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, close to a triangle plan adapted to the terrain. The defensive walls of the castle, about 5 meters high, run along the slopes of the hill, except for the south-east side. It was erected from local slate, joined without the use of mortar, except for a cylindrical, massive keep.
The cylindrical tower 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 from the north side at the height of the first floor and was accessible by timber, easy to dismantle stairs. It was protected by a portcullis and a door closed with a bar. On the second floor there was a main chamber, equipped with four windows, a fireplace and a latrine in the projection, that served the first and second floor. 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, covering the surrounding gallery for guards. The communication between timber ceilings 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. The first floor, although also heated by a chimney, could not be used as a private room due to the lack of the light (not even one larger window was on that floor). Probably the tower or the nearest service of the owner was used in them. An unusual and characteristic feature of the Dolbadarn’s keep was to equip it with a portcullis. The purpose of the penannular structure in the center of the tower’s ground loor has not yet been clarified.
A timber building on a stone foundation adjacent to the western part of the keep (only two holes in the wall remained of it) probably serving as a kitchen. This location would give the opportunity to quickly deliver meals to the castle owners, and, due to the distance from other buildings, relative protection against the threatening of kitchen fires.
West of the keep, in the line of the defensive wall, a four-sided, irregular tower was placed. Similar one, but only of the shape of a symmetrical rectangle, was erected in the southern corner. It could protect the access road to the castle, and it also had a small postern gate in the south wall, leading to a ledge, carved below in the rock. In the northern part of the castle there was a rectangular hall building (15×8 meters), connected by the shorter sides with the eastern and western curtain walls. It was a representative place where feasts and celebrations were organized and guests were welcomed. The door to its interior was on each of the long sides. At the north-eastern corner near one of the entrances to the building, a latrine was placed on the outside of the defensive wall. Also on the opposite south side of the hall was a smaller, rectangular building attached to the wall. Perhaps it had auxiliary and economic functions in relation to the hall. 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 main entrance to the courtyard could be on the south-west side of the castle (at the defensive wall which has not been preserved until today), or possibly in the eastern part of the castle, in the wall next to the building adjacent to the hall from the south. In this case, this building would serve as a gatehouse rather than an economic building.
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 have 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.
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Smith S.G., Dolbadarn Castle, Caernarfonshire: A Thirteenth-Century Royal Landscape, “Archaeology in Wales”, vol 53, 2014.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Dolbadarn castle.