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Llangedwyn, Powys, north Wales
Map link for Sycharth Castle
Text copyright © Richard Williams 1994
Follow this link for a Welsh language version of this page!
Above: approaching the motte from the farmhouse.
Below: the outer ditch at Sycharth viewed from the area of the bailey below the castle.
To the casual traveler along the country lane, the nearby farmhouse set in the lee of thickly-wooded escarpment attracts little attention. The building appears no different from many such homesteads in this southeast corner of Clwyd, but a bare kilometre from the English border.
Closer examination of the site immediately beyond the farm, however, reveals the earthwork remains of a motte and bailey castle, its contours now disguised by a number of trees and other vegetation. Far from commanding the interest of the heritage preserver and the tourist that the monolithic Edwardian edifices enjoy, this former stronghold lies almost forgotten in its now-pastoral setting.
Yet, 600 years ago this was the noblest house in all of Wales, and between 1400 and May 1403 it was more. It was the focal point of a people who were enjoying, for one of the few brief instants in history, their existence as a nation. It was the home of Owain Glyndwr, their prince. (depicted at right)
Before emerging as the leader of the struggle for Welsh independence against the English Crown, as personified by King Henry IV, Glyndwr had served the latter's predecessor, Richard II, with some distinction. This service was befitting of an uchelwr, a stratum of minor nobles that the Anglo-Norman colonial administration of Wales chose to allow to develop following Edward I's subjugation of the country.
Such a subservient indigenous ruling class complemented the almost autonomous Marcher lords of the border regions. Thus, the whole of the principality once Welsh but now English, could be ruled without too much distraction for the sovereign from governing the rest of the realm. As their class evolved, the uchelwr adopted all the trappings of Western European chivalric custom. Their houses became very prosperous and influential.
As the most prominent member of his class, and conceivably one of the more benevolent, Owain Glyndwr made an ideal leader of the rebellion. However, despite the fact that his role was quickly to become almost messianic, his initial acceptance was probably a reluctant one. Although his mother's line stretched back into generations of rulers of Deheubarth (the south) Glyndwr chose to live in the northeast corner of the Welsh landmass, where his equally influential paternal heritage lay. Here he possessed two lordships, Glyndyfrdwy and Cynllaith.
The former stretched along the Dee Valley, in an area now defined by the towns of Corwen and Llangollen, and gave the family its name, while Cynllaith lay to the southeast, just beyond the rim of the Berwyn Mountains. While the home on the banks of the Dee near Carrog was of strategic importance in the defence of its lordship, it was "Sawarth" in the lordship of "Kentlleth" that was favored by Owain as his manorial home. Like Carrog, Sycharth was a castle of the motte and bailey design. Its general plan consisted of a truncated-conical earth mound, moated and adjoining a similarly surrounded larger kidney-shaped area, called the bailey.
The plateaus of both the motte and the bailey, together with the complete outer perimeter of the structure were encircled by wooden palisades and the two main areas were connected by a drawbridge. The strategic concept of the design was that a besieged company could retire to the more heavily fortified motte and await relief. The summit of the motte, too, was the site of the manorial hall, the residence of the lord and his immediate household. The bailey, meanwhile, was where many of the services which met that household's needs were located. Understandably, it was also the zone of initial defence of the castle's community.
Below: three different views of the motte and ditches at Sycharth.
The motte and bailey castle was a concept brought over to Britain by the Normans. It was used, in particular, as a means of fortifying their bases of expansion across England and into Wales. In a labour-intensive feudal society it provided a quick and ready means of throwing up a stronghold using an unskilled work force. As the fortunes of invader and invaded swayed during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Welsh lords and princes copied this style of fortification. The result of this is that borderland Wales is scattered with the remains of such martial architecture. The lack of permanency associated with their superstructures, however, means that their presence can often only be detected by the keen professional eye.
By the end of the 14th century, castle design had moved a long way from the motte and bailey. First, the stone keep evolved, only to be followed by the more familiar and comprehensively designed, curtain walled and towered citadels as favored by Edward I. Why, then, did Owain Glyndwr choose an "old-fashioned" home? We must remember that even before the rebellion, he was a leader of his society. Was his choice one and the same syndrome that leads the present monarch to reside for part of the time in another outmoded building, Windsor Castle? Did he decide on it because it was in the style of so many former Welsh princes and thus was a link with the heritage of his retainers?
