint Eithrias, missionaries from Armorica (modern Brittany).  There are no signs of either that wooden structure or any that followed it.  Pennal was the site of one of 21 llysoedd, or royal court compounds, and the motte that stands some 300m to the south-west of the church may have been part of the contemporary complex.  The church was re-dedicated at the end of the 11th Century by the Normans and it is possible that it was first rebuilt in stone during the 1130s when Gruffydd ap Cynan initiated a programme to rebuild ancient churches of Gwynedd.  Throughout the Mediaeval period it was located within the cantref (similar to a county) of Meirionnydd and the smaller administrative unit of the cwmwd (commote) of Ystumanner.  Throughout the Middle Ages the church  was one of three Chapels of Ease (subsidiary churches) under St Cadfan at Twywyn, along with Llanfinhangel-y-Pennant and Llanfair (Tal-y-Llyn).   The church is recorded as having served several of the Welsh tywysogion (princes) and is mentioned in the Norwich Taxatio (records of assessments of English and Welsh ecclesiastical wealth) of 1253.  It is probable that it was designated a Chapel Royal of the Princes of Gwynedd under Owain Glyndŵr. In the 1284 in the Statute of Rhuddlan the cantref of Merionnydd was combined with other cantrefs to form Merionethshire.

The Pennal Letter. Source: British Library. Archives nationales de France, J//516/A/29 J//516/B/40. Copyright © Archives nationales de France

The presence of a llys here partially accounts for the presence of Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th Century.  The connection with Owain Glyndŵr concerns an important moment in Welsh history, which could have turned the tide in favour of Welsh independence from England. In 1404 Glyndŵr held a Parliament at Machynlleth where he was, according to tradition, crowned Prince of Wales, having organized the previously very fragmented opposition to Henry IV.  At the time he had backing from Scotland and Northumbria, but by the end of 1405 this support had been eroded by Henry’s armies.  In 1406 Glyndŵr assembled a formal meeting of his nobles and clergy at Pennal, including the Archdeacon of Meirionnydd Gruffydd Young, to discuss the options for making a strategic alliance with Charles VI of France.  During this period there were two papacies, the traditional papacy base in Rome and a new breakaway papacy in Avignon, France.  Charles VI was loyal to the Avignon papacy, whilst the English king Henry VI was loyal to Rome.  Glyndŵr hoped to take advantage of the breach within the Roman Catholic Church as a bargaining chip to gain the support of Charles VI.  As a result, a letter was written by Glyndŵr in Latin to Charles VI offering allegiance to Pope Benedict XIII in return for military support.  It was signed by Glyndŵr and provided with his great seal, which was probably done at the church.  Although the hoped-for support never arrived, the letter remains a vital historical document recording Glyndŵr’s intentions, a strategy for the future of Wales, which included the development of a Welsh church with its own Archbishopric at st David’s, an independent Welsh government and the establishment of two universities.  The letter is preserved today in France at the Archives Nationales de France in Paris, and a copy is on display in the church at Pennal.  A translation of the letter is available in English on the Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr website.  The letter was carried to France by Hywel Eddoyer and Maurice Kelly.  A 1996 painting by Ceredigion artist Aneurin Jones (1930 – 25 September 2017) that reconstructs the assembly hangs in the church, showing members of the parish at the time it was painted.

The Aneurin Jones reconstruction of Glyndŵr’s assembly at Pennal

The earliest of the clearly dated parts of the building belong to the 16th Century, with Roman red sandstone brickwork from the fort incorporated into the walls of the church and churchyard walls, which were otherwise built of locally sourced stone.  The church was a chapel of ease in the Tywyn parish in the Middle Ages, but became a parish church in 1683 under its first rector, Maurice Jones.  The 19th Century renovations were radical, but incorporated aspects of the 16th and later century features into the structure.  16th Century survivors include roof timbers that were incorporated into the new roof, oak pews, the oak altar and possibly the carved pulpit.

The church was rebuilt in 1700 and 1761.  In the 18th Century Pennal acquired particular importance when an east-west turnpike was built following the Merioneth turnpike act of 1775, which ran from near Pennal through Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) to Tywyn, completely bypassing Aberdovey.  By the mid 19th Century the wharf at Pennal became important for transporting slate downriver to Aberdovey for loading onto coastal vessels and in 1865 the Cwm Ebol slate slab quarry, about a mile to the northwest of Pennal, built a tramway to the village after several years of using horses to transport the slates.

