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Excavations at Dolforwyn Castle

Text and photographs copyright © by Daniel Mersey

The Castles of Wales is pleased to welcome Daniel Mersey as a contributor to the site. Mr. Mersey has a BA degree in Archaeology form the University of York, and is directly involved with the important archaeological excavations taking place at Dolforwyn. His report below discusses the progress of the excavations, and includes news about the most recent and exciting discoveries at the site.

Important projects like the one at Dolforwyn are slowly helping us to better understand life in 13th-century Wales, a period of great political and social upheaval. Many thanks to Dan for his contributions to this effort! After visiting this page, be sure to visit Dan's page on Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare.


Dolforwyn Castle - A site tour and some further thoughts


Comparing two aerial views across the site looking east: A 1994 view prior to the excavation of the North Range (left), and a 1996 view showing the excavation of the North Range in progress (right).


Amongst native Welsh castles, Dolforwyn has the reputation of being "the last to be built and the first to fall". By 1400 the castle was "ruinous and worth nothing", and until excavations began in 1980, was largely forgotten and left to decay.

Cadw (Welsh Historic Monuments) have funded the excavation currently directed by Dr. Lawrence Butler, and excavation has taken place during the four weeks of July every year (due to be completed in 1998). I have been a member of the excavation team since 1994. The purpose of this is to fill in a few missing links in the general knowledge of Dolforwyn, and it includes details of the most recent (1997) excavation finds.

The main entrance to the castle lies on the west wall; as you stand in the gateway, the two rooms to the south provided a guardroom and storage space; a castle could be defended by remarkably few soldiers, and Dolforwyn was no exception - Roger Mortimer's occupying force consisted of a detachment of 20 on foot and 8 mounted (Morris 1901, 172). Behind you, to the west, lies the ditch over which a wooden bridge stood; this led from Llywelyn's small market town and grange - now lying underneath the grassy knolls there. The year 1997 saw phosphate tests carried out in order to identify features on the town site. Directly in front of you, to the east, stands the remains of the largest native Welsh square tower, which can now be entered through doorways on its' north or west faces.

Left: south entrance under excavation, 1994. The rear wall represents alterations by the English in 1277.

This tower was the castle's keep; the two doorways at ground level were almost certainly changes made during the English occupation of Dolforwyn; during this period, the castle was modified to make it more comfortable and less defensible. The original entry point was by a first floor doorway, the steps to which remain on the west wall. Another English modification was the ground floor window, overlooking the courtyard. An internal wall divided the ground floor of the keep in two (the smaller half possibly being a strong room). Looking at the walls inside the keep today, it is clear where the first floor was situated, by the "lip" which held the floorboards; access to the ground floor would originally have been by trapdoor and ladder.

It has been commented that the gateway at Dolforwyn is poorly defended. Despite the fact that English castles at this period were being built with characteristic double drum towers, it must be remembered that Welsh castles like Dolforwyn were essentially fortified houses, intended to provide a stronghold during raids - not to withstand heavy assault and siege warfare (as Dolforwyn miserably proved in 1277!). Also, the gateway and entrance to the courtyard were in the shadow of the keep, which could have put up strong opposition indeed; keeps defending main gateways were common in England around fifty years before Dolforwyn was constructed (ie Scarborough), and it may be reasonable to assume that Llywelyn had visited more of these older castles than the "state of the art" ones for the 1270s (thus basing Dolforwyn on what he had seen).

Just outside the keep's north entrance stands the north curtain wall; in keeping with Cadw's excavation and conservation plan, part of the wall has been restored to it's original height. Steps originally leading to the wall walk can be seen close by, and when the castle was occupied, lean to buildings would have stood against this wall. Walking east down the side of the keep brings you out into the castle courtyard. The middle of the courtyard would have been open, and the 1996 and 1997 excavations have revealed that the courtyard sat at two levels (although interpretation is not yet complete regarding this).

Right: view of the latrine on the south wall of the square tower, surveyed in 1996 by Daniel Mersey and Gregg Bramwell.

