Halloween in Wales

fallen princess blogAs I sit here munching candy corn (which my 14 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate–though he can’t have any because he’s allergic to corn), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’.

From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Samhain was considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain. Many parts of this festival are echoed in our modern Halloween parties.

Jack O lanterns were originally made from turnips and used to guide the dead back to earth, and the Celts also dressed in costumes much as we do today, but they would use animal skins!  The Romans believed that monsters, gods and magic spells were all around them.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/whatson/?event_id=3734

“November 1 was considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century ad, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween

“November was also the month of death in the Celtic calendar, where animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter’. This often began with a feast on November 1st where pigs were slaughtered (part of this folklore is preserved in the Cymric (Welsh) legend of Arawn and Hafgan, as told in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.”  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/halloween-recipes.php

With the coming of Christianity, these traditions were converted to blend in more with the Christian calendar and Christian sensibilities. “In 601AD, Pope Gregory made an important directive. He announced that Christian missionaries were to take a new tack when attempting to convert pagans to the Christian religion. Christian missionaries he said, where possible, should incorporate the beliefs, festivals and sacred sites of pagan beliefs into the Christian religion. This directive meant that the important Celtic festival of Samhain had to be marked in a Christian manner.

In the year 609 AD, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835 AD. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead on an important holy day. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than ever.

In the eleventh century, a further festival was added to the church calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three festivals of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls were together known as Hallowmas.” http://suite101.com/article/halloween-in-medieval-times-a71922

“Despite the Church’s success in establishing a Christian foundation for the autumn celebrations, many of the ancient customs and traditions associated with them were still practiced by the population. The carving of gourds and the wearing of costumes and masks to scare away malevolent spirits are typical of the superstitions carried over from these celebrations into the All Hallows Eve observance.

The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives thought to visit on this night. This practice evolved during the Middle Ages, when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes”. Villagers would offer prayers along with the cakes to those who had died in the past year for their transition to heaven.”  http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/all_hallows_eve.html

For more customs of Calan Gaeaf: 

Christmas and the Winter Solstice

Stonehenge_Winter_Solstice_2007December 21st is the winter solstice in 2017. This is Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice in 2007. I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of those people have no idea why they’re there …

Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have celebrated the winter solstice, carefully calculating it’s date and time for sunrise and sunset, and aligning standing stones, worship sites, and burials in coordination with the sky.  Wikipedia has an excellent catalog of these events:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice

“The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.”  http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice.html

The Romans first linked Christmas with the solstice.  They pegged the event to December 25th because, since 43 BC, this date was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar.  It was only in 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII reconciled the calendar with the actual astronomical solstice, moving the solstice to December 21 (and keeping Christmas on the 25th).

From http://www.essortment.com/christmas-pagan-origins-42543.html:  “In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

According to my go-to online etymological dictionary, Yule: yule (n.) Old English geol, geola “Christmas Day, Christmastide,” from Old Norse jol (plural), a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity, of unknown origin.

The Old English (Anglian) cognate giuli was the Anglo-Saxons’ name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself a festival. After conversion to Christianity it narrowed to mean “the 12-day feast of the Nativity” (which began Dec. 25), but was replaced by Christmas by 11c., except in the northeast (areas of Danish settlement), where it remained the usual word.

Revived 19c. by writers to mean “the Christmas of ‘Merrie England.’ ” First direct reference to the Yule log is 17c. Old Norse jol seems to have been borrowed in Old French as jolif, hence Modern French joli “pretty, nice,” originally “festive” (see jolly).

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.” http://www.essortment.com/christmas-pagan-origins-42543.html


Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall “was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in 122 AD in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

It had a stone base and a stone wall. There were milecastles with two turrets in between. There was a fort about every five Roman miles. From north to south, the wall comprised a ditch, wall, military way and vallum, another ditch with adjoining mounds. It is thought that the milecastles were staffed with static garrisons, whereas the forts had fighting garrisons of infantry and cavalry. In addition to the wall’s defensive military role, its gates may have been used as customs posts.[1]

A significant portion of the wall still stands and can be followed on foot along the adjoining Hadrian’s Wall Path. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian%27s_Wall

To visit the wall or for more information, maps, etc, see: http://hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/hadrians-wall/hadrian%E2%80%99s-wall-facts

The Roman Conquest of Britain

The Roman Conquest of BritainWhen the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they crossed in three divisions, under the command of Aulus Plautius.  The ships are thought to have traveled from Boulogne to what is now Richborough, on the east coast of Kent.