During the 19th Century the church was again rebuilt in 1810 and 1872-3.  It is to the 19th Century that most of the current form and character of the church belongs.  St Peter ad Vicula is Grade II listed (listing number 23314, listed on 25th May 2000).  The interior layout of the church is a single unit incorporating both chancel and nave with a slate roof. There is also a south porch added in 1880 and made of stone from Llugwy Quarry, a north vestry added in 1890 and short square bell tower with two bells at the east end, with a fully functioning clock is set into the exterior just below the tower.  The original gallery was removed in 1873 (and was replaced with a modern version in 2010).  The internal floor area was lowered by two feet and six inches c.1901.  Wonderful 19th Century quarry tiles cover the floor of the chancel and the step leading up to it, as well as the floor of the vestry.  The modern slate floor at the west end replaced more quarry tiles, of which only one tiny patch survives.  The roof is a very nice open tie-beam arrangement, with re-used older timbers as well as contemporary Victorian ones.

The church has five lovely stained glass windows, all dating to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  The earliest belongs to 1872 (by Holland and Holt of Warwick) and the latest, which replaced 1872 windows in the nave, date to the early 1920s and commemorate members of the community.  The themes are The Ascension (1872 by Holland and Holt); the IHS monogram, the abbreviation of the Greek spelling of Jesus, “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ” (1872, by Holland and Holt); Christ Blessing Children Brought by the Mothers (1893, Ward and Hughes); The New Jerusalem (c.1923, by Powell and Sons, designed by Ernest Penwarden), and Charity (1928).  The Ascension, which dominates the church at its eastern end, is a particularly colourful and lively piece, with a depiction of the the Green Man presiding over fruit and vegetable at its base, the only known representation of the Green Man on stained glass known in Wales.  The Green Man is usually a sculpture, either surrounded by or made of leaves, probably pagan in origins but frequently depicted in church sculptures, perhaps connected with ideas of earth-bound seasonal renewal and the harvest.  Most of the windows are commemorative, some with inscriptions below the them, or within the glass itself.  The Ascension window, for example, was dedicated to the memory of William Hodson Lloyd, who died in 1871.

The provenance of the three striking Flemish oak plaques showing the martyrs St Jude, St Andrew and St Paul on the north wall is unknown.  There used to be four of them, all dating to around 1700, but one was stolen.  A brass plaque, a rare example dating to the mid 19th Century, commemorates three Thruston sisters, one of whom held the first school in Pennal in the church’s gallery.  The date of the fretwork pulpit is uncertain.  The lovely little organ was built by John Smith of Bristol, c.1840 and still plays perfectly.  Underneath the altar, church documents record that Lleucy Llwyd (Lucy Lloyd) was interred following her tragic death.

The story of Lleucy Llywd belongs to the mid-14th Century, but is more legend than history.   Lleucy lived on Dolgelynnen Farm near the Dyfi river and fell in love with a young court poet called Llywelyn Goch.  Lleucu’s father refused to let them marry, and kept the two apart.  When Llywelyn Goch had to go away for a period of time, promising to return, Lleucy’s father told her that Llywelyn had married another woman. Lleucu died of a broken heart and Llywelyn returned to her on the day of her funeral. The story has been immortalized in Llywelyn Goch’s famous Welsh elegy Marwnad Lleucu LLwyd.  Copies are available online in Welsh (e.g. on Wikisource), but I have been unable to find an English translation – please get in touch if you know of one!

In 1991 a road widening scheme removed part of the churchyard, to the south. It was done sympathetically, so that the sense of the space being a clearly defined oval is retained.  The graves were moved to a new site outside the village, and ninety one tomb stones were recorded and moved to lean against the walls within the churchyard.  Unsurprisingly, some Roman tiles were found at the same time.  The churchyard was converted into a Heritage Garden in 2004 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Owain Glyndŵr’s Parliament and this incorporated many of the headstones into its design.  It was designed by Peter Styles and was constructed by a Pennal, William Rees, with funding from Cyngor Gwynedd,with funds from the EU and the Welsh National Assembly, the Snowdonia National Park fund for sustainable development (CAE) and numerous local supporters.  Its aim was to provide a place of peace and tranquillity, incorporating native species of tree, shrub and flower, including some lovely pieces of topiary, emulating monastic gardens.  The dominant theme is of repeated curvilinear motifs, reminiscent of Welsh stone circles and Celtic themes.  Key features are memorial plaques, a statue of Owain Glyndŵr by sculptor David Haynes and circular oak benches that act as a textural bridge between the grey stone that makes up most of the garden and the delightful shrubbery that sits within it.  The sculpture, about 4ft tall, shows a man ready for action, a cloak held in place with a dragon clasp, and a suit of armour showing the faces of men who lost their lives, their bereft mothers and widows, and themes that bring Wales to mind, like buzzard, hare, oak tree, raven and harp.