Closest to the keep on the north range of the courtyard is a turfed over area; under this lies a paved floor which was probably the castle's chapel. Like many other areas of the castle, amounts of wall plaster were found here, showing that the wall decor was mostly red or white. Behind the chapel lies a flight of stairs leading down into the D-shaped tower (they are not suitable for walking down at the time of writing).

The D-shaped tower was the big find of 1997. It had been assumed for several years, due to an eighteenth century engraving showing the castle's ruins, but it's foundations were only revealed this year. A characteristic of Welsh castles is that many seem to include a combination of round, square and D-shaped towers, and Dolforwyn is no exception. Both the D-shaped and round towers jut out both sides of the curtain wall. Archaeologist's luck being what it is, one of the excavation's spoil heaps had been located over the then unknown site of the tower, and this was moved between the 1996 and 1997 seasons by machinery.

Directly opposite the chapel, on the south side of the courtyard, are the kitchens. Against the side of the keep wall is the partially reconstructed oven, and the kitchen area also contains the eroded remains of a quernstone, and a water trough. Walking out around the south side of the keep from the kitchens are one of the castle's sets of latrine chutes.

Directly to the east of the kitchens is the castle's south entrance - a gateway with a confusing ditch running from it. This entrance was probably the castle's sally port - designed for besieged defenders to surge out of when the time arose. The excavated level is below the original gate level, and it seems that the gate may have been blocked up and used as a drainage escape; an alternative idea is that this is the remains of an unfinished new entrance to the castle. When the gateway was being excavated in 1994, what appeared to be the markings from a burnt out wooden door were found, along with several catapult balls (which crop up from time to time across the site).

Right and below: The vaulted cellar viewed from the north, 1997.

The ditch runs from the gateway to a small, but well preserved bridge (but it's not advisable to walk on top of this!). The ditch was one of the first areas I worked in at Dolforwyn, and was quite productive finds-wise: the only coin found since I have been involved was here (reportedly an imitation French florin?), along with the silver edged remains of a small box, two metal thimbles, several other pieces of metalwork, and an extraordinarily rare find on such a dry site - a piece of leather. As you stand to the west of the ditch, you are on top of the site of medieval quarry pits (now backfilled) used in the building or repair of the castle; these, combined with some mortar patches found in the courtyard are evidence of the building work involved in making the castle. Beyond the ditch is the south east room, the use of which remains uncertain.

Past the stone bridge, directly behind the D-shaped tower, is the most unexpected find at Dolforwyn - a vaulted cellar (shown above right). I uncovered this myself in the 1996 excavations, and work continued in 1997. The closed end of the cellar has a small hole, possibly for light, or possibly the site of a trap door; in 1997 we found metalwork by this, which may well have been from a trapdoor. The cellar was probably the wine cellar known to have existed, and other metal strips may be from storage barrels. The area between the D-shaped tower and the cellar was probably the cellar porch, and access may have been by ladder or stairs form the north range, or even from the D-shaped tower.

The north range, to the east of the cellar, appears to have been a very large building, and may well have been the castle's hall. This area was really opened out in the 1995 and 1996 excavations, where the top layers produced very little in the way of finds (apart from an interesting piece of anthropomorphic pottery was found (ie decorated with human figures). The level that this area stands at today seems to represent a floor level (as doors and windows are present), but it appears that there may have been a basement area beneath this - possibly connected to the cellar. The south wall of this hall holds a number of doors and windows, which although they are mostly ruined, are still fairly impressive to look at. Towards the east side of the hall is a large masonry block - this probably held a hearth up on a higher floor (similar examples exist at Castell-y-Bere and Dryslwyn).

Right: Doors & windows in the Hall, North Range, 1997, taken from the interior of the Hall. Note the round tower in the background and the possible hearth-support in the centre of the hall.

The final area inside the castle walls to examine is the round tower, on the eastern wall. From a castle inventory listed when Roger Mortimer's possessions were taken by the king, it would seem that this held Dolforwyn's armoury. The way in to the round tower was up a staircase curving around the tower's northern wall - now only the stone casing from around the stairs is left. Alongside the round tower is another of the castle's latrine chutes.

