Dinefwr Castle

by Sian Rees 1992; Sian Jones 1995

Situated 1 mile west of llandeilo, Dinefwr castle sits high on a crag above the river Tywi.

Dinefwr is of paramount importance in Welsh history as the seat of the Welsh rulers of Deheubarth, the medieval principality of south-west Wales. The rocky crag with its commanding view over the wide Twyi valley may have seen occupation in prehistoric periods, and Roman artifacts have been uncovered from various parts of Dinefwr park. The place-name appears in the Welsh law codes, which suggest that, early in Welsh history, the site was the principal possession of the south Wales royal house. The early importance of Llandeilo as the probable site of St Teilo's monastery gives further weight to Dinefwr's claim to be an early medieval centre of political power. According to legend, the first Dinefwr Castle was built by Rhodri Mawr (Note 1) - King of Wales in the 9th century. By 950 A.D., Dinefwr was the principal court from which Hywel Dda ("The Good") (Note 2) ruled a large part of Wales including the southwest area known as Deheubarth. His great achievement was to create the country's first uniform legal system.

In 1163 the castle was in the possession of Lord Rhys, who ruled over Deheubarth at a time of stability and harmony, a time, moreover, of a renaissance of Welsh culture, music, poetry and law. After the death of this great ruler, conflict over the succession arose between his sons, and thereafter the important castle figures repeatedly in the turbulent years of dynastic struggles between the Welsh princes, and the wars between the Welsh and the English in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. We are told, for instance, that Rhys Gryg, the son of the Lord Rhys, was forced to dismantle Dinefwr Castle by Llywelyn the Great, prince of Gwynedd, who became pre-eminent in the area in the early 13th century. The first building in stone may have followed this supposed dismantling as the circular keep is of a type traditionally dated to this time.

Later in the 13th century the English crown had to respond to the threat of the increasing power of Llywelyn the Last of Gwynedd, and the resulting battle with the Welsh at Coed Llanthen near Llandeilo was a devastating English defeat. Dinefwr at that time belonged to Rhys Fychan and, after his death, to his son Rhys Wedrod. It may well have consisted of the great round keep, the polygonal curtain wall and the round north-west tower of the inner ward, while the outer ward probably contained timber service buildings. (see aerial photo below)

Aerial view of Dinefwr castle
Aerial view of Dinefwr Castle from the south

After the death of Henry III in 1272, Edward I came to the throne and within five years had destroyed the power of the Welsh princes. In 1276 an English army under Pain de Chaworth was assembled at Carmarthen, and Welsh resistance crumbled. Rhys Wedrod placed Dinefwr in the king's hands, and from this time the castle remained largely in possession of the English crown. The castle was put into the custody of a constable, and building accounts inform us that repair work was undertaken in 1282-3 when the ditches were cleaned out, the tower, bridge, hall and "little tower" were repaired, a new gate was built and five buildings were erected within the outer ward. Further repairs were carried out in 1326, and it may be that it was around this time that the rectangular hall, projecting beyond the north curtain wall, was constructed.

Two settlements developed in Dinefwr Park - a township in the immediate vicinity of the castle and a "New Towne" near the present day Newton House. "New Towne" was established in 1298 by Edward I to counter the Welsh settlement around the castle. Settled with English families, "New Towne" was granted privileges by Edward, the Black Prince, which did not extend to the Welsh community. Comparatively little was spent on the castle during the remainder of the 14th century, and the great tower is described as being on the point of collapse in a document of 1343. However, it was still able to resist a siege by Owain Glyndwr (note 3) in 1403.

In the 15th century Dinefwr underwent a cultural renaissance reminiscent of Rhys ap Gruffydd's court. Having leased Dinefwr in 1439, Gruffydd ap Nicholas became Deputy Justiciar and gained control of the royal government of south Wales. The King addressed him as a "right trusty and well beloved friend." In 1451 Gruffydd was patron and judge at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod which produced the rules of poetic metre that are still followed today. Medieval poets allude to the family's descent from Urien Rheged, who ruled northern Britain in the Dark Ages, and the Ravens of Urien which were said to have protected Urien's son, Owain, from his enemies. The ravens feature in the coat of arms of Gruffydd's descendants, the Dynevor family. The line of Gruffydd ap Nicholas was united with the last princes of Deheubarth when his son, Thomas, married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Gruffydd and descendant of Lord Rhys.

Gruffydd ap Nicholas' grandson, Rhys ap Thomas, and Henry Tudor were both descended from Lord Rhys. In 1485, when Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven and marched his troops towards the English midlands, Rhys ap Thomas raised an army in support. After Henry's defeat of King Richard III at Bosworth, Rhys was knighted, later appointed Chamberlain of the Principality of South Wales and granted the castle at Dinefwr. He was finally appointed to the post held by his ancestor, Justiciar of South Wales. In the Tudor period, Sir Rhys ap Thomas carried out some alterations, especially to the hall on the north, before abandoning the castle for a new house built to the north, on the site of the present Newton House.