Memorial to Charles Thomas Thurston of Pennal Tower

It is easy to think of churches merely in terms of their physical architecture and history, but of course churches were built by people for their communities.  Perhaps more than any other church I can remember visiting in the last couple of years, St Peter ad Vincula gives the sense of how it has been tied up with village life and the key families who helped to support and maintain it.  The monumental inscriptions on the walls, the earliest of which dates to 1717, all commemorated key contributors to the church, and captured some of the sense of pride and involvement that these people had invested in the community and in their country.  The number of memorials to those who died in wars alone is remarkable.  All these families, the Anwyls, Thrustons, Edwards, Talgarths and Rucks have died out now in the Pennal area, but there is a sense of continuity between them and the church’s current guardians.  Each of these family histories deserve research in their own right.

Today the church is one of six in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area in the Archdeaconry of Meirionnydd and the Diocese of Bangor.  The other churches in the Ministry Area are St Cadfan in Tywyn, St Peter in Aberdovey, St David in Abergynlowyn, St Michael in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant and St.s Mary and Egryn in Llanegryn.  The Reverend Ruth Hansford presides over the Ministry Area, supported by both clerics and lay personnel.  The village is tiny and being sandwiched between Tywyn and Aberdovey in the west and Machynlleth in the east does not have a vast catchment area, and of course congregations fluctuate throughout the year as locally-based holiday visitors come and go, but the church still manages to hold a congregation at 9.30 every Sunday and holds commemorative services, concerts and festivals, with song a running theme through all their activities.  The gallery upstairs is a space for meetings, social gatherings, small events and quiet contemplation, whatever your denomination.  Involvement with the local school, with its 18 pupils, is important, and evinced in the Remembrance Day exhibit at the west end of the church, and in an earlier project to interpret the Green Man, upstairs in the gallery.  The church is full of charm and interest, and above all warmth, with dozens of community stories embedded in every feature.

Location of St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal. Courtesy Google Maps.

The church is literally on the A493 that links Aberdovey in the west to Machynlleth in the east.  It is a small village, and parking may be difficult during the summer but is easy out of season.  Through the main door and to the left you will see a small metal box on the wall above a table with leaflets about the church’s history.  Feed a pound coin into it and it turns on all the lights for 20 minutes, transforming the interior.  Such a great idea.

Address:
Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Pennal
Machynlleth
SY20 9DW
Contact details are on the Church of St Peter ad Vincula website at: http://pennalchurch.org.uk

My many thanks again to Hugh Ramsbotham for the excellent guided tour, as well as to David Inman for introducing us.

References

British Listed buildings. Church of St Peter ad Vincula.
https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/300023314-church-of-st-peter-ad-vincula-pennal#.VwbTR3arSM8
Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr.  Pennal Letter.
http://www.canolfanglyndwr.org/pennal-letter.php
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_671.1_compressed.pdf
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011.  Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project  No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007.
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_956_compressed.pdf 
Leighton, D. 2015. Cym Ebol slate/slab works. RCAHMW, 26 January 2015
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/286681/details/cwm-ebol-slate-quarrycwm-ebol-slab-works
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: A Guide to the Church.
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: The Heritage Garden at Pennal.
Stained Glass in Wales. Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Pennal, Gwynedd. http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/site/284 
Visit Mid Wales.  Local Legend – Lleucu Llwyd at Dyfi Valley and Coast.
http://www.visitmidwales.co.uk/Machynlleth-Local-Legend-Lleucu-Llwyd/details/?dms=3&feature=1002&venue=1124365 
Vousden, N. 2012. St Peter ad Vincula.  RCAHMW, April 2012
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/415/details/st-petersst-peter-ad-vinculas-church

Castell-y-Bere (1221-1295) in the Dysynni Valley

Ordnance Survey map showing Abergynolwyn, shaded red at bottom right and Castell y Bere in the red square (OS Explorer OL23 Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid)

Castell-y-Bere is at Grid Reference SH6676908547, overlooking the Dysynni valley near the village of Llanfihangel-y-Pennant.  It is maintained by Cadw (Cadw number ME023 ).  It is a splendid place to visit.  Its remains are substantial, accessed via a short and easy walk, offering spectacularly scenic views over the Dysynni valley that it protected, and is far enough off the beaten track to be wonderfully peaceful.  There are various routes to Castell-y-Bere, but if you are not fond of single track roads, the easiest, and almost certainly the quickest, is to go along the B4405 from Bryncrug to Abergynolwyn, turn left in the middle of the village and follow the brown signs to Castell-y-Bere for about 15 minutes.  For those that don’t know the roads, they are very good quality with plenty of passing places, and the hedges are kept cut right back, but you do have to resign yourself to the fact that you are almost certainly have to do some backing to passing places before you get to your destination, particularly during the summer when the castle has a lot of visitors.  It is very well worth it, however. 

