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In my blog post https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/an-attempt-to-buck-the-trend/ I wrote about how different people looked at Dolbadarn Castle (Latitude 53.116526; Longitude -4.114234) from different perspectives and viewpoints. This month I had an article published in the journal ‘Archaeology in Wales’ for 2014 entitled “Dolbadarn Castle: A Thirteenth Century Royal Landscape” (pp.63-72).. I won’t recount the full article here but I will offer a few insights into the castle’s design and symbolism.
The round tower at Dolbadarn is a very sophisticated structure, and in seeking a parallel for it, rather than look at other marcher round towers it would appear that the Wakefield Tower in the Tower of London is perhaps the closest in form and function.
Whilst the exterior now appears unremarkable, subsumed and altered – with tourists passing by it to reach for them ‘the main event’ of The White Tower, the interior gives some idea of its original purpose.
The Wakefield Tower was constructed during the reign of King Henry III as part of his new royal lodgings. Work by Curnow, published in 1977 and by Thurley, published in 1995, demonstrated that the Upper Room of the Wakefield Tower was used as the King’s Great Chamber and was designed to contain a ‘chair of estate’.
As part of my research I went back and re-examined the original reports on the conservation of Dolbadarn Castle by the Ministry of Works in the 1940s and 1950s and the subsequent description by the RCAHMW in their second volume on ‘Caernarvonshire’, published in 1960. I also went to the castle on several occasions (helped by living in the village of Llanberis just next door) and re-examined the fabric for myself.
The interior of the round tower at Dolbadarn Castle can, for ease of explanation, be divided into four sections. The flooring arrangements for the round tower were discussed by McNeill and compared to other round towers (2003: 99). The lowest section comprises a basement, and this would have been reached through a trapdoor in the floor. It is here that high-value goods are likely to have been stored, with the vent providing some air circulation once the trapdoor was closed. At first floor level is the doorway into the round tower, protected by a portcullis which would have been raised to allow entry inside. Looking around the room clockwise, the first floor provided access to the garderobe tower, to a doorway on the opposite side of the room and to the right of this is a fireplace, whose chimney flue runs through the thickness of the wall.
The second floor was accessed from the spiral staircase which ran within the width of the wall. Looking around the room clockwise, there is a large window opening into which the portcullis slid, followed by the second floor access to the upper floor of the garderobe tower. To the right of these are two windows, a fireplace whose chimney flue runs through the thickness of the wall and finally another window.
What is immediately apparent is the difference in the amount of light which would have originally entered the first and second floors respectively. The first floor has no windows, and two doors, one of which, next to the fireplace was much narrower than the other, the portcullis protected entrance. By contrast the second floor has four large windows, allowing light to flood into this room.
The second floor would appear to have served at Llywelyn ab Iorwerth’s Great Chamber, in a similar fashion to the King’s Great Chamber on the upper floor of the Wakefield Tower. A ‘chair of estate’ would have sat on the wall opposite the spiral stair entrance, and with light entering the room from all sides it would have made for an impressive meeting with the ‘Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon’. The mountains of Snowdonia, including Snowdon itself served as the backdrop to Llywelyn, as they could be seen from the second floor windows, or by climbing the spiral stairs to view them from the wall walk round the roof of the tower.
Next week I’ll explain how the Wakefield Tower and the Round Tower at Dolbadarn are different – and why medieval coinage may have something to do with this.