Outside of the castle walls, there are some other features of note. The ditch is worth walking around, for a view of the outer walls of the castle. There is little to see of the town to the west, but on the rising ground to the east of the castle is a mound which was possibly a catapult site (although I believe it to be too close for that - why place a catapult within arrow range of the walls?); on the other hand, this site may be the remains of an Iron Age or Romano-British farmstead.

A final point to note if you actually visit the castle is to "beware of Dolly the horse" who lives at the site, her sole purpose seeming to be to eat people's lunches!


Excavation Update at Dolforwyn Castle, Powys

By Dan Mersey

July 1998 was sadly the first time for four seasons of excavation that I could not find time to join the team; however, I did manage a brief visit to the site, and was guided around some of the most recent work. The cellar continued to be excavated, and lay at least 10' beneath ground level; a winch had been set up to remove spoil. The cellar appears to be related to the north-east range of the castle.

The D-shape tower on the north wall has been defined and excavated. It also appears to be connected to the north-east and north-west ranges (a flight of steps connect the tower to the north-west range). The tower juts out from the northern wall, providing a position for enfilading fire along this northern aspect; the castles' defences are now defined by towers guarding the east and west walls (round and square respectively), the D-shaped tower guarding the north, and a steep slope to the south (overlooking the Severn valley).

Finds continued to be collected - apparently a fragment of chainmail was found (a rare find within castle excavations - surprising as that may seem), which is one of the few pieces of militaria that Dolforwyn has given us. 1998 was the final season of excavations at Dolforwyn; the long term CADW excavations have shed a great deal of previously unthought of light on this relatively short occupation castle with such an important history


Dolforwyn in Legend

Below are a few of the stories I've been told by local visitors at the site. I am not going to go into a folklore-as-evidence discussion, but some make interesting reading and may be worth remembering. I include them here because so many people are fond of them, despite doubts about their validity.
  • 'Dolforwyn' means "the maiden's meadow"; it is said to be named after a maiden who threw herself into the River Severn at the foot of the castle's hill.

  • A tunnel is said to lead from the castle down to the site where the Dolforwyn Hall Hotel now stands. Doesn't every castle allegedly have a secret tunnel?! This, I think, is quite unlikely in Dolforwyn's case (and the only castle I know of with anything like a secret tunnel is Carreg Cennen with it's caves).

  • The hill of Dolforwyn has been put forward as a location for the battle between the Romans and Caratacus in the first century AD. It does fit the battle site's precise description (steep hill, formidable river), but I do not think that there was an Iron Age hillfort at Dolforwyn, and Cefn Carnedd near to Caersws seems a more likely setting.

  • The location of Dolforwyn's well still remains a mystery. It was recorded that the Welsh garrison surrendered in 1277 as their water supply had run out, suggesting that there may not have been a well within the castle walls. This would seem a fairly rudimentary flaw in the castle's defensive capabilities, however. Yew Tree Cottage, further down the hill, has a well, but this may have been too far away for easy use from the castle.

  • In 1996, a horse skull and neck bones were found embedded in the castle's north wall. As far as I know, this has not been incorporated into the sites legend yet, but give it a few years and who knows...


Further reading about Dolforwyn

In addition to the books listed on the York University site, Dolforwyn has crept into a few other books. If you are interested in the conquest of Wales by Edward I, the book to read is John Morris, THE WELSH WARS OF EDWARD I , 1901, now published by Llanerch Press in paperback for around £10.

Cadw (Welsh Historic Monuments) does not have a Dolforwyn guide book yet - maybe when it 'officially' opens in the year 2000 they will. However, some of their excellent general books refer to Dolforwyn, as does Mike Salter's booklet on castles in mid-Wales.

If you would prefer to read fictionalised accounts of Dolforwyn, Edith Pergartar - better known as Ellis 'Cadfael' Peters - has a series of four books about Llywelyn. Bernard Cornwell has included Dolforwyn in his so-called "historical" Arthur series, but there seems no foundation in using Dolforwyn as the royal hill of Powys (unless someone can tell me otherwise).

Daniel Mersey, 1997


Castles are Rubbish - Comments on Archaeological Research
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