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Dinefwr Castle

1m W of Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, south Wales
SN 611 217

Location map link for Dinefwr Castle

Photographs Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

Above: view of the round keep at Dinefwr and the Tywi valley from the northern chamber block.
Below right: the modern entrance to the castle viewed from the edge of the outer ward.

Sian E. Rees and Chris Caple
The Cadw guidebook for Dinefwr and Dryslwyn castles (1999)

Even at first glimpse, it is clear that the long ridge occupied by Dinefwr and the rocky knoll on which Dryslwyn sits perched are positions of the most extraordinary defensive strength. But suggestions that prehistoric fortifications possibly underlie the medieval castles are not borne out by any evidence. This said, the finds of Roman material within the locality of Dinefwr, and references in the Book of St Teilo and the Book of Llandaff indicate that nearby Llandeilo Fawr was a place of no little significance well before the arrival of the Normans.

The Welsh lawbooks of the medieval period, the earliest of which is a text of the 13th century, accorded to Dinefwr a special status as the principal court of the kingdom of Deheubarth. Indeed, the lawbooks which emanate from the kingdom of Deheubarth accord Dinefwr parity with Aberffraw, the chief court of the kingdom of Gwynedd. The phraseology of the lawyers’ statements may give Dinefwr an aura of antiquity, but written sources do not suggest that the castle has any history earlier than the 12th century. The earliest reference to the castle at Dinefwr in historical sources belongs to the period of Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys. One of the greatest Welsh leaders of the 12th century, Rhys ap Gruffydd was able to withstand the power of the Anglo-Norman lords of the March, supported on occasion by the intervention of King Henry II (1154-89) of England, and recreate the kingdom. He was then able to take advantage of the king’s more conciliatory policy in the period after 1171 to maintain stable authority for many years. Deheubarth flourished over a period of relative peace and general harmony, with Welsh culture and religious life, as well as legal and administrative affairs, all benefiting from Rhys’s patronage and self-assured governance.

Below: the restored wall-walk at Dinefwr Castle.

Gradually over a period of more than 20 years Rhys re-established a single power over the lands of Ystrad Tywi, Ceredigion, and parts of Dyfed, and thereby brought a large part of the ancient kingdom under his control. He captured the castle at Cardigan and probably rebuilt the castles of Llandovery, Rhayader, and Nevern. His remarkable achievement in reversing the fortune of his kingship cannot be underestimated. By 1180 Deheubarth had been reconstituted and was the premier Welsh kingdom, albeit under the overlordship of the English king. Alas we cannot be sure what the castle of the Lord Rhys at Dinefwr looked like. Fundamentally, however, it was perhaps of a similar form to that which survives today. There may have been an inner ringwork and an outer ward with two gates, and either a wooden or, more probably, a masonry defensive wall.

Following the death of Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1197, his sons contested the succession to the kingdom of Deheubarth. Rhys had probably intended that his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (d.1201), should inherit the kingdom, but his succession was challenged by two other sons, Maelgwyn ap Rhys (d.1231) and Rhys Gryg (d.1223). A vigorous struggle ensued, and castles were captured and recaptured in a period of prolonged conflict between the brothers, and - after the death of Gruffydd - his sons Rhys Ieuanc ap Gruffydd and Owain ap Gruffydd. The main beneficiaries of this tragic conflict within Deheubarth were outsiders. The English king, Anglo-Norman lords of the March, and native Welsh neighbours, all took advantage until once again the days of independence seemed to be numbered. Finally, it was by the power of the prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, that a settlement was made and in 1216. He induced the claimants to accept a tripartite division of Deheubarth. They were all now rulers by the grace of Llywelyn, diminished in stature and relegated to a lesser role in history. Deheubarth was never to recover the status it had enjoyed under the Lord Rhys. Despite this, it was in these decades that Dinefwr achieved its mighty masonry construction before being eventually lost to King Edward I.

There is nothing in the surviving archaeological evidence to argue for or against there having been a fortification on the site before the time of the Lord Rhys, and the present defensive layout was probably first adopted at this time. By the later 12th century, two enclosures stood side by side along the rock crag, defined on the three open sides by a rock-cut ditch. Buildings within the defences may have of timber or stone, but their form remains unknown.

