Dolbadarn Castle was built in the 20’s of the 13th century by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. It had the task of controlling the Llanberis Pass, an area of valuable pastures for animals and a key path to Snowdonia, which was the core of the Gwynedd kingdom. Llywelyn spent most of his life fighting his opponents and ultimately united most Welsh princes under his rule. In addition, he maintained a high position thanks to the key alliances with the Norman marcher lords. To this end, his son Dafydd married Isabella, the daughter of William de Braose, Lord of Brecon. Likewise Llywelyn’s daughter, Helen, married John, later Earl of Chester. Therefore, Llywelyn not only sought to build a modern (as for the then conditions) castle, but also to create a stronghold of the same prestige that his new Norman allies had.
The death of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1240 caused an outbreak of partitions between heirs and the slow collapse of Gwynedd. English king Henry III tried to take advantage of the situation and, under the Woodstock Treaty of 1247, deprived Gwynedd of control over the lands east of Conwy. In 1255, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (called the Last) defeated his opponents and, by virtue of the Treaty of Montgomery from 1267, was recognized by the English and Welsh as the suzerain of Wales. During this period, he imprisoned his older brother, Owain ap Gruffudd, who would most likely spend almost 20 years in prison at Dolbadarn Castle.
In 1282, on the initiative of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, younger brother of Llywelyn, the Second War of Welsh Independence broke out. Llywelyn himself was killed at the end of 1282 at the Battle of Orewin Bridge, while Dafydd fled first to Dolwyddelan, then to Castell y Bere and ultimately to Dolbadarn. In 1283 he was captured by the English and executed by hanging, drowning and quartering. Dolbadarn was besieged and conquered in the same year.
King Edward I was determined to prevent further revolts in North Wales and began building a series of new castles and walled cities, replacing the old Welsh administrative system with a new one, managed from Caernarfon. The castle in Dolbadarn ceased to matter, and within two years the timber from the stronghold was used by the English to build a castle in Caernarfon. It was both practical and symbolic action, demonstrating Anglo-Norman power over one of the most important centers of Welsh princes.
Despite the loss of significance, Dolbadarn remained the administrative center of the royal court, and at the beginning of the 14th century, even small repairs were made. During the Welsh rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr from 1400, the castle could serve as a prison. However, little is known about the later history of the castle. Probably it served as a private residence, because the external stone stairs of the keep were added no later than in the middle of the eighteenth century. From the end of the eighteenth century, it remained in ruin.
The castle was erected on an irregular plan adapted to the terrain. It was erected from local slate, joined without the use of mortar, except for a cylindrical, massive keep. It was the main element of the castle, modeled on similar buildings from Bronllys, Longtown, Pembroke, Skenfrith, or Tretower. Its height is today 14 meters, originally it was certainly slightly higher. The original entrance was located at the height of the first floor and was accessible by timber, easy to dismantle stairs. On the second floor there was a main chamber, equipped with four windows, a fireplace and a latrine in the bay window. Only the northern window did not have side benches, as the portcullis was pulled here. The crowning of the keep was a parapet and battlement. The communication was provided by a spiral staircase in the wall thickness, only to the ground floor was a hatch in the floor and a ladder. This dark and stifling room was probably used as a warehouse and pantry, while the main representative-residential storey was the second floor. An unusual and characteristic feature of the Dolbadarn’s keep was to equip it with a portcullis.
The entirety of the castle was surrounded by a curtain wall with a height of 5 meters. To the east of the keep there was a four-sided tower. Similar, but only in the shape of a symmetrical rectangle, was erected in the south corner, it protected the entrance to the castle. In the northern part there was a rectangular building of the great hall, measuring 15 x 8 meters, connecting by the shorter sides with the east and west defensive walls. The door was in each of the long sides. It was a place for giving meals, feasts and taking guests. The eastern part of the castle was occupied by another rectangular building, probably built already in English times, at the end of the 13th century. The original entrance gate to the courtyard could be in the south-west side, which has disappeared today.
Nowadays, the only preserved element of the castle is a cylindrical tower – a keep. This is a valuable example of a Welsh, native building, modeled on Norman constructions. Only the outlines of foundations survived from the remaining fragments of the castle. Dolbadarn is now owned by the Cadw government agency and is protected as a 1st class monument. It is available for sightseeing, including the possibility of entering to the keep.
Davis P.R., Castles of the Welsh Princes, Talybont 2011.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Dolbadarn castle.