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Builth Castle

Castle is located in the town of Builth, Powys, mid-Wales, SO 044 510

Map link for Builth Castle

Text copyright © 1997 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: view of the the impressive motte (left) and banks and ditches (right) at Builth Castle.


Most of us are awestruck by the majesty of a mammoth medieval castle, especially if it has been extensively restored. In Wales, the four most famous are King Edward I's great northern castles, Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris. Each is a massive fortress built by men of incredible power and genius. That they have withstood the centuries in fine condition is not surprising.

However, the four great castles of North Wales were not the only fortresses Edward planted to subjugate the Welsh in the late 13th century. Edward refortified or added many new castles, most of which have survived to some degree. Among the best of the rest are Rhuddlan, Flint, Denbigh, and Chirk. Substantial remains are open to the public at these sites.

Edward I's ring of castles included two others, virtually unknown in comparison to those mentioned above, built in strategic locations closer to South Wales. Aberystwyth Castle is extremely ruinous, but still contains enough masonry to create an impression of the extent of this empty fortress. However, Builth Castle is an anomaly amongst Edward's mighty fortresses. That it has survived is something of a miracle. That it contains none of the original stonework is a great loss, for like its sisters, not only was Builth Castle a masterpiece of medieval architecture, it also played a significant role in Welsh history.

At the junction of several major roads, the town of Builth Wells is easy to reach from any direction. It is a pleasant town, most noted for the annual Royal Welsh Agricultural Show. Thousands of visitors attend the show each year, and many more drive through Builth on their way elsewhere. Most by-pass the Edwardian castle without giving it a thought, unaware of its presence or the historical importance of the town and its environs. Or, perhaps, they are just in a hurry to get through the congested streets.

Camouflaged behind a row of homes just inside the town sits one of Edward I's great fortresses. Why do so many people fail to stop for a visit? Unlike its huge northern relatives, Builth is now nothing more than a complex series of earthworks (shown left). Indeed, it takes a bit of diligence to locate the earthworks, but that little bit of effort is more than rewarded with an intriguing glimpse into the Welsh past.

In some ways, the earthworks seem forlorn, hidden as they are in the background of the town, in the backyards of some homes. There is a tiny sign announcing a path to the ruins near the Lion Hotel, but I didn't even notice the sign until some later time, when I was hurrying through Builth Wells on my way elsewhere! That Builth Castle was once a mighty Edwardian castle is almost as impossible to comprehend as a human walking on the Moon.

 As you step into the lane leading to the castle, you immediately leave the hustle and bustle of modern Builth. The noisy cars disappear and a hush seems to settle over the neighborhood. The sensation is a combination of calm and mystery, the history of this series of mounds permeating the air.

Builth is nothing more than a series of earthworks - nothing visible remains to give testimony to the structure which once stood at the site. By 1183, documents record a clash here between the Welsh and Normans, and much of what we see reflects this original motte and bailey fortification. During the next 90 years, the castle saw repeated conflict and changed hands between the Welsh and English on several occasions. By the 1240's masonry structures were established at Builth; however, it was as the result of Edward I's initial campaign against the Welsh in 1277 that Builth's modest stronghold was refortified and transformed into a formidable fortress.

The final product of Edward's remodelling effort at Builth was a castle centered atop a motte which supported a great round keep (the traces of which are barely visible today) and was enclosed by a small "chemise", a masonry wall defended by 6 towers. The two Norman baileys remained, encompassed by a curtain wall and accessed through a twin-towered gatehouse which may have been similar to the gatehouse that still guards Rhuddlan Castle. Other structures included a kitchen block and the great hall, a chapel, and residential quarters. Apparently, construction was stopped at Builth in 1282 although the work on the gatehouse may not have been complete.

1282 was a notable turning point in Welsh history. At the instigation of Dafydd ap Gruffydd, brother of the formidable Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (better known as Llywelyn the Last), the Welsh once again rebelled against their English overlords. Compelled to join the rebellion, Llywelyn moved with his followers towards his fortification at Aberedw, about 3 miles SE of Builth. In order to survive a rumored imminent attack at his castle, Llywelyn went to Builth Castle to plea for support. The effort proved fatal for this last great Prince of Wales, for on his retreat from Builth Castle, Llywelyn was ambushed and murdered at Cilmeri. Today at Cilmeri, a huge standing stone and a fine slate plaque commemorate his sacrifice.

Despite Llywelyn's death, Edward I was not satisfied that the Welsh were finally vanquished. Consequently, he began his second great castle-building programme, and produced the four largest and most complex of his stone masterpieces.

Builth Castle continued to play a role in the subjugation of the Welsh until the Elizabethan Age. In the 1330's, possession of the castle was turned over the Mortimers, Earls of March, who alternated control with the English monarch for the next 200 years. In the early 1400's, Builth survived an assault by Owain Glyndwr and remained in fair repair into the Elizabethan Age, when it was finally destroyed and the masonry used as building material for the expanding city.

Today, Builth Castle is clearly a shadow of its former self. Nevertheless, it is a noteworthy site, both for what remains and for the history it symbolizes. You can easily imagine the ghosts of Llywelyn and his companions still beseeching his otherworldly enemies to give him shelter. Llywelyn's spirit still fuels the modern Welsh quest for independence.


Lise Hull is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Ninnau, the North American Welsh newspaper, and Renaissance Magazine. She also owns and operates The Castles of Britain web site, a research dedicated to the promotion and study of British castles. e-mail: CASTLESU@aol.com.




Below: view from the motte at Builth towards the town



Below: view of the motte at Builth Castle.




Below: additional view of the surviving ditch work at Builth



Below: two views from the summit of the motte at Builth.









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