Below: exterior view of the northern chamber block at Dinefwr.


Below: the basement entrance to the northern chamber block.

It seems unlikely that so eminent a personage as the Lord Rhys would not have wished to embellish and strengthen his principal stronghold, especially since he is known to have rebuilt the castle at Cardigan, and possibly that at Nevern, in stone. Perhaps it was Rhys who constructed the first masonry wall at Dinefwr, possibly with a now lost stone tower. By the time of the siege of 1213, there were certainly walls and a tower strong enough to withstand siege engines, and there is no contemporary mention of the castle being burnt. It may have been a section of this primary wall which Rhys Gryg dismantled to placate Prince Llywelyn in 1220.

The great circular keep belongs to a group of similar structures, such as those at Bronllys, Skenfrith and Tretower (as well as Dryslwyn), most of which are conventionally dated to around the 1230s. At Dinefwr, the keep and adjacent Welsh gate may have been the work of Rhys Gryg, who held considerable influence, and - for the last fourteen years of his life - presided over a period of relative peace, during which he may have had the opportunity to embark on building operations of this scale. He also held the lands around Dryslwyn, and the similar overall plan, the style of the keep and the entrance arrangements there, are all probably too close to be merely coincidental. After his death in 1233, Rhys’s lands were held by different branches of the Deheubarth dynasty.

Following the Edwardian conquest, documentary sources reveal that repairs were carried out on the tower, bridge, hall and ‘little tower’; a new gate was constructed, and the ditches were cleaned and extended around the town. Also, two large and three small buildings were erected in the bailey. It is probable, therefore, that the keep had been damaged and needed repair; the ‘little tower’ may refer to the north-west tower which seems to have been remodelled at this time. It might also have been during this phase that the rectangular chamber block on the north-east was constructed, perhaps adapting an earlier structure which had previously acted as a hall. The new block projected beyond the line of the northern curtain wall, and was equipped with a watch turret, and may - for a short time - served as both hall and apartments, until the replacement hall on the west was added. The new gate mentioned among the repairs of the 1280s may have been an extensive remodelling of the entrance passage, creating an inner gate and barbican from the original gatehouse, which was itself extended outwards, thereby necessitating the redigging of the defensive ditch. It seems likely that the southern turret was constructed as part of the new gate arrangement.

Somewhat later the rectangular hall was built alongside the chamber block, again protruding beyond the curtain wall. This addition, coupled with the raising of another structure along the western curtain, made the entrance to the north-west tower very cramped. By this stage, accommodation and comfort were evidently considered to be important. The hall, the western building, and the remodelling of the windows of the rectangular chamber block may all date to the year 1326, when considerable sums were spent on the castle during the Hakelut’s custody. The insertion of the ground-floor entrance in the keep may also date from this time.

Below: the 13th-century northern chamber block at Dinefwr, exterior & interior views

Below: view of the 13th-century northwest tower and the early 14th-century hall (right).

Thereafter additions were probably few, though we have frequent records of the poor state of repair of different sections of the castle, as such in 1343 and 1353 when the great keep was reported to be the verge of collapse. After the Glyndwr siege, new building and repairs were apparently undertaken, and it may have been this period that the crenellated south wall on the entrance passage was totally rebuilt to butt up against the south turret. There are no records of work at Dinefwr for the remainder of the Middle Ages, and it appears that from the 15th century the old site was abandoned in favour of the more convenient situation of the first Newton house.

The castle was transformed in the late 17th century when the top of the keep was rebuilt to form a summerhouse. The southern turret was also equipped with a roof and a tiled floor, and the castle became the focus for summer visits and picnics. The earthworks surrounding the castle were altered somewhat to allow easier access from the Newton House. By the late 18th century, however, both roofs had been destroyed by fire and the castle was largely abandoned to nature. During periodic repairs by the Dynevor Estate through to the 20th century, large areas of walling were rebuilt or refaced, efforts which occasionally make full understanding of the medieval work difficult. Even so, this earlier conservation undoubtedly contributed to the survival of the remarkably intact inner ward.

Below: the northwest tower viewed from the top of the northern chamber block.


Additional photos of Dinefwr

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas