You wouldn’t guess from the ruins you see today, but Denbigh Castle was intended to be one of the most formidable fortresses in the whole of Wales.
Denbigh is technically a member of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles: a series of strongholds built in the late 1200s to help this fearsome king overcome Wales.
However, it’s never shared the dizzying reputation of its sister castles – Harlech, Caernarfon or Conwy – which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Nowadays, Denbigh Castle consists just of ruins scattered across mighty hill. It looks rather sad for itself.
Despite having played second-fiddle all its life, Denbigh is still an incredibly interesting ruin to visit. It also affords brilliant views of the surrounding countryside, when you’ve climbed atop its rocky perch.
Here’s a history and an exploration of this interesting castle, which remains a fun destination for few hours exploring when in North Wales.
How was Denbigh Castle Founded?
‘Denbigh’ is Welsh for ‘little fort’. Every visitor who’s struggled up the slopes to Denbigh will realise that the castle’s perched on a really steep hill; and Iron Age and Roman forts were sited here, back in ancient times.
From around 1277, the area was used by one of the Welsh nobles, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, as a palace for his formal residence. Dafydd was brother of Llywellyn, the Last Prince of Wales.
Daffyd’s residence in Denbigh was formed of compromise.
Fearsome King Edward I of England had been struggling to capture Wales for some time, and had come to an uneasy peace agreement with Dafydd and the other Welsh nobles in 1277. By that time, Edward I had siezed some, but not all, of Wales.
Daffyd ap Gruffyd made a fatal mistake in 1282, and decided to rebel against Edward I.
Edward was absolutely furious! He crushed the rebellion, destroyed Daffyd’s palace in Denbigh, and ordered a castle to be built in its place – a castle designed to keep the Welsh in order, and to destroy all memories of the palace’s history.
Edward I was a vengeful man, and unleashed the worst upon Daffyd – Daffyd has the unfortunate distinction of being the first person recorded to have been hung, drawn and quartered. Click here to discover more about King Edward.
After quelling that rebellion, Edward I granted the land of Denbigh to one of his loyal nobles, Henry de Lacy, who was then Earl of Lincon.
Henry de Lacy started out by destroying all remains of the old Welsh buildings belonging to Daffyd, and began building his castle with gusto. However, despite his best efforts, the project was never to be completed.
Why was Denbigh never really finished? Well, there’s a whole variety of reasons. Stories tell that Henry de Lacy’s son Edmund tragically drowned in the castle well, which naturally deterred de Lacy from investing time and energy in the fortress.
But there were many other complications – repeated Welsh uprisings and insurrections, problems in the supply of materials (and sufficient cash), and de Lacy’s death in 1311 all acted as further obstacles.
After de Lacy died, the castle heirs did embark on a new phase of construction. Efforts were made to thicken the walls and construct new towers, but attempts were half-hearted. By that time, King Edward I had also died, and the threat of Welsh rebellion appeared to be subsiding, and so there was little interest in completing these castles.
Denbigh also remained unfinished because Henry de Lacy left no obvious heir. As a result, the castle passed rapidly from one noble family to the next.
It should also be said that the over-ambitious size of Denbigh rendered it expensive and tricky to maintain.
Despite all this, castle survived two Welsh insurrections in the 1400s, but it was already falling into disrepair by the time that these were over.
During the English Civil War in the 1600s, the castle was already on its knees. During the conflict, it was occupied and used as a prison by the Royalist forces, but, after they lost the war, the place was slighted (intentionally damaged) by the Parliamentarians. It has languished ever since.
What’s truly unique about Denbigh Castle?
Although the ruins of Denbigh are initially quite confusing (in places, the ruins are so significant it’s hard to visualise what they were before), many elements of the castle are surprisingly important, in historical terms.
The Surrounding Town Wall
The surrounding town wall is probably the most significant element of Denbigh Castle’s construction.
Denbigh was designed to be an entire, walled habitation – much in the style of the sister castles of Caernarfon and Conwy – with the walls of the castle wrapping around the little city below it.
Indeed, much of the city itself was designed to accommodate military endevours – the layout of the town was organised to allow troops easy access between the buildings, and also to allow sight-lines for any advancing enemies.
You may be wondering nowadays, why do the walls wrap around nothing?! Evidently, the town walls no longer enclose Denbigh – the place moved to a more hospitable patch on lower ground. Today, the walls just enclose a little patch of land.
The Three Towered Gatehouse
One of the most special features of Denbigh Castle is the three-towered gatehouse (see the picture above).
It’s rather hard to visualise because it’s so ruined, but the gatehouse was a surprising, triangular design, made up of three interconnecting octagonal towers.
The design is quite unique, and it was equipped to be extremely defensive – the passageway leading through it is peppered with ‘murder holes’, or chutes down which defendants could pour boiling oil or other nasties.
There’s an interesting detail on the gatehouse that’s not well-photographed: a headless statue over the entrance to the castle.
It’s been variously claimed that the statue represents Edward I, or perhaps even the creator Henry de Lacy himself – historians aren’t sure, but it gives Denbigh Castle a bit of extra character.
The inner courtyard
When you walk through the gatehouse, one thing will strike you – the inner courtyard is absolutely massive, even when compared to other castles built in Edward’s time!
This huge expanse – nowadays a grassy area that’s used for children’s games of tag – would have once have been a hubbub of activity, as courtiers prepared food and festivities for visiting nobles.
Visiting Denbigh Castle today
If you’re coming to Denbigh on a visit, note that the closest railway station is in Rhyl, on the coast. You’re much better off driving.
Note that, if you happen to be in Denbigh on Boxing Day (that’s 26th December to non-Brits), there’s an annual Barrel Rolling Competition. Sounds like fun.
If you’re in North Wales, it’s definitely worth checking out Edward I’s mighty ring of castles in the area. Surrounding Denbigh Castle, you’ll be spoilt for choice among some incredible old sites, including Harlech and Caernarfon.