Castell Dinas Bran, Denbighshire
1 mile NE of Llangollen
B road off A539
An ancient and almost impregnable stronghold, 750 feet above Llangollen, of the Welsh princes probably built just before 1270 by Madog, prince of this part of Powys. The builders made cunning use of the natural defences afforded by the steep drop to the north and west - and also of the original Iron Age hillfort on the site. To the east and south, where the slopes are more gentle, a deep ditch was hewn out of solid rock. Towers and a barbican added further protection.
The limestone hill formed such a good natural reservoir, the garrison would have no water supply problems should the castle be besieged. However, two wells were built to supplement their water supply and the castle was later taken by the English.
The first time I visited this castle involved a steep 700 foot climb from the valley floor below. Subsequent visits to this fascinating ancient site revealed far easier climbs to the summit, including a car park three quarters the way up. Whatever route you take, the view from the top is well worth the effort and is without doubt the most spectacular of any castle in all of Wales.
The crumbling ruins are simply stunning, set against such dramatic scenery in every direction. Watching the sun set from this ancient fortress is a special experience.
A visit to Dinas Bran is an absolute must for anyone interested in castles, history or appreciates stunning atmospheric scenery.
~ History ~
600's - An Iron Age fortress is constructed consisting of earthen ramparts topped with a wooden palisade protected by a deep ditch. Within the fortress a village of round houses are built for the lord and his people.
700's - Elisedd ap Gwylog, one of the founders of the kingdom of Powys, rules his dominion from Dinas Bran.
1073 - The timber built Dinas Bran, or "Crow Castle," in its translation, is first mentioned in historical record as being in total ruin, although the site and name 'Dinas' are of Iron Age origin.
1230's - Madog, prince of Powys begins the building of Dinas Bran in stone.
1270 - Gruffydd Maelor II, his son, completes the building of the castle. Dinas Bran becomes a prized possession of the princess of Powys.
1277 - The powerful castle does not go unnoticed by the invading English forces under Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. He besieges the castle and is successful in forcing the Welsh to submit to his army, who promptly set the castle ablaze, completely destroying it. Even after its devastation, Henry de Lacy marvels at the forlorn castle, and recommends to King Edward I to make repairs, noting that the interior masonry being still intact, could be used by the English in their battles with the Welsh. The Earl exclaims to King Edward that there is no greater Welsh castle, nor one in England that could compare with the might of Castell Dinas Bran. However, King Edward is not impressed and the castle is not restored.
Later the castle and its lands are granted to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, a formidable Marcher lord. However, Warenne is more interested in fortifying his estates at Holt than in repairing his decaying Welsh stronghold.
1282 - Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Llywelyn the Last's rebellious brother, holds Dinas Bran during the final years of the war with King Edward I.
Following Llywelyn's death, King Edward's army track him down and in capturing him, send him to England to face a gruesome execution.
1402 - Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, is the owner of Dinas Bran when it is attacked by Owain Glyndwr's rebellious Welsh army as they sweep across Wales taking castle's and towns in their wake. Dinas Bran is one of the few castles they fail to capture. Following demise of the Welsh uprising Dinas Bran is never again used as a stronghold.
~ Legend ~
Though the present castle is certainly medieval, it stands on the site of an ancient Iron-Age hill fort of King Elisedd, named for the celtic King Bran Fendigaid (the blessed).
The name Castell Dinas Bran literally means Castle of the City of Crows.
Legends associate Castell Dinas Bran with the king of Britain whose story dates to Arthurian times and whose name (Bran) translates to 'Crow', or in this context 'Raven'. The king is killed after invading Ireland, and his head is buried in London's Tower Hill, believing that as long as Bran's head remained buried, Britain would be safeguarded.
The legend still being evident today in the belief that the ravens at the Tower of London must never be allowed to leave or the Kingdom would fall.
Tales also tell of King Arthur retrieving the head, choosing to protect Britain himself rather than resorting to the power of a buried body part. Claims are also made that the Holy Grail is hidden in the hillock at Dinas Bran.
The hill of Dinas Bran has also been known as a haunt of the Little People, and a young lad called Tudur who was watching sheep on the hillside when drawn into the fairy dance one summers night. The scene was a hollow called goblins brook halfway up the hillside.
First Tudur sees a tiny man with a fiddle, then dancers arrive and the music begins. Tudur is entranced by the scene, though he hesitates joining in for fear that the Devil might be responsible and he would be spirited away. However, his resistance is finally broken crying aloud 'Play away, old devil'. As soon as he cries out the musician turns into the Devil and the fairies into a ring of fire. In the morning Tudur's master comes searching for the lost shepherd and finds him still spinning in the hollow.
A later tale tells of an arrogant Norman knight, Pain Peveril, who in stopping beneath the crumbling ruins of Dinas Bran, learns that the site was once the home of king Bran, and that no one had the courage to stay a night inside the ruins for fear of evil spirits. To prove their mettle, Pain and some of his cohorts climb up to the ruins determined to endure the night. During that night a storm arises and they are attacked by the notorious Gogmagog, a man giant possessed by an evil spirit who has terrorised the countryside for years. Pain defends his men with his shield, protected with a cross, a shield so sturdy that it withstands the giants mace. During the struggle Pain manages to stab and kill the giant with his sword.
~ Lord Bran ~
Matholwch, King of Ireland, visits Bran to ask for the hand of his sister Branwen. Bran agrees to this, but during the feast to celebrate, Efnisien, a half-brother of Branwen and Bran, arrives and asks the purpose of the celebrations. When told, he is furious than Branwen has been given in marriage without his permission, and vents his anger by mutilating Matholwch's horses. Matholwch is deeply angered until Bran gives him a magic cauldron of healing which restores the dead to life.
Once in Ireland, Branwen is treated cruelly by her husband, and is forced to work in the kitchens. She tames a starling and sends it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brother Bran. On receiving the message from his sister he sets sail to Ireland to rescue her with his brother Manawydan.
When Matholwch sees the giant Bran, he asks for peace and asks Bran to live with them and gives the kingdom to his son by Branwen.
The Irish lords disagree so they hide themselves in flour bags ready to attack the Welsh when they slept. Efnisien guesses what is planned and kills each of them in turn by squeezing their heads and then throws Matholwch's son into the fire.
In the ensuing war, the Irish at first take the advantage because of Matholwch's magic cauldron. When the Irish dead were placed in it, they came back to life and were able to fight on. Efnisien lays down amongst the dead and when placed in the cauldron brakes the cauldron and in doing so is killed. The Welsh eventually win the war, but only seven men survive. Bran himself is mortally wounded and orders that his head should be cut from his body. On the return Branwen dies of grief for all the destruction on her account and is buried beside the River Alaw in Anglesey.
Bran's remaining loyal men continue with their lords final command by taking his head to Harlech where they spend seven years recovering their strength and grief. They then set for Caer-Lundein (London) where they bury their masters head in the White Mount so it would for ever look towards France, exactly as their master had ordered. Later the White Tower of London would be built. As long as the head of Lord of Crow Castle remained buried there, Britain would be safe from invasion. However, King Arthur dug up the head, declaring the country would be safe only by his great strength. The name Bran translates as Raven, from which the practise of keeping ravens at the Tower of London remains to this day.