Construction of the castle at Denbigh began in 1282, after the occupation of North Wales by the English king Edward I. The stronghold probably stood on the site of an earlier Welsh building, called in the sources Dinbych. The king created a new lordship in Denbigh and gave this land to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. The one with the help of James of Saint George, the main architect and master of the masonry of king Edward, began building a new castle.
The construction work on the castle was not completed before 1294, when the Welsh rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn broke out. The castle was occupied by the Welsh forces and recaptured only towards the end of the year. The construction was resumed, although the work was prolonged, probably due to the death of Henry’s eldest son in the castle accident. Henry de Lacy died in 1311 without leaving a male descendant, which meant that the property passed on to his daughter Alice, and then through marriage to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The new lord of the castle was executed in 1322 for treason by Edward II, in revenge for his participation in the fall of the king’s favorite, Piers Gaveston. Denbigh was taken over by the Crown and awarded to the new favorite of the king, Hugh Despenser. Edward’s regime was overthrown in 1326 by Roger Mortimer and queen Isabel. Mortimer took control of Denbigh, although he was also overthrown in 1330 by Edward III. From then on, the castle was in the possession of William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, who was one of the key supporters of the new king. During this period, further works on the extension of the castle and town walls continued. In the end, however, Edward III reconciled with the Mortimer family, and Denbigh was restored to them in 1355.
In the year 1400, Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against English rule broke out. As Edmund Mortimer was only eight years old, king Henry IV appointed Henry Percy as commander of Denbigh. Despite the isolation, the town and the castle remained in royal hands until the end of the rebellion in 1407. Edmund continued to maintain the castle until childless death in 1425, when ownership changed to Richard, Duke of York.
During the Wars of the Roses, the Mortimer family supported the York case. Therefore, in 1457 king Henry VI Lancaster appointed his half-brother Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke as governor of Denbigh. The Mortimers refused to give away the castle, but after losing the Battle of Ludlow, they had to withdraw from Denbigh in 1460. A year later, the wheel of fortune turned and after the Battle of Towton, Jasper had to leave the castle. He tried again to take over the stronghold in 1468, but he failed to do so, instead the town was burnt.
During the Tudor times the castle was largely neglected, the new dynasty reluctantly spent money on the fortification of dubious importance. To save funds, Elizabeth I rented the castle to her favorite Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester. He made minor repairs to the castle and built a new church in the town.
At the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, the castle was ruined. Royalist colonel William Salesbury, however, decided to strengthen it and garrisoned in it at his own expense 500 soldiers. In 1645, after the defeat of king Charles in the battles of Naseby and Rowton Heath, he retreated briefly to the Denbigh. In April 1646, castle was besieged by a Parliamentary army under the command of Sir Thomas Mytton. Colonel Salesbury withstood 9 months of siege and surrendered to honorable conditions only in October 1646. After conquering the castle, the Parliament installed a small garrison under the command of Colonel George Twistleton, the new governor. The stronghold was then used as a gaol for political prisoners, including David Pennant, the sheriff from Flintshire. In 1648, a failed royalists break-in attempt was made to save the prisoners.
In 1659, Sir George Booth initiated the uprising of the Royalists and Presbyterians against the government. A group of royalist soldiers captured Denbigh Castle and took the garrison to captivity. A few weeks after the defeat of Booth in the Battle of Winnington Bridge, the rebels surrendered and the government regained the castle. General George Monck then ordered that it should be slighted and could not serve military purposes. Over the next century, the castle fell into a more and more ruin, stripped to obtain a free building materials. The first security and repair works were taken at the end of the 19th century.
The castle was founded on a natural, easy to protect rock slope over the Clywd Valley. It was connected to the town defensive walls, which constituted the southern corner. It was built on a polygon plan, extended to the north-south, forming an internal ward measuring approximately 107 by 79 meters. The whole circuit consisted of a single defensive wall reinforced with numerous towers.
The main element of the castle was a powerful gate complex (Great Gatehouse) from the north. It consisted of an unusual arrangement of three polygonal towers arranged in the form of a triangle, between which a passage was made. The gatehouse was built with decorative strips of brickwork in various colors, which probably were to symbolize the royal authority of Edward I. A statue, probably of Edward II, was placed over the main entrance. The whole was defended by a 9.1 meters wide dry moat, drawbridge, arrowslits, including those placed in the ceiling of the passage (murder holes) and a portcullis.
To the east of the gate there was a queen’s chapel and about 15 meters deep well. Right next to them, on the inside of the wall, a rectangular building of the great hall was erected, a place of meals, feasts and greeting of important guests. This section was defended by the polygonal Great Kitchen Tower and the polygonal White Chamber Tower. Further south there was a smaller Pitcher House Tower, probably used to store water in the summer months, and a rectangular Green Chamber’s building, called so because of the color of its stonework. The building had cellars designed specifically to store meat and wine, and the upper floors originally contained living quarters. Between the building and the White Chamber Tower, there was a small gate for going out to the town.
The south side of the castle was closed by a three-storey Postern Tower, flanking the back gate located next to it. The exit led through a drawbridge, further along the cobbled ramp, turning to the next gatehouse and later added foregate, flanked by a small horseshoe tower of the outer defensive wall and the larger Treasure House Tower located in the main defensive wall.
The western fragment of the fortifications of the castle was strengthened by the Tower Next Treasure House, the Bishop’s Tower and the powerful octagonal Red Tower, named because of the red sandstone used for its construction. It was connected by the wall with urban fortifications and the northern Great Gatehouse. In front of the western curtain there were defensive terraces, which initially made impossible to dig up the towers and the thinnest sections of the defensive wall. On the inner side of the south-west corner of the castle, there were originally stables, blacksmith forge and warehouses.
The castle survived in the form of a legible ruin. Its most characteristic element is the northern gate complex, partly preserved also the Great Kitchen Tower, the White Chamber Tower and the Treasure House Tower, along with a defensive wall on a large part of the perimeter. The relics of the Green Chamber’s building stand out in the inner ward. The castle is under the care of the governmental Cadw agenda, which makes it available to visitors.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Taylor A. J., The Welsh castles of Edward I, London 1986.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Denbigh castle.