Dinefwr Castle

The approach to the castle is from the east, through the defences of the outer ward at the probable site of the outer gatehouse. The defensive bank and deep rock-cut ditch enclose the lower part of the hilltop, where stood the castle's domestic and service buildings. The path continues through the fragmentary remains of the middle gate and long, narrow entrance passage protected by a high wall to the inner gate. Despite considerable alteration during several building phases, the joints of the original large entrance arch can be seen in the masonry. Inside the inner ward, little remains of the gatehouse save for the lower courses of the masonry to either side of the gate passage and consequently the style of this probably later 13th-century structure in unknown. Arrowslits which would have defended the passage from rooms on either side, and the ornate stops for the gates may be seen low down in the stonework. Above this, the masonry has been rebuilt, and, on the east, the ground level has been raised in post-medieval times to form steps to the wall-walk.

Round Keep

The inner ward is enclosed by a high, angular curtain wall, much repaired and equipped with iron railings in recent times to create a safe, pleasant walk. Dominating the interior of the castle is the great round keep on the east, with its battered base. The present ground-floor entrance is a later insertion, and the original door was on the first floor. A trapdoor in the floor probably provided access to the large, dark basement, floored with slabs laid over the bedrock. A larger first-floor window which overlooked the courtyard on the north was blocked during 18th century work on the tower. It is now difficult to know how much taller the keep would have been before it was so drastically modified by the addition of the summer-house on the top, but it may well have had at least one further storey. The summer-house, with its conical roof, became a famous landmark, and it still retains its door and large windows designed to give splendid views over the park.

Dinefwr castle - 1740
South View of Dinefwr Castle
Engraving by S & N Buck, 1740.
Photo: National Museum of Wales

The curtain wall probably continued around the keep on the east but has now fallen, and the walling on the north-east corner is modern. The circular three-storey tower on the north-west may well have been built by the Welsh princes but the rectangular tower on the north was probably constructed after 1277. It has a latrine on the west side, and a deep basement. The tower and the adjacent rectangular hall, the inner wall of which has now fallen, were substantially modified in the early Tudor period, when the castle was owned by the wealthy and influential Sir Rhys ap Thomas. By this stage, the military significance of the castle was minimal, and comfort and appearance was of greater importance.


  1. Rhodri Mawr

    Walker 1990; Davies 1990

    According to legend, the first Dinefwr Castle was built by Rhodri Mawr - King of Wales in the 9th century. It is unavoidable that attention should focus on those Welsh rulers who extended their power over much of Wales in the centuries prior to the Norman Conquest. They foreshadowed the attempts by the princes of Gwynedd in the 13th century to create a unified Welsh state, and they matched contemporary developments in England, and similar, but later, developments in Scotland. So, Rhodri Mawr (844-78) is presented as one who set a pattern for the future. He either ruled or, by his personal qualities, dominated much of Wales.

    Chroniclers of his generation hailed Rhodri ap Merfyn as Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), a distinction bestowed upon two other rulers in the same century - Charles the Great (Charlemagne, died 814) and Alfred the Great (died 899). The three tributes are of a similar nature - recognition of the achievements of men who contributed significantly to the growth of statehood among the nations of the Welsh, the Franks and the English. Unfortunately, the entire evidence relating to the life of Rhodri consists of a few sentences; yet he must have made a deep impression upon the Welsh, for in later centuries being of the line of Rhodri was a primary qualification for their rulers. Until his death, Rhodri was acknowledged as ruler of more than half of Wales, and that as much by diplomacy as by conquest.

    Rhodri's fame sprang from his success as a warrior. That success was noted by The Ulster Chronicle and by Sedulius Scottus, an Irish scholar at the court of the Emperor Charles the Bald at Liege. It was his victory over the Vikings in 856 which brought him international acclaim. Wales was less richly provided with fertile land and with the navigable rivers that attracted the Vikings, and the Welsh kings had considerable success in resisting them. Anglesey bore the brunt of the attacks, and it was there in 856 that Rhodri won his great victory over Horn, the leader of the Danes, much to the delight of the Irish and the Franks.

    It was not only from the west that the kingdom of Rhodri was threatened. By becoming the ruler of Powys, his mother's land, he inherited the old struggle with the kingdom of Mercia. Although Offa's Dyke had been constructed in order to define the territories of the Welsh and the English, this did not prevent the successors of Offa from attacking Wales. The pressure on Powys continued; after 855, Rhodri was its defender, and he and his son, Gwriad, were killed in battle against the English in 878.