There’s a parking area, and an information sign before you pass through a kissing gate and head along the path.   The walk takes you through trees.  The stone-cut path is well defined but quite uneven.  Although it qualifies as an easy walk and there are no particularly steep bits, there are some fairly sharp drops to the side of the path, so you do have to be sure of your footing. This is even more the case with the castle itself.  There are a number of flights of stairs within the castle, some of which terminate at the edge of a steep drop with no barriers.  If you walk around using a bit of common sense (particularly if you have children in tow) it is perfect, and so much better than the usual ugly tubular metal barriers that disfigure most heritage sites today. 

Castell y Bere aerial photograph with my annotations showing key components of the castle (Source of photograph: Coflein website)

Approaching its original entrance, the castle offers a gloomy and imposing welcome to the building that requires a climb up wooden steps, emulating the original sense of entering into an intimidating stony eyrie,dominated by walls and gate towers, with pits beneath the wooden drawbridges so that when the two drawbridges were raised and each portcullis was dropped there were formidable barriers to entry.  The castle itself provides uninterrupted views over the entire landscape surrounding it, which was strategically invaluable in the 13th century when it was built.  I was expecting a far more dilapidated structure, but what survives is sufficient to make the reconstruction shown on one of the signs traceable on the ground with very little effort, although it helps to have the aerial photograph to refer to.  I have added labels to my photograph of the reconstruction and the Coflein aerial photograph of the castle as it is today, so that my photographs can be related to the original layout of the castle. 

The castle was built in 1221 by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (also known as Llywelyn Fawr, or the Great, c.1173-1240). Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, was a remarkable character, a landmark personality in Welsh history whose reign is characterized by military action to extend his power and attempts at diplomacy to retain it.  It was one of several that he built, including the important castles at Dolwyddelan in southwest Conwy and Dolbadarn at the foot of Snowdon’s Llanberis Pass.

Cattle grazing at the foot of Castell-y-Bere in the Dysynni valley.

The land that Llywelyn chose for his castle was owned by Llywelyn’s illegitimate eldest son Gruffud ab Llywelyn and was taken from him by Llywelyn for the construction of the castle.  The glacial Dysynni valley is wide and flat-based, providing unusually wide tracts of fertile pasture.  Cattle was one of the principal sources of wealth for the Welsh princes in Gwynedd in the 13th Century, and by controlling the pastures surrounding Castell-y-Bere, Llywelyn was able to protect his herds and provide year-round pasture.  Cattle are still herded in the valley, and there were plenty of Welsh black cattle in the fields below the castle when I visited. 

The river Dysynni at the foot of Castell-y-Bere

The castle had political as well as economic value.  From Llywelyn’s point of view, establishing a realm over the entire area of Merionnydd was part of a much more ambitious plan to extend his control over substantial of Wales that were not yet dominated by invaders from England.  Castle building was a relatively new tradition for the Welsh who established undefended courts called llysoedd, which would not have stood up to much in the way of determined attack.  At Dolwyddelan Castle, for example, the remains of the earlier llys survive.  The Norman advances into Wales from the 11th Century put a different complexion on Welsh strategic thinking.  The Norman lords who established their territory in the southeast of Wales, along what is now known as the Welsh Marches, demonstrated how vulnerable the Welsh were to potential hostilities from the east. Timber and earthwork motte and bailey castles were the first defensive structures, but stone castles soon followed.

A photograph of the Cadw sign showing a reconstruction of Castell-y-Bere by Chris Smith. I have added annotations to identify key features of the castle.

View from the middle tower towards the north tower

Llywelyn’s castle was built on a rock outcrop and incorporates much of the bedrock into its construction.  As clearly shown in the aerial photograph from the Coflein website above, it was a contour fort, following the line of the rock.  The castle’s current substantial form reflects various additions to Llywelyn’s original structure.  Its original walls were not as substantial as Edward I’s later additions, and the surviving walls of the original structure demonstrate that this was a much less durable structure than those built by the English.  English castles consisted mainly of straight walls connected by either square or round towers.  In Wales contour forts were common, and apisidal D-shaped towers were characteristic.  Castell-y-Bere has two D-shaped towers, one at each end of the castle, together with a round tower the middle rectangular tower.  K. Steele of the RCAHMW describes how the southernmost of these D-shaped towers differs from typical design “being isolated from the main castle structure, overlooked by the rectangular keep, and accessible from the ground floor, thus rendering it defensively weak.”  The castle was constructed of the ubiquitous local stone.   When the castle was excavated in 1851 some high quality carved stonework was discovered, suggesting that Castell-y-Bere was one of the elaborately decorated of Llywelyn ab Iowerth’s castles. 

