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.
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
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