Early Welsh princes didn’t readily adopt the Norman practice of building castles. They preferred a more nomadic lifestyle moving between undefended ‘llysoedd’, or courts, spread across their lands.
In fact, out of more than 470 fortresses across Wales, fewer than 40 were definitely built by native hands. It wasn’t until the 13th century that Welsh princes began to construct stone castles as mighty as those raised by the Marcher lords on the border.
You’ll find the finest examples in the ancient kingdoms of Wales. Deheubarth in south-west Wales has Dinefwr Castle, built by the Lord Rhys and greatly strengthened by his descendants. Here in Gwynedd to the north Dolwyddelan is joined by nearby Castell-y-Bere and Dolbadarn.
So how can you spot the difference between English and Welsh castles? Unlike the geometric English fortresses Welsh castles tend to be irregular, tailor-made for their rocky settings. Deep rock-cut ditches often strengthened their natural defences. The walls were lower than their English equivalents, offering little protection to the characteristic D-shaped (not round) towers that were the real strongholds.
But castles put a big strain on a prince’s purse. When Llywelyn the Great embarked on Dolwyddelan some time after 1210, he must have had very good reasons.
One was definitely its strategic spot guarding a key route through the mountains. The other was purely symbolic. He wanted to make it very clear to everyone – English and Welsh alike – that he was the true master of this epic landscape.