The following section looks at the history of Gwynedd up until Castell-y-Bere was abandoned in 1295, for which the following family tree might be of assistance:

Llywelyn ab Iowerth family tree for the period during which Castell-y-Bere was occupied

 

Llywelyn the Great on his deathbed, with his sons Gruffydd and Dafydd in attendance. By Matthew Paris, in or before 1259.  Source: Wikipedia

Castell-y-Bere remained in Llywelyn’s possession during his lifetime.  Between 1218 and 1240, when Llywelyn ab Iowerth died, peaceful relations were maintained between Llywelyn and Henry III, but the situation deteriorated after his death.  Llywelyn ab Iowerth died in April 1240 of natural causes, leaving two sons, his illegitimate eldest son Gruffud and his legitimate younger son Dafydd by his wife Joan.  Llywelyn had disinherited Gruffud in 1220 to ensure that Dafydd ab Llywelyn would succeed him, an arrangement that was rubber-stamped by the Pope, thanks to the intercedence of Henry III.  When Dafydd ab Llywelyn inherited his father’s seat, Henry re-organized.  Dafydd’s disinherited half brother Gruffud was handed over to Henry for imprisonment in the Tower of London to prevent any attempt to oust Dafydd and destabilize Gwynedd, and Dafydd’s own rights were undermined. Gruffud died at the Tower in an escape attempt in 1244.  Dafydd died of natural causes without an heir in 1246.

Stairs leading up to the rectangular middle tower

The power vacuum allowed Henry III to enter Gwynedd and establish Crown control over the most powerful of the strongholds in Wales, now under the leadership of Owain and Llywelyn ab Gruffudd, two of Gruffud’s sons.  A third brother, Dafydd, was also a beneficiary.  They inherited a Gwynedd under siege, and peace was purchased with the provision of knights and foot soldiers.  Wales remained subjugated until the three brothers came into conflict with each other, Llywelyn ab Gruffudd emerging triumphant and proceeding to take over large tracts of Wales.  From 1258 until 1262, whilst Henry was busy with a rebellion of the barons under Simon de Montfort, he consolidated his new territory, securing its borders.   However, in 1262 he was on the march again, claiming new territories in the far south.  He formed an allegiance with Simon de Montfort in 1265, formalized in the Treaty of Pipton, and although Simon de Montfort was defeated and killed in battle only weeks later, Henry III chose to honour the Pipton agreement in the Treaty of Montgomeryshire in 1267.  The principality of Wales was formed, with Llywelyn ab Gruffudd officially recognized as Prince of Wales, with the right to homage of all the Welsh lords, for which privilege he paid 25,000 marks and became a vasal of the king.

Entrance into the building providing access to the north tower.

Llywelyn ab Gruffudd had made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Marches.  In 1271 he attacked Caerphilly castle and extended his realm even further.  Davies says that his authority “extended from Anglesey to Machen, from the outskirts of Chester to the outskirts of Kidwelly.  He was lord of about three quarters of the surface area of Wales and of as somewhat lower proportion of its inhabitants.  He had perhaps two hundred thousand subjects.” However, the powerful Marcher houses of Clare, Bohun and Mortimer came into direct conflict with Llywelyn, and in 1274 both his brother Dafydd and his chief vassal abandoned him, going to England.  Henry III had died in 1272, but his heir Edward I was away on the Crusade and did not return to claim the crown until August 1274.

One of the rectangular structures in the courtyard

The relationship between Llywelyn and Edward I was strained from the very beginning, caused partly by Llywelyn’s marriage to Elinor, the daughter of Simon de Montfort and by Llywelyn’s refusal to travel to the English court to pay homage to the king.   Edward retaliated by abducting Elinor and in 1276 Llywelyn was labelled a rebel.  Permission was given to the Marcher Lords to reclaim territories that they had lost and the king himself prepared for war against the prince and took an army of 800 knights and 15,000 foot soldiers into Gwynedd.  Llywelyn, cut off from food supplies in Anglesey, submitted in  November 1277.  The Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 swept away Llywelyn principality in all but name.  Much of eastern Wales was lost to Norman control and castles were established to maintain control in key areas of  Gwynedd, giving Edward nearly complete control by 1280.

Oak bucket bound with hazel, with hazel pegs, found in the well. Source: National Museum of Wales. 53.123/4.