The Romans operated on a shock and awe type of warfare and eleven tribes of southeast Britain surrendered to Claudius.  The Romans moved west and north from there,  establishing their new capital at Camulodunum.

It wasn’t until late in 47 AD that the new governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, began a campaign against the tribes of modern day Wales.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_conquest_of_Britain

“The ever-pugnacious Caratacus – the Caradog of Welsh legend – moved north to carry on the fight in the territory of the Ordovices in Anglesey and Caernarfon. There, in 51AD, he was defeated and his family captured.”

Later, the Silures defeated the forces sent against them in 52AD, and the grip of the Romans on their new British territory remained a troubled one. Fresh campaigns in 57 and 60AD struck deep into Welsh territory.

The latter campaign was directed at the seat of druidical power in Wales, the Isle of Anglesey. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the legionnaries doffed their clothes and swam naked across the Menai Straights to do battle with the druid-led Celts.”  .”   http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

“The novelty of the fight struck the Romans with awe and terror. They stood in stupid amazement, as if their limbs were benumbed, riveted to one spot, a mark for the enemy. The exhortations of the general diffused new vigor through the ranks, and the men, by mutual reproaches, inflamed each other to deeds of valor. They felt the disgrace of yielding to a troop of women, and a band of fanatic priests; they advanced their standards, and rushed on to the attack with impetuous fury. The Britons perished in the flames, which they themselves had kindled. The island fell, and a garrison was established to retain it in subjection. The religious groves, dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites, were leveled to the ground. In those recesses, the natives [stained] their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods.”  http://www.bukisa.com/articles/37180_the-roman-invasion-of-wales#ixzz1GzLHSv8g

Just when it looked as if the Romans would be able to subdue the Welsh tribes, a revolt by the Iceni in Norfolk broke out, led by their queen, Boudicca (Boadicea). The Roman forces were diverted, and the Welsh territory remained under very tenuous Roman control for several years.”   http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

Despite this great victory on Anglesey, the Romans continued to have difficulties with the people of northwest Wales.  This is evidenced by the number of military installations in the area and the lack of villas.

“Throughout the second half of the 4th century the Empire became increasingly unstable; barbarian attacks on the borders increased, and it seems that the legions were gradually withdrawn from Wales to counter threats on the continent.

By 390AD there were probably no Roman troops remaining within the borders of Wales. In the next few decades most of the legionnaries in England followed and Brittania was esentially undefended.

The Irish saw their chance; in 405 pirates under Nial ravaged the western coast, and may have precipitated a fresh influx of Irish settlers.”  http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

Bwlch y Ddeufaen

Bwlch y Ddeufaen is the a pass along the ancient road from Caerhun to Aber. The topography of North Wales is such that no significant road could run along the coastline due to the cliffs that come right down to the Irish Sea.

Thus, from ancient times, the people of Wales used a road that crossed the Conwy River at Caerhun and headed into the hills, reaching a pass marked by two standing stones on either side of the road. The road then descended out of the hills, arriving at Aber and was then able to follow the road west towards Bangor and Caernarvon.

Even the Romans found the topography impossible and chose to improve the ancient British/Celtic road rather than build an entirely new one closer to the coast. 1000 years later, the Normans faced the same difficulties. It was what allowed the Welsh Princes to rule from Aber almost uncontested. Protected by the mountains behind, their llys or court was accessible only by the pass of Bwlch y Ddeufaen or from the sea.

This road plays a role in many of my books.

Was King Arthur real?

cmh blogWhether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’–or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.  In another blog (here), I list the original sources that posit the existence of King Arthur.

Obviously, since I’ve written a novel about King Arthur, he’s very real to me!

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough analysis of the subject:

For now, I’d like to point to two aspects of the ‘wasn’t’ camp that I find particularly interesting, as they have to do with the development of Welsh myth and the transformation of Wales from a pagan culture to a Christian one.