  2. Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good)

    Davies 1990; Walker 1990

    By 950 A.D., Dinefwr was the principal court from which Hywel Dda, "The Good", ruled a large part of Wales including the southwest area known as Deheubarth. His great achievement was to create the country's first uniform legal system. Hywel shared with his brothers lands in Ceredigon and Ystrad Tywi after the death of their father, Cadell, about 909. He united their inheritance in 920, and acquired Gwynedd after the death of Idwal Foel in 942. He married Elen, daughter of Llywarch of Dyfed, and on Llywarch's death in 904 he took over the southern kingdom. In the perspective of the Dark Ages he was a powerful prince, and it may be that later generations borrowed his personal authority to buttress their own power.Like his grandfather, Rhodri the Great, Hywel was given an epithet by a later generation. He became known as Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), although it would be wrong to consider that goodness to be innocent and unblemished. In the age of Hywel, the essential attribute of a state builder was ruthlessness, an attribute which Hywel possessed, if it is true that it was he who ordered the killing of Llywarch of Dyfed, as some have claimed.

    Although contemporary evidence is lacking, there is no reason to reject the tradition that Hywel was responsible for some of the consolidation of the Laws of Wales. Among Hywel's contemporaries there were rulers who won fame as law-givers. The law was Hywel's law, cyfraith Hywel; his name gave to the law an authority comparable with that given to the laws of Mercia by King Offa or the laws of Wessex (and a larger area of England) by King Alfred. He almost certainly knew of them; he was a regular visitor to the English court and in 928, when in the flower of his manhood, he went on pilgrimage to Rome. In later centuries it was claimed that he took copies of his laws to Rome, where they were blessed by the Pope. Tradition also provided details of the circumstances under which the laws were compiled and promulgated.

    It was probably the need to give cohesion to his different territories that prompted Hywel to codify the law. He was also successful in defending his territories, for there is no record that they were ravaged by the Vikings during his reign. Neither were they attacked by the English. Hywel adhered to the close relationship with England initiated by his father-in-law, Llywarch of Dyfed, yet it is unlikely that he relished the diminution in status and the heavy demands for tribute which resulted from his association with the kingdom of England. He recognised the facts of power - the power which in his lifetime extinguished the Brythonic kingdom of Cornwall and which brought about the death of his cousin, Idwal of Gwynedd.

    Hywel's creation of the kingdom of Deheubarth, survived his death. In 950 it passed to his son Owain. Gwynedd and Powys returned to the line of Idwal ap Anarawd while Glamorgan continued to be subject to its own kings. Although the union between Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth was broken, Wales had only three kingdoms after 950, compared with over twice that number two centuries earlier.

  3. Owain Glyndwr

    Gwyn A. Williams 1985; Wales: The Rough Guide, 1994

    No name is so frequently invoked on Wales as that of Owain Glyndwr (c. 1349-1416), a potent figurehead of Welsh nationalism ever since he rose up against the occupying English in the first few years of the fifteenth century. Little is known about the man described in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I as "not in the roll of common men." There seems little doubt that the charismatic Owain fulfilled many of the mystical medieval prophecies about the rising up of the red dragon. He was of aristocratic stock and had a conventional upbringing, part of it in England of all places. His blue blood furthered his claim as Prince of Wales, being directly descended from the princes of Powys and Cyfeiliog, and as a result of his status, he learned English, studied in London and became a loyal, and distinguished, soldier of the English king, before returning to Wales and marrying.

    Glyndwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother's side, descended from that of Deheubarth in the south. The family had fought for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war and regained their lands in north-east Wales only through a calculated association with the powerful Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale and the lesser family of Lestrange. They thus rooted themselves in the Welsh official class in the March and figured among its lesser nobility.

    Glyndwr was comfortably placed. He held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrydwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee directly of the king by Welsh Barony. He had an income of some 1200 punds a year and a fine moated mansion at Sycharch with tiles and chimneyed roofs, a deerpark, henory, fishpond and mill. He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term at the Inns of Court. He must have been knowledgeable in law; he married the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer who had served under Edward III and Richard II. He had served in the wars and retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the earl of Arundel, and served with distinction in the Scottish campaign of 1385.

    But he was more than a Marcher. He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, an heir to Cadwaladr, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. Wales in the late 14th century was a turbulent place. The brutal savaging of Llywelyn the Last and Edward I's stringent policies of subordinating Wales had left a discontented, cowed nation where any signs of rebellion were sure to attract support. In 1399-1400 Glyn Dwr ran up against his powerful neighbor, Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. The quarrel was over common land which Grey had stolen. Glyndwr could get no justice from the king or parliament. This proud man, over forty and grey-haired, was visited with insult and malice. There are indications that Glyndwr made an effort to contact other disaffected Welshmen, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers from the very beginning proclaimed him Prince of Wales.

    The response was startling and may have even startled Glyndwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers, other Norman-Welsh Marchers and the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to savage every town on north-east Wales. There was an immediate response from Oxford, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and flocked home. Even more dramatic was the news that Welsh laborers in England were downing their tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed ferociously anti-Welsh legislation on to the books. Henry IV marched a big army right across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. Whole populations scrambled to make their peace. Over the Winter, Glyndwr, with only seven men, took to the hills.

    But in the spring of 1401 as the Tudors snatched Conwy Castle by a trick, Owain's little band moved into the centre and the south. Once more, popular insurrection broke around them, and hundreds ran to join the rebellion. It was during 1401 that Glyndwr became aware of the growing power of the rebellion as men of higher rank began to defect to the cause. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself the liberator appointed by God to deliver the Welsh race from their oppressors. The English king, Henry IV, despatched troops and rapidly drew up a range of severely punitive laws against the Welsh, even outlawing Welsh-language bards and singers. Battles continued to rage, with Glyndwr capturing Edmund Mortimer, the earl of March, in Pilleth in June 1402. By the end of 1403, Glyndwr controlled most of Wales.

    The twelve-year war which ensued was, for the English, largely a matter of relieving their isolated castles. Expedition after expedition was beaten bootless back. Henry IV, beset by Welsh, Scots, French and rebellious barons, sent in army after army, some of them huge, all of them futile; he never really got to grips with it and the revolt largely wore itself out, in a small country blasted, burned and exhausted beyond the limit of endurance. For the Welsh, it was a Marcher rebellion and a peasant's revolt which grew into a national guerrilla war. The sheer tenacity of the rebellion is startling. Few revolts in contemporary Europe lasted more than some months; no previous Welsh war had lasted much longer. This one raged in undiminished fury for ten years and did not really end for fifteen.

    In 1404, Glyndwr assembled a parliament of four men from every commot in Wales at Machynlleth, drawing up mutual recognition treaties with France and Spain. At Machynlleth, he was also crowned king of a free Wales. A second parliament in Harlech took place a year later, with Glyndwr making plans to carve up England and Wales into three, as part of an alliance against the English king: Mortimer would take the south and west of England, Thomas Percy, earl of Northumberland, would have the midlands and the north, and himself Wales and the Marches of England. The English army, however, concentrated with increased vigor on destroying the Welsh uprising, and the Tripart Indenture was never realized.

    Disaster struck in 1408 when the castles of Aberystwyth and Harlech fell to the forces of the king, and Glyndwr's own family was taken prisoner. The Welsh nation that had existed for four years took once more to the woods with its prince once more an outlaw. Owain, with his son Meredudd, and a handful of his best captains, together with some Scots and Frenchmen, was at large throughout 1409, devastating wherever he went. No one knows what happened to Glyndwr, but, like Arthur, he could not die; he would come again. Henry V, the new king, twice offered the rebel leader a pardon, but the old man was apparently too proud to accept.

    What is more remarkable than the civil war that the revolt inevitably became, is the passion, loyalty and vision which came to sustain it. Glyndwr's men put an end to payments to the lords and the crown; they could raise enough money to carry on from the parliaments they called, attended by delegates from all over Wales - the first and last Welsh parliaments in Welsh history. From ordinary people by the thousands came a loyalty through times often unspeakably harsh which enabled this old man to lead a divided people one-twelfth the size of the English against two kings and a dozen armies. Owain Glyndwr was one Welsh prince who was never betrayed by his own people, not even in the darkest days when many of them could have saved their skins by doing so. There is no parallel in the history of the Welsh.

    The draconian anti-Welsh laws stayed in place until the accession to the English throne of Henry VII, a Welshman, in 1485. Wales became subsumed into English custom law, and Glyndwr's uprising became an increasingly powerful symbol of frustrated Welsh independence. Even today, the shadowy organization that surfaced in the early 1980s to burn holiday homes of English people and English estate agents dealing in Welsh property has taken the name Meibion Glyndwr, the Sons of Glyndwr.

    Since 1410 most Welsh people most of the time have abandoned any idea of independence as unthinkable. But since 1410 most Welsh people, at some time or another, if only in some secret corner of the mind, have been "out with Owain and his barefoot scrubs." For the Welsh mind is still haunted by its lightning-flash vision of a people that was free.

[Note: A referendum throughout Wales in 1999 created a Welsh Assembly which took office in 2000 but its powers are limited to merely distributing money sent to it by the United Kingdom exchequer in London. It has absolutely no law making powers of its own and has been described contemptuously by some as a glorified parish council. Be that as it may, the National Assembly, minus any teeth, seems here to stay.]


  • Gwyn A. Williams, When Was Wales, Penguin Books, London, 1985.
  • Wales - The Rough Guide, Mike Parker and Paul Whitfield, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1994.
  • Castles of Wales website

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