More uprisings followed, in particular the war of 1282-3 that spread after an attack by Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd ab Gruffudd on Hawarden and Rhuddlan Castles.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud had little choice but to participate but all these attempts were ultimately futile.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud was killed in battle on 11th December in 1282 and Dafydd assumed the title Prince of Wales but by early 1283, Edward I’s vast English army had the Welsh heartland hemmed in.  Dafydd based himself at Dolwyddelan Castle in southwest Conwy whilst the English took Bangor, Caer-yn-Arfon and Harlech, building vast castles as they went.  Castell-y-Bere was the last of the Welsh strongholds to withstand Edward’s armies, falling in April 1283.  Dafydd was captured in June 1283.  He was tortured and put to a grizzly death in Shrewsbury in October 1283, whilst Edward’s programme of castle building continued uninterrupted.

The rubble interior of the walls, in a section probably reinforced by Edward I.

Castell y Bere survived the 1283 battle and under Edward I a number of improvements were made.  It received additional fortifications, in particular thick walls linking the south and middle towers.  The large rectangular keep overlies a rock-cut ditch suggesting that it had the adjoining D-shaped tower are additions to the original castle may be from this time.  Edward wanted to establish an English borough and a charter was granted, extending from Abermaw to the Dyfi, but the site never prospered.  In 1284 the Statute of Wales, or the Statute of Rhuddlan, was initiated.  The three counties of Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth were created and placed under the management of English sheriffs, effectively splitting Gwynedd into manageable administrative chunks and ending the dreams of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.  A last ditch Welsh uprising during 1294-5 ended Castell-y-Bere.  Madog ab Llywelyn attempted to take the castle from the English.  He failed, but the castle was very badly damaged in the process and was abandoned.  The 1850 excavations found extensive charcoal, suggesting that it may have been burned.

View along the castle towards the pastures in the Dysynni valley

The 1850 clearance of the site produced some other interesting discoveries.  One of the excavators W.W.E Wynne describes opening the excavations in an article in Archaeologia Cambrensis “in the year 1850, we commenced our excavations, not with the expectation of discovering any object of superior interest, but for the purpose of tracing as accurately as possible the circuit of the walls and making a plan of the building.”  It was during these excavations that the ornamental stonework and other masonry fragments were found. Other items discovered were pieces of chain-mail, corroded arrowheads, part of a crossbow, several knives, one retaining a wooden handle, part of a bone comb and large amounts of pottery, mainly glazed in green or olive.  Animal bones bearing signs of butchery included roe deer and boar. 

Plate from Wynne’s 1861 report of the 1850 excavations.

Views from Castell-y-Bere over the pastures that are used today for grazing cattle and sheep

 

References:

Stonework from Castell-y-Bere, held at Criccieth Castle Museum. Source: Hchc2009 under CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence

Avent, R. 2010. Dolwyddelan Castle, Dolbadarn Castle, Castell y Bere. Cadw
Cadw information signs at Castell-y-Bere
Davies, J. 2007.  A History of Wales. Penguin
Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/Welshsites/510.html
Jenkins, G.H. 2007. A Concise History of Wales. Cambridge University Press
Steele, K. 2008.  Castell-y-Bere. RCAHMW, 4 November 2008 http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/93719/details/castell-y-bere.
Wynne, W.W.E., 1861. Castell y Bere, Merionethshire.  Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 16 p. 105-10 https://archive.org/stream/archaeologiacam07moorgoog#page/n121/mode/1up

 

 

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

The Tal-y-Llyn Iron Age hoard

One of the two trapezoidal plaques showing opposing heads within a decorative scheme. Source: National Museum of Wales

One of the most extraordinary finds of late Iron Age art, in the La Tène style, is the Tal-y-Llyn hoard, found near the Tal-y-Llyn lake, a 15 minute drive from Tywyn.  The term La Tène derives from European Iron Age research and takes its name from the type site (the site at which it was first identified), named La Tène in Switzerland, on the side of lake Neufchatel.  The style extends from Ireland in the west up to and including most of eastern Europe. Many impressive examples have been found throughout England, Ireland and Wales with fewer finds in Scotland. La Tène is the second major period of the Iron Age, following the Hallstatt period, and in Britain is defined not merely by its metal work and the accompanying style but by a geographically variable and complex social and economic profile.

