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Rhayader Castle

near the town of Rhayader, Powys, Mid-Wales


All photographs copyright © by John Northall


The welsh town of Rhaeadr Gwy (the waterfall on the river Wye), or Rhayader in English, sits on a low escarpment on the eastern side of the river Wye. Its castle was built on a bluff above the riverbank, overlooking a strategic route from the English midlands heading west into the heart of Wales. It was one of the main routes into Wales and the acquisitive Normans had used it to penetrate all the way to the west coast at Cardigan before being defeated by the forces of Owain ap Gruffudd at the battle of Crug Mawr in 1136.

The Welsh ruler of Dehuebarth (south west Wales) was Rhys ap Gruffudd, who is known to history as The Lord Rhys. His kingdom had suffered greatly from Norman aggression and he is thought to have built the castle at Rhayader in 1177 to secure his western border against further invasions. Rhy’s castle was either on this site or the earthwork castle above the western bank of the river about half a mile from Rhayader castle, which is now in the village of Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr. If Rhys had built the motte at Llansantffraed then Rhayader castle may have been founded by the bloodthirsty Mortimer family in the 1200s. Alternatively the motte may have been built by the Normans during their earlier incursions into Wales and Rhys’ initial efforts were at Rhayader. It’s unlikely that both castles were in use at the same time and Llansantffraed motte may have been supplanted by the undeniably stronger site on the Rhayader side of the river. Rhys is known to have acted similarly in Ceredigion when he built a stone castle at Cardigan in 1176 instead of refortifying the old Norman castle a mile downstream.


The castle at Rhayader (either the stone one or the nearby motte) was destroyed in 1190 by the sons of Cadwallon ap Madog, prince of the neighbouring district of Maelienydd, and Rhys was captured. The Normans captured Rhayader in 1192 but it was retaken and rebuilt by Rhys in 1194 after his release from captivity. The Normans were back in control by 1200 and Rhayader castle was again rebuilt, this time by the Mortimers. The final demise of the castle occurred in 1231 when it was destroyed by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of Gwynedd, who was expanding his influence into south Wales.


Castle Description

There are similarities between the site of Rhayader castle and others associated with The Lord Rhys at Cilgerran, Cardigan, Dinefwr and Nevern. All of these castles are on high ground next to cliffs and were cut off from their easy approaches by rock-cut ditches. The rocky platform on which Rhayader castle stood is roughly rectangular and measures approximately 50 metres from north to south and 40 metres east to west. What was originally a steep slope down to the river on its western side was quarried to provide a straight vertical cliff. At the northern end of the cliff a broad and deep rock-cut ditch runs roughly east then curves gently south west to meet a natural crag at the southern end of the site. Stone from the ditch was probably used to build the walls of the castle and in its initial incarnation may have featured flat stones bonded in clay, as was originally the case at Nevern, Cilgerran and probably Cardigan before its final Norman rebuild. Some of this early work can still be seen on top of the bedrock of the eastern ditch, where the lines of the underlying sedimentary stone are vertical (due to the movement of the tectonic plate) but the stones on top have been laid horizontally with no mortar to be seen.

There were still signs of wall foundations within the castle enclosure in the early nineteenth century but they have mostly been removed for use elsewhere. Faint robber trenches can be seen in aerial photographs in addition to a few low banks that may be the buried footings of castle walls. The most obvious clue to the location of the castle’s ramparts is a low bank that runs above the line of the eastern ditch. A square keep, hall and small gatehouse tower are suggested by low mounds that can be seen more clearly from above. The gatehouse may have been at the northern end of the castle next to the keep, protected by the ditch which was 10 metres wide and at least 4 metres deep at that point. What appears to be a causeway into the interior of the castle is in fact the result of demolished walls having been pushed into the ditch to render it defenceless when the castle was destroyed. The eastern ditch has also been partially filled and the gardens of nearby houses have been built over its outer edge (below).


Later History

The 16th century antiquarian Leland made no mention of a castle at Rhayader which is testament to the thoroughness of its destruction. Although still referred to as a castle in a document of 1316, the site appears to have been largely forgotten until it was cleared of undergrowth by a community initiative in 1998. Information boards have been provided to raise awareness of this interesting but enigmatic castle.


Additional Photographs of Rhayader Castle









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