The stories of the great castles of Wales – Caernarvon, Caerphilly, Chepstow and the rest – have often been told. Their histories have been written many times, from a variety of different perspectives. They might be English or Welsh, the homes of invaders or defenders, but whatever their background, one thing is certain – they are well known.
Yet Wales can also boast a huge array of lesser known castles and fortifications. They might be little heard of, at least by the general public, but their history is just as fascinating and intriguing as their larger brethren.
Colwyn Castle, located five miles to the north-east of Builth Wells on the A481 road, is only one example. Little remains of the castle these days, just a ringwork and a bank inside an old rectangular enclosure. You really do have to know what you are looking for if you decide to stop and explore.
And, equally as important, you need to be aware that what you see before you is not the first fortification on the site. The original castle was a motte and bailey structure, built by the Norman incomer Ralph Tosny in approximately 1093-95. It did not remain in English hands for long, being attacked and captured by Madog ab Idnerth somewhere around 1135.
Such a bald statement of fact cannot begin to conjure up the violence and the bloodshed that must have surrounded the attack on the castle, its storming and eventual destruction.
The castle changed hands fairly regularly over the next few years, and was rebuilt by Hugh Mortimer in 1144. Despite this, it was back in Welsh hands by 1148 and remained a Welsh fortress for the next five years. It was again rebuilt in 1195, this time by the turbulent Norman knight William de Braose, before being finally besieged and taken by Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd the following year.
The structure that we now know as Colwyn Castle dates from about 1200 when Braose was granted rights of conquest in the area. He set about strengthening the fortress and making it considerably more permanent but, despite this, Colwyn was taken from him following his failed rebellion against the crown in 1208.
When the son of William de Braose also rebelled in 1215, Colwyn Castle – until then held by King John – was captured by Einion Clud and remained in Welsh hands until Llywelyn ap Iorwerth came to power.
It may not have been a huge fortress like Caerphilly but in 1232 Colwyn Castle was the scene of a high powered conference when delegates of the English crown and the Welsh princes met to discuss the safety and security of the border regions. Again, it is easy to imagine the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, something with which the castle and its environs were certainly not familiar.
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth – Llywelyn the Great as he is invariably known - was an immensely strong ruler who managed to unite much of Wales under his control.
However, when he died the Welsh princes – who had sworn allegiance both to him and to his son – immediately transferred their loyalty to Henry III of England, thus proving that there is no loyalty amongst self serving men lusting after power. They paid homage to Henry in 1241 and duly ensured that Colwyn Castle would remain in Welsh hands.
By 1248 it was in the possession of Sir Owain ap Maredudd ab Einion Clud, a vassal of Roger Mortimer. Sir Owain supported Llywelyn the Last, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, in his wars against Edward I; the castle had been surrendered to Llywelyn following the fall of Builth Wells in 1260.
Despite changing sides from Llywelyn back to the crown in 1277, Owain vacillated between the prince and the king and obviously fell from grace following Llywelyn's defeat and death.
Thereafter, Colwyn Castle more or less declined into disuse. It may have been rebuilt or repaired by Maud Mortimer, the widow of Roger Mortimer, at some stage and is certainly mentioned in documents from 1309 and 1307. By 1397, however, the castle had been abandoned and slowly sank to the state we see today.
For such a small and, seemingly, innocuous place, Colwyn Castle holds a wealth of history – well worth stopping off to view next time you are in the area.