The metalwork in the Tal-y-Llyn features both the La Tène curvilinear geometric designs that are popularly given the broad “Celtic” label, and more unusual human faces, all very beautiful.  Savory discusses how some of the Tal-y-Llyn finds are an early form of La Tène art in Britain, before the so-called “insular” style unique to Britain evolved, still reminiscent of the middle period of La Tène art in Europe, dating to around the 4th or 3rd Century BC.  The Tal-y-Llyn hoard has been mentioned in most summaries of the British La Tène ever since.  Iron Age Britain at this time seems to have been a harsh place, described by Darvill as !a period of aggression, unrest, uncertainty and tension.”  The climate was deteriorating and the population competing for resources, a particularly difficult combination.  One of the most obvious features of the period in Britain is the hillfort, which were usually hilltop settlements enclosed by series of banks and ditches, bounded by palisades.  There were, however, many other types of settlement, also usually defended.  Meirionnydd and Ceredigion, however, are notably lacking in hillforts and it is far from clear what sort of occupation was here, if any, during the Iron Age.  Although the absence of hillforts seems to be part of a regional pattern that includes southwest England and southwest Wales I am not sure whether the absence of evidence for other Iron Age settlements is due to lack of settlement in the area during the Iron Age, which seems improbable, or lack of archaeological research in the area, and this needs to be determined.  The presence of the Tal-y-Llyn hoard is not itself evidence of settlement in the area, and seems more consistent with a separate but contemporary hillfort tradition associated with north Wales, the borders and the English south coast.

The hoard was found next to a steep path  at SH72702288, part of a walk to the peak of Cadair Idris that starts at the Minffordd car park on the B4405 road to Tal-y-llyn, just off the  A487 from Dolgellau to Machynlleth.  The path leads from the valley up the west side of Nant Cadair.  It was found by a couple having a picnic.  They noticed pieces of sheet bronze half buried beneath a large boulder. The owners of the land donated the hoard to the National Museum of Wales on permanent loan.   The find was written up and published by Dr Hubert Savory (Keeper of Archaeology in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) in the archaeological journal Antiquity in 1964, a year after its discovery, and discussed further briefly in the same journal in two short notes in 1966.

The two trapezoid plaques. Source: Savory 1964, plate II

The hoard consisted of thin decorative sheeting made of copper alloys, all bound closely together.  When it was inspected, it was found to look less like a ceremonial deposit than a stash deposited for later collection.  In Savory’s words “the metalwork had evidently once decorated at least two different shields and possibly various other objects as well, it must have been dismantled and packed together as scrap-metal before being deposited under the boulder.”  The shield pieces were decorated with vertical ribs and curvilinear plaques that flanked a central shield boss (a knob set in a circular, often decorated plate) all of which had been riveted on to a wooden or metal shield.   A more fragmentary shield boss was also found in the hoard, as were two trapezoid plaques that don’t appear to connect directly to the other finds, four composite discs that had been riveted to a surface that was “probably not a shield but a bier or ceremonial vehicle,” and another, plain disc.

Much Iron Age art has been associated with river and lake contexts, but although the naming of the find as the Tal-y-Llyn hoard implies that it was associated with the Tal-y-Llyn lake, this may be misleading.  The hoard was not found overlooking water and only has a marginal relationship to the lake, as Toby Driver emphasizes in his 2013 discussion of the location of the find (reproduced on the Coflein website):

Savory’s reconstruction of Shield 1 from the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Source: Savory 1964, p.20

The find spot is marked by a prominent glacial boulder, naturally fallen into its present position and propped up on massive upright stones so as to resemble an artificial ‘burial chamber’. Beneath the boulder is a dark, naturally formed ‘chamber’ which may have attracted Iron Age people to use the site as a place of deposition. The find spot lies alongside the modern Minffordd path up to Llyn Cau and Cadair Idris, suggesting considerable antiquity to this particular route. Across the path from the propped boulder, and below the line of the track, is a likely former spring head formed of rock slabs on three sides of a cleared, damp area. This spring head may have further influenced the hoard site. The boulder marking the find spot is the most prominent and impressive of its kind flanking the path as it ascends from the valley floor to the open mountain above. It is perhaps the only boulder formation which may have suggested an artificial construct or chamber to Iron Age people. It is likely that the corrie lake at Llyn Cau was the focus for any traveller climbing this path in antiquity, perhaps for ritual purposes, and therefore the attribution of the hoard to ‘Tal-y-llyn’ is potentially misleading in the interpretation of its landscape context.

Although the hoard could have been deposited to honour the spring, or the route to the corrie lake, Savory contends that the hoard was actually a secondary deposition, part of a larger hoard or burial site that had been plundered.  He suggests that if this was the case, the cache was not deposited for ceremonial reasons at the location where it was found, but was hidden far more mundanely and on a temporary basis for later collection.

