The oldest fortifications in Dryslwyn were built around 1220 by Rhys Gryg, ruler of Welsh Deheubarth. A year earlier Rhys had married into the powerful Anglo-Norman de Clare family, which strengthened his position and probably prompted the construction of the castle. Earlier, the Welsh princes did not build stone castles, new construction solutions only came with the Normans. At that time, in addition to Dryslwyn, Rhys also erected a very similar Dinefwr stronghold. Strengthened by his new fortifications, Rhys initially opposed Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’s decision to pay tribute to English king Henry III, which prompted the Welsh ruler of Gwynedd to join the armed expedition and bring Rhys to heel.
After the death of Rhys Gryg in 1233, his lands were divided among sons. Dryslwyn turned to younger son, Maredudd ap Rhys, while Dinefwr fell to older son, Rhys Mechyll. In the 50s of the 13th century, a dispute broke out between them, and chaos deepened the Anglo-Norman intervention, ultimately defeated at Cymerau. When the English-Welsh war broke out in 1272, Maredudd’s son, Rhys ap Maredudd, was in alliance with Llywelyn ap Gruffyd against English king Edward I. However, this cooperation quickly collapsed, as Rhys ap Maredudd in return for keeping his lands and castles, began to seek agreement with the English. Thanks to this, he was able to develop and strengthen Dryslwyn in the next years.
The conflict between Rhys ap Maredudd and the English occurred in 1287, probably as a result of dissatisfaction of the Welshman with too little reward for withdrawing from the alliance with Llywelyn. The struggle in solitude, however, did not turn out to be a good move, because in August 1287 Dryslwyn besieged over 11,000 people under the command of Edmund, Earl of Cornwall. After the fierce battles, during which both siege engines and mining were used, the castle surrendered on September 5, 1287. Rhys escaped but was deprived of his property and captured in 1292. Transported to York, he was brought to trial, accused of betrayal and executed.
For the rest of the 13th century, Dryslwyn Castle remained under the control of English kings, carrying out periodic repairs and minor reconstructions. In 1316, it was attacked during the Welsh uprising, but avoided significant damages. The following year Edward II gave the castle to his unpopular favorite, Hugh Despenser, which caused another attack by the English lords in 1321, who could not bear the widening influence of the Despensers. The castle was restored to the Crown in 1326, after the overthrow of Edward II and the Despensers family. In the mid-fourteenth century, it was already neglected and was in a bad condition.
During the Welsh uprising of Owain Glyndŵr from 1403, the castle was surrendered to the rebels by then constable Rhys ap Gruffudd. In 1409, the forces of Henry IV recaptured the stronghold, but at the same time the decision was made to leave the fortifications, partly demolishing the castle walls. Since then, the abandoned castle fell into disrepair.
The castle was erected from limestone on an easy to defend top of a rocky hill overlooking the Tywi Valley. The high and steep slopes descending towards it secured the castle all over the southern side. Also on the western and partly northern sides the escarpments were inaccessible, and the only more convenient approach was possible on the milder descending at north-eastern part of the hill. The earliest construction from the first half of the 13th century consisted of defensive walls built on a plan of an irregular pentagon with a cylindrical tower – a keep, on the east side. Originally, it had at least three floors and entrance on the timber stairs to the first floor level. The interior development of the small ward was a rectangular building of the great hall and a small stone kitchen, both located in the southern part of the castle. The great hall was located on the first floor, above the basement, where the pillar supported the hearth at the top. On the west side of the building was yet a large chamber. The remaining utility buildings were timber.
In the eighties of the 13th century, Rhys ap Maredudd extended the castle (the later middle ward) on the north-eastern side and strengthened the entrance gate to the upper castle (inner ward). Initially, it was a simple doorway in the wall flanked by a keep, after the extension, a foregate with a portcullis was added. Rhys ap Maredudd also rebuilt the buildings in the inner ward: he added a residential range, parallel to the great hall, a range perpendicular to the great hall and a south, four-sided tower with a chapel. The other elements of the upper castle were: a small prison on the west side and a latrine on the east side, near the keep. As a result of these works, almost the entire courtyard was built up.
In the 14th century, in the English period of the castle’s history, a north-eastern outer bailey (lower castle) was built, fortified with a stone defensive wall. The entrance was through a timber drawbridge and a four-sided gatehouse with two portcullis, from the north. The ward of the lower castle had utility and economic buildings, located next to the inner faces of the defensive walls. Stood out a building situated on the south-western side of the outer bailey. From this side, the castle was adjacent to the town, surrounded by a defensive wall and a dry moat.
To this day, only the south-west corner with the south wall has survived from the castle, in which remains of windows and fragments of a four-sided tower, originally housing the chapel, are visible. The remaining buildings show only the foundations reaching in the highest places up to a few meters, uncovered during archaeological excavations. The ruins are open to visitors.
Davis P.R., Castles of the Welsh Princes, Talybont 2011.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Dryslwyn castle.