One theory about King Arthur was that his stories were originally not about him at all, but about Gwydion, one of the sons of Don and a chief character in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  In these tales, Gwydion, while evident through much of the Mabinogi, is completely absent from the stories that include Arthur, implying that the ancient poet did a global ‘find and replace’. This theory was originally posited by Sir John Rhys, writing at the end of the 19th century.

The second curious aspect of the development of Arthur, which parallels the Gwydion relationship, is the way in which the character adopted not only the characteristics of Gwydion, but of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last ‘King’ of Wales (died 682 AD).  Included in the books of Taliesin are not only poems about Arthur, but also about Cadwaladr.  It is Cadwaladr whom the Welsh tales describe as sleeping in a cave on Mount Snowdon, and whose return the Welsh await (see my post on The Great Prophecy of Britain).

I would love for Arthur to have been a ‘real’ person, but I find the discovery of the way in which myth becomes ‘real’, as well as the ‘real’ becomes myth fascinating.  It is almost a parallel process:  many scholars of celtic myth believe that the stories of the Don or Tuatha de Dannan (in Ireland) were once ‘real’ to the people who told them, but with the coming of Christianity, their tales were either adopted and transformed into Christian parable, or faded into the realm of fable.  Similarly, Gwydion (a mythic character) or Cadwaladr (a ‘real’ one) might have had their stories blended into the tale of King Arthur–for Gywdion, the stories were sanitized and made palatable for Christian audiences, and for Cadwaladr, his story was submerged into the tale of an already more famous and reknowned hero and thus made more ‘mythic’.

Happy (Roman) New Year!

In the Roman calendar before Caesar, a year consisted of 12 months, for a total of 355 days plus an intercalary month between February and March.

For the Romans, the ideal intercalary cycle consisted of ordinary years of 355 days alternating with intercalary years (377 and 378 days long). On this system, the average Roman year would have had 366¼ days over four years, giving it an average drift of one day per year. Later, it was refined so that for 8 years out of 24, there were only three intercalary years, each of 377 days. This refinement averages the length of the year to 365¼ days over 24 years. In practice, intercalations did not occur as they should, according to the whims of the priest in power at the time.

According to Wikipedia:  If managed correctly this system allowed the Roman year, on average, to stay roughly aligned to a tropical year. However, since the Pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate’s term corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power. If too many intercalations were omitted, the calendar would drift rapidly out of alignment with the tropical year. Moreover, because intercalations were often determined quite late, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if he were some distance from the city. For these reasons, the last years of the pre-Julian calendar were later known as “years of confusion”.  The calendar image is a pre-Julian calendar that was part of a fresco.

The problems became particularly acute during the years of Julius Caesar’s pontificate before the reform, 63–46 BC, when there were only five intercalary months, whereas there should have been eight, and none at all during the five Roman years before 46 BC.  Thus, Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, in 49 BC of the official calendar, but the official calendar had drifted so far away from the seasons had that it was actually mid-autumn.

Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, and then it was reformed several more times before 1582 (as with Christmas) when the Pope adjusted the solstice to December 21.

Many other cultures celebrate the New Year in a month other than January (which, in truth, is a completely arbitrary date).  These include the Mayans, Babylonians, Persians, and Balinese (March); the Assyrians, Nepalese, and much of Southeast Asia (April); the Coptics (September); Australian Aboriginal (October); neo-pagans (November); and in the Muslim world.

Houses and Nails

How long have we been using nails to hold pieces of wood together? The answer is … a long time.

“Bronze nails, found in Egypt, have been dated 3400 BC. The Bible give us numerous references to nails, the most well known being the crucifixion of Christ. Of course we should not forget that model wife in Judges who in 1296 BC drove a nail into the temple of her husband while he was asleep, “so he died.”” http://www.fourshee.com/history_of_nails.htm

In the UK, early evidence of large scale nail making comes from Roman times 2000 years ago. Any sizeable Roman fortress would have its ‘fabrica‘ or workshop where the blacksmiths would fashion the metal items needed by the army. They left behind 7 tons of nails at the fortress of Inchtuthil in Perthshire.

For nail making, iron ore was heated with carbon to form a dense spongy mass of metal which was then fashioned into the shape of