I recently ‘went native’ in castle terms. I revisited the wonderful early/mid-13th-century ‘native Welsh’ castle of Ewloe, Flintshire. Located in dense woodland above the steep Wepre Brook, this is a castle of the Welsh princes of Gwynedd. It may have been built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth c. 1210 and enlarged by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd around 1257. Its plan is simple; a natural outcrop provided the site of a rectangular donjon with an apsidal eastern end. The outer bailey is defended by a single round tower at its western end and contains ancillary buildings and a well.
I am rather suspicious of all this talk of ‘native’ vs. ‘English’ castles. It smacks of the kind of culture-historic mindlessness that has dogged so much of archaeological interpretations in medieval archaeology until very recently. It is a tad racist, in a patronising way of seeing elite residences on a single hierarchy of bigness and loftiness…. We should work harder to challenge such thinking but some of it is very tenacious in archaeology.
Of course the scale, morphology and location of Ewloe Castle contrasts starkly with the later 13th century Flint Castle of Edward I located only c. 6 miles away. Hence, Ewloe is called a ‘typical Welsh’ design, and there are striking parallels with other castles of the princes of Gwynedd, such as Castell y Bere.
That is fine. However, let’s remember that the contrast is an utterly false one and shouldn’t be seen in ethnic terms of ‘Welsh’ versus ‘English’ design. Despite their relatively close chronological and geographical proximities, these castles were built and used for very different purposes and so when viewing them you are not comparing like-with-like at all. Instead when we read of ‘typical Welsh’ castle design, I think it might be better to think of particular lordships and their visions and requirements for castle design, as well as the socio-political networks within which these elite households were connected to.
If you are visiting the castles of North Wales, you must not miss out on Ewloe because of its distinctive woodland location. You can walk up to it from the car park of Wepre Country Park or else endure the maddening noise of the nearby kennels and park in the lay-by on the B5125 and walk across a field to approach the castle from above.
The heritage dimensions are interesting as well. More ‘newspaper headline’ heritage boards from Cadw (diolch!) and a map of the walks around the country park, plus a rather random heraldic date. In terms of visitor use, the inside of the donjon is riddled with the detritus of Connah’s Quay’s youth: beer cans and glass bottles. Otherwise, it is a nice, well-managed, arboreal location and a pleasant place to visit. Remember, no wheelchair/pushchair access. So while there were no archaeodeath dimensions to Ewloe I could identify, another death-free trip for me and the kids.