Well, choose it he did, and there is ample evidence of the kind of home that it was. This evidence does not come to us from the recognized sources of the medieval narrative - the monastic chroniclers - but from bardic sources. The bard played a prominent role in the household of a Welsh prince, having at least two primary functions. First, he disseminated detail of the heritage and, second, he eulogized his master or the head of another noble household.
Below: two views of the bailey at Sycharth, (1) from the top of the motte and (2) from the farmhouse lane adjacent to the castle.
Where Owain Glyndwr was concerned, no one was more prolific in his output than Iolo Goch, and many of his poems are available to us. Of particular reference to Sycharth is the poem "Owain Glyndwr's Court." In his book Iolo Goch: Poems, Dr Dafydd Johnston describes this poem as being "highly entertaining on the superficial level as a portrait of a fine house, but its real power lies in the symbolic significance of the description as a reflection of the ideal social order." The poem gives detailed attention to the structure of the castle and a description of its environs. What is more significant, however, is the picture that the poet gives us of a gracious, warm and inviting household, where every honest traveler is proffered a welcome with sustenance, shelter and social intercourse.
One occasion, at least, when the hospitality offered at Sycharth would have been integrated into a grand occasion of ceremony and feasting would have been the marriage of Owain's daughter, Catrin, to Sir Edmund Mortimer. The date was the last day of November 1402, and the groom was Glyndwr's captive. Seized at the Battle of Pilleth in the previous June, this representative of one of the three most powerful noble houses in England had become disenchanted with Henry's acrimonious attitude to his capture. Soon after the wedding he publicly aligned himself with the Welsh cause which he served with honour until his death at the siege of Harlech Castle in 1409.
The glory of Sycharth was not to survive much longer. In May, 1403, Prince Hal, at the age of 16 already showing the martial qualities that he would exhibit later as King Henry V at Agincourt, put both Glyndyfrdwy and Sycharth to the torch. Until its fall, Harlech (shown right) was to become Owain Glyndwr's centre of operations. After he was forced to resort to guerrilla warfare (until some time around 1415) he ephemerally disappeared from the historical stage.
Below: two views across the top of the motte at Sycharth.
In 1962, an archaeological investigation was made of the site and a few artifacts were unearthed which would appear to have been associated with a residence situated on the crown of the motte. That these were of Owain's manorial hall cannot be confirmed, but it's quite feasible.
This brings us to today and the indications of a campaign to restore the site. A number of parties, with the writer included, consider it deplorable that a site so significant in our nation's heritage should be neglected as it is. There is no sign to the passerby, for example, that the home of the last true Prince of Wales lay but a stone's throw from this narrow lane in Clwyd. Plaid Cymru, in the person of MP Cynog Dafis, is currently making its representations to those authorities involved. However, the matter is apolitical and should attract the support of all those who consider themselves Welsh, wholly or partly.
Edward's castles are enough celebration of the colonization of Wales. Time now for the spotlight to fall on those who upheld our very nationhood.
Additional Photographs of Sycharth Castle
View of the beautiful countryside taken from the top of the motte at Sycharth.
Richard Williams - Lecturer / Writer.
The Castles of Wales is honored to have been associated with the late Richard Williams. Mr. Williams was a free-lance lecturer and writer, specialising in the Medieval Welsh History of 1150 to 1450, including teaching courses for the Workers' Educational Association (Owian Glyndwr) and the Department of Continuing Education, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (The Two Llywelyns). His portfolio of lectures included such titles as Sir Edmund Mortimer - Traitor or Pragmatist, Owain Glyndwr, The Glyndwr Way, Owain Glyndwr - the Midlands Connection, The Two Llywelyns, and The Medieval Wedding.
As well as having articles published in such heritage magazines as "Country Quest" (UK), which covers Wales and The Borders, Mr. Williams' writing has also featured in "Ninnau" (US) and "Y Drych" (US). Some of his work on castles can also be visited on this site, and examples of his photographic output appear here and in other historical sources.
Follow this link for a Welsh language version of this page
Additional information about Owain Glyndwr
Additional articles by Richard Williams
Other Glyndwr-associated places: Owain Glyndwr's Mount & Pilleth
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