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Vale of Clwyd Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Vale of Clwyd


Defended landscapes within The Vale of Clwyd fall into two distinct groups having no connection with each other - the group of prehistoric hillforts along the summit of the Clwydian hills on the one hand and the medieval castles at Ruthin and Denbigh on the other, all the sites being scheduled ancient monuments.

Five of the remarkable chain of six hillforts along the Clwydian hills fall within the The Vale of Clwyd historic landscape area - Foel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd), Moel Arthur, Penycloddiau and Moel y Gaer (Bodfari) - forming the most prominent and yet the most enigmatic group of archaeological monuments in the area. Two of the sites - Foel Fenlli and Penycloddiau - are vast, Penycloddiau alone enclosing an area of about 21ha, and being one of the largest hillforts Wales the country. Small-scale excavations were carried out at Foel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr) and Moel Arthur in 1849 and at Moel y Gaer (Bodfari) in 1908, and yet what is known about them is strictly limited, apart from the fact that they probably begun during the pre-Roman Iron Age and were clearly intended to be defensive.

Each of the monuments has multiple banks and ditches around at least part of their circuit, and each of the sites has evidence that the defences were constructed during more than one period. Scooped out platforms in a number of the sites probably indicate the position of wooden roundhouses or storage buildings, but whether they were permanently or seasonally occupied, and over what duration, is a matter of speculation. Each of the sites represent a formidable feat of civil engineering and though we know little about their function the sheer scale of their earthworks provides some evidence about the society that created them: the contemporary population was clearly of some size and must have been organized in a way which permitted concerted action. The monuments themselves are an expression of society in action and have an intimate relationship with the particular landscapes in which they are found. In all probability each hillfort probably would have been the focal point of a well-defined tribal territory extending across the lower ground within the vale below, each controlling access to a similar range of natural resources.

The defended landscapes represented by the medieval castles at Ruthin and Denbigh had an entirely different origin and function. Prominent outcrops were chosen for both works but in this case the sites lay within the vale and were much smaller in size and designed to house a more compact military force. The castle at Ruthin was started as part of a royal building programme in 1277, during the reign of Edward I, being designed to secure the cantref of Dyffryn Clwyd, then held of the crown by Dafydd, against the threat of incursion by his brother, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Following the revolt of Dafydd in 1282, the cantref was granted to Edward de Grey., and building work was on the castle was resumed. The castle and town together formed the capital of the new marcher lordship of Ruthin, providing a means of defending, administering, and exploiting the lordship. The ruins of the medieval castle, which run along the crest of the hill on the southern side of the town, were severely damaged during the Civil War, the present castellated buildings, now a hotel, having been built during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Denbigh has a similar history. It was again held by Dafydd before his revolt in 1282, in this instance as the capital of the cantref of Rhufoniog. Following the Edwardian conquest it was granted to Henry de Lacy, and like Ruthin the construction of the castle and borough commenced soon afterwards, in this instance to secure and exploit the new lordship of Denbigh, the early town in this case also being provided with substantial town walls.

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