I recently explored one of my local castles: Caergwrle. A short train ride took me to Caergwrle station, an interesting station because it has an historic shelter on the down line with bilingual sign. Caergwrle is an interesting village of nineteenth-century houses wrapped around the hill.
The castle is situated on a prominent hill, south of the village that overlays the medieval borough, still preserved in the road layout.
One accesses the path up to the castle beside the Caergwrle war memorial, a chunky circle-headed cross with interlace down its front side with three steps. First World War servicemen are named on its front face, Second World War casualties down the side facing the village. Here there is a sign, defining the identity of the castle in relation to two historical figures: Dafydd ap Gruffudd and Edward I.
The Medieval Castle
It isn’t the most impressive castle to visit, having been subject to extensive robbing. Still, the hill has a series of beautiful but steep woodland walks and the top of the hill has accessible ruins and a heritage bilingual signboard that outlines the historical context of the thirteenth-century castle and presents a single-phase reconstruction of how the castle may have looked. The signboard’s text focuses on the historical context of its construction by Dafydd ap Gruffudd between 1277 and 1282 and its subsequent improvement by Edward I that summer until it the following year, 1283, when it was abandoned after a fire.
The signboard identifies four visible features of interest: a bread oven, the well, a privy and a fireplace. It tells us that the site was never finished but that archaeological evidence revealed a smithy, wooden structures and a mortar-mixing area, while the bread oven was there to feed the stonemasons, not permanent occupants of a completed residence.
There is also a short section on the millstone quarry of the 16th century. The robbing of the castle walls in the 17th century is visualised with a reconstruction.
This information derives from the excavations conducted between 1988 and 1990 and reported by John Manley in the journal Medieval Archaeology vol. 38 for 1994. This excavation report gives detailed evidence of the castle’s construction, including the evidence for mortar-mixing and metal-working areas. The evidence of the small-finds included iron slag indicating smithing, and pottery. Five coins were recovered, three from the reign of Edward I.
The structure sequence identified two tentative phases, a Welsh phase and an Edwardian refurbishing, including the development of a barbican. The structural evidence includes element of an doorway arch and small loop window. Outside the castle itself were substantial rock-cut ditches that are perhaps more impressive than the ruins of the buildings for the visitor today. The report concludes that this was a lordly castle built in the ‘English character’. What is really cool about Caergwrle Castle is how much of a snap-shot we have of its short occupation, a castle ‘in progress’ and never completed.
A Late-Roman/Post-Roman Fort?
Only briefly, and at the end of the signboard’s text, does it mention what is, for me, the most interesting thing about the site. The hilltop had been enclosed by a rampart with drystone masonry walls (front and rear). This dated to the Late Roman to post-Roman period (late 3rd to 4th centuries AD says the signboard). This evidence is summarised in the Medieval Archaeology report, but details are given in the 1992 Transactions of the Flintshire Historical Society (which I haven’t consulted for this blog). The Medieval Archaeology report footnotes that this is based on two C14 dates from large pieces of oak charcoal from the primary construction of the wall, giving date-ranges broadly between c. AD 250 and 400 for the construction of this outer defences. Pollen analysis says the environment during consturction was of mature oak woodland. From this evidence, I would suggest that the wall might readily be early medieval as much as late Roman, if old oak were used in its construction, but I defer to C14 experts over this point. Caergwrle is the site that is important for understanding what is going on in this region in the latter days of the Roman province and the emergence of early medieval kingdoms in this region. So much more might be learned of this and similar sites if subject to more extensive investigation.
Living in Hope, Dying in Caergwrle?
The local joking phrase is that you ‘live in Hope, die in Caergwrle’. Yet we have late Roman, or possibly post-Roman, evidence for a fortification at Caergwrle pre-dating the castle by many centuries. Meanwhile, the neighbouring church at Hope has produced some early medieval inscribed stones, reported in Nancy Edwards’ newly published corpus of early medieval inscribed and sculpted stone monuments for North Wales. Perhaps, therefore, the joke has got it the wrong way around. Long before the castle was built, did people live in Caergwrle and die in Hope?