Detail of the zig-zag and basket-fill designs on Shield 1. Source: Savory 1964, plate VII

The ornamentation on the metalwork on the first shield contains similarities to continental examples, showing the influence of the European La Tène, particularly in the traditional rocked-tracer technique, but also shows departures, most significant of which is the basket-work background and the trumpet finial that became features of the insular style.  Savory suggests that the pieces could all derive from a single workshop or group of related workshops.  Although the reconstruction of one of the shields has striking similarities to the shield from Moel Hiraddug hillfort in Flintshire, Savory says that the Tal-y-Llyn example must be seen as a forerunner of both this and the one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.  The second shield is represented by a shield boss, of which two fragments were found in the hoard, oval and domed and about 6 inches wide.  The curvilinear pattern is not distinct, but the ornamentation is clearly La Tène. 

The two trapezoid plaques are remarkable and have few parallels anywhere in Britain.  They are both 6 inches long and 4.1 inches wide at the top and 2.3 inches wide at the base, framed with embossed moulding.  They are made of a thin copper and and zinc alloy with only faint traces of tin and contain hole for rivets.  They are decorated with opposed human heads, top and bottom, sharing a neck, resembling continental examples.  The function of the plaques remains unknown.

Two of the four composite discs in the National Museum of Wales. Source: The Modern Antiquarian

The four composite discs each consist of two pairs of metal pieces, with diameters of 5.5 (the upper) and 6.5 inches (the lower) respectively, one attached to the other with rivets.  Each disc in the pair was decorated, the smaller brass-coloured disc with an open-work pattern and the larger with La Tène curvilinear patterns, the larger with a decorated hollow rim into which the smaller disc is inserted, its surface covered by tin beneath the smaller disc, visible through the open pieces on the bigger disc, providing a contrast of colours.  They were attached to another, large flat surface by rivets, but it is not clear what.  The open-work pattern and the “whirligig triskele with lashing tendrils or streamers attached to its limbs” again reference continental designs, although Savory says that the streamers are a uniquely British addition to the motif.

The second shield boss. Source: Savory 1964, plate VIII

Megaw suggests that the faces on the trapezoidal plaques are far from benign and represent severed heads, an appropriate image for a warrior society.  Waddell has considered the Tal-y-Llyn hoard in terms of solar imagery, specifically the journey of the sun through the night sky, often associated with a solar boat, a concept perhaps more familiar from ancient Egypt.  For those who wish to explore this interpretation, his paper “The Tal-y-Llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyages of the sun” is available online.

The date of the hoard remains uncertain, partly because of the presence of objects from different periods and partly because the hoard may have been a secondary deposition.  In 1966 Spratling recognized that one of the items in the hoard was a Roman lock escutcheon, which made no difference to the dating of the Iron Age La Tène metalwork, but potentially sheds light on the date of the deposition of the hoard itself.  The Coflein website provides a useful summary of this issue:

The four Composite Discs. Source: Savory 1964, plate IV

The date of the Tal-y-llyn hoard has been a matter for debate. The decorative bronze work suggested a date in the Iron Age, but amongst the hoard was a piece of Roman bronze. This meant that the hoard could not have been deposited before AD 43. In addition to this, the decorative methods on some of the other bronzes used techniques that are only known to have been present at the very end of the pre-Roman Iron Age, and one of the items was made from brass rather than bronze. This was also very rare in the Iron Age.

As well as the sites mentioned above, other La Tène metalwork finds in north Wales include the hanging bowl/helmet of Cerrigydrudian and the Trawsfynydd tankard in Gwynedd, the necklace/collar from Clynnog on the Llyn Peninsula and the firedog at Capel Garmon near Conwy.  To the south of the river Dovey, examples are Pen Dinas Hillfort in Ceredigion and Croft Ambrey Hillfort near Leominster in Herefordshire.

 

References:

Darvill, T. 1987.  Prehistoric Britain. Routledge
Driver, T. 2013.  Field Visit. RCAHMW, 11th December 2013
Megaw, J.V.S. 1970. Art of the European Iron Age.  Adams and Dart.
Savory, H.N. 1964. The Tal-y-llyn Hoard. Antiquity Vol.38, Iss.149, p.18-31
Savory, H.N. 1966.  Notes and News: Tal-y-Llyn revisited.  Antiquity, Vol.40, p.305
Spratling, M.G. 1966. Notes and News: The Date of the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Antiquity, Vol.40, Iss.159, p.229
Waddell, J. The Tal-y-llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyage of the sun. In (eds) Britnell, W.J. and Silvester, R.J.  Reflections on the past : essays in honour of Frances Lynch. Cambrian Archaeological Association (available online).