I made a trip on Saturday to Dolforwyn, to see the remains of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s ambitious castle and settlement on a hill above the Severn valley. I suppose most Welsh are unaware of its existence. Admittedly, it played no great part in history, but that was possibly because Llywelyn’s enemies realised as well as he the potential of Dolforwyn, and so it was besieged and forced into surrender in 1277, soon after it had been completed (made easier because Llywelyn’s garrison hadn’t got round yet to sinking a well).
Building work started in 1273, partly to consolidate Llywelyn’s hold over his newly acquired territories of Ceri and Cedewain, and also as a statement of his authority and status vis á vis his neighbours. For Dolforwyn is just four miles from the great English border fortress at Montgomery, and roughly twice that distance from Powis castle, the seat of his great rival, the ‘variable’ Owain ap Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, from whom he had taken Ceri and Cedewain.
In the context of the period, there is something very ‘in yer face’ about Dolforwyn, and Llywelyn must have known the risks he was taking in being so provocative. Not least because Edward I of England had told him not to build it. Llywelyn’s response was along the lines of, ‘My land by right of conquest, and I’ll build whatever I like on it’. But as we, and the Scots, were soon to learn, ‘Longshanks’ was not a man who forgot or forgave insults. While for Llywelyn, Cilmeri was just five years away when Dolforwyn fell.
Given all these factors there can be no doubt that Llywelyn was serious in his intentions. For in addition to it being highly provocative Dolforwyn was well outside the borders of Gwynedd; it cost him a great deal of money; and he even laid out a township alongside the castle, maybe filled with loyal settlers from Gwynedd.
So why take these risks, and go to such lengths; because if Llywelyn simply wanted to raise a couple of fingers to the king of England there were far cheaper ways of doing it than a major undertaking like Dolforwyn? I suppose that’s the mystery of Dolforwyn. Virtually all the other castles in Wales, Welsh or not, can be explained. We know why they were built. We know their role and purpose. Given what I’ve just said, I believe that the traditional explanations given for Dolforwyn are inadequate. So I think it’s worth considering that Dolforwyn was intended to be more than just the military outpost of an over-ambitious Welsh prince.
Dolforwyn was clearly Llywelyn’s most forward base, but was it intended to be his future capital? Because while Gwynedd was a fine location from which to launch attacks and in which to receive invaders, by the late thirteenth century it was far from the growing centres of wealth and power. And what a pastoral economy like Wales sorely needed was towns and trading centres – but under Welsh control, providing taxes for a Welsh ruler.
There were maybe other considerations; because for an ambitious man like Llywelyn Dolforwyn had the advantage of being more accessible to the southern Welsh; and also perhaps less intimidating than the far north would have been. And who knows, having an assertive Welsh presence so close might also have stiffened the resistance to English rule of those Welsh stranded in what had become the counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire.
From whichever angle we look at it, a successful and prosperous Dolforwyn held immense possibilities for Llywelyn, Gwynedd, and even Wales. For those very same reasons, Edward I and the local power-brokers would have viewed the whole undertaking as a threat, something to be dealt with. Meaning it was probably doomed from the start.
And yet, what if it had succeeded, what if it had become the capital of a united and independent Wales? Dolforwyn today could have been a capital city like so many others in Europe, with the castle that gave it birth high up on the hill overlooking a bustling and prosperous modern city. Instead, like so many Welsh dreams, Dolforwyn lies in ruins.
There are some excellent photographs to be found here. These are by Jeffrey and Parthene Thomas, who post many photographs of Welsh castles on the internet. I took some photographs myself, of course, one of which I reproduce here, though I’m not sure how I feel about it. I suppose I would be more comfortable to see ‘Free Wales Army’ daubed on an English castle, or a more modern building representative of our colonial status, such as the Assembly building. Then again, whoever did it probably intended it as a show of solidarity and respect; ‘the struggle goes on’, kind of thing. I only wish it did.
HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll need to be on the A483 between Welshpool and Newtown. (See map, above.) Just north of the turning for Abermiwl you will see a Cadw sign for ‘Castell Dolforwyn’. Turn off the highway and follow the narrow track up towards the castle for a couple of miles. You will then come to a tiny car park on your left that accommodates no more than five cars. Park there and follow the signs up the steep hill for about half a mile. And I mean steep!
Fortunately, Saturday was dry and sunny, but even so I nearly lost my footing a couple of times. But it’s all worth it when you get there. Virtually every section of the castle has its own information panel, and the views are impressive . . . and they’d be even more impressive if the trees were cut back.