CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 120
The last castle of the last Welsh prince of North Wales by Lawrence Butler
On a hill top overlooking the Severn valley five miles west of Montgomery, an overgrown ruin is steadily being cleared of its green cloak of bushes to reveal an extensive medieval castle. This is the Welsh stronghold of Dolforwyn, a border stronghold in every sense. Behind it to the west rise the massed ranks of the Cambrian mountains, but to the east the valley opens out to the fertile lands of the Severn plain in Shropshire. Just as Hen Domen near Montgomery marked a forward position for the Normans fighting for supremacy beyond Offa's Dyke, so Dolforwyn stood in a similar forward position for the Welsh princes as they sought to stem the tide of conquest or even to reverse its flow.
Dolforwyn was the last castle to be built by the native-born Welsh princes in mid Wales, and as such it exhibits the highest military achievement attained by the native Welsh as they tried to imitate the Norman castle. It is thus a particularly interesting subject for excavation. If the Welsh phase of occupation can be identified, it will prove valuable for an understanding of Welsh culture on the eve of the Edwardian conquest.
The significance of this castle can only be understood by first giving a short narrative of the conflicts along the border. The first phase of Norman penetration across Offa's Dyke was dramatic and far-ranging. A strong sortie up the Severn Valley planted earthwork castles at strategic intervals and then leapfrogged over the Cambrian mountains into the coastlands around Cardigan Bay. This furthest
beach-head was held for less than fifty years, but the upper Severn valley from Shrewsbury 30 miles westwards was held permanently. The Severn at Welshpool became a boundary with the client principality of Powys acting as a buffer state to the north.
The military situation changed in favour of the Welsh whenever English royal power was weak, as under Stephen (1135-54) and under Henry III (1216-72). In the latter reign first Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of North Wales (died 1240) and then his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (died 1283) were able to push southwards towards Brecon and even threaten Glamorgan. The frontier stabilised along the Severn, and the river ford close to Hen Domen was recognised as a place for holding negotiations.
The second Llywelyn profited from the baronial unrest in England led by Simon de Montfort, and he even arranged to marry Simon's daughter. When Edward I went off on crusade, Llywelyn hoped to consolidate his gains in mid Wales, but he was opposed by his cousin Roger Mortimer who regarded himself as the king's vice-regent in the central borderlands. Llywelyn therefore built or refortified the castle of Dolforwyn between Newtown and Welshpool to protect his own territory north of the Severn from both English claims by the Mortimers and Welsh claims by the princes of Powys.
The documents show that in 1273 Roger Mortimer protested vigorously about this fortification and that Llywelyn equally strongly justified his right to build a castle and a town on his own lands. Four years later Edward I, angered by Llywelyn's refusal to pay homage launched the first campaign of conquest. Roger Mortimer and Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln joined the king in a three-pronged attack and captured Dolforwyn in April 1277 after a ten-day siege. The castle passed into royal hands and was repaired and granted to Roger Mortimer. He maintained the hill-top castle but soon founded his own market town in the valley floor, appropriately called Newtown. Apart from a detailed survey in 1322, when the castle was confiscated due to another Roger Mortimer's treason, little is known about the English occupation during the 14th century. In 1382 the castle was 'worth nothing' and in 1398 it was described as 'ruinous and worth nothing'. It would seem that the Mortimers had lost interest in maintaining it or in living there at all.
Although it was mentioned by Tudor antiquaries and map-makers, the slight nature of the surviving remains did not attract any serious attention from Victorian archaeologists or curious visitors. Eventually the prominent Welsh archaeologist J.D.K.Lloyd acquired it, and gave it to the care of the Welsh Office; this raised the problem of how best to care for it and display it intelligibly. In 1980 the decision was taken to excavate the ruins completely and to consolidate the masonry for display to visitors.
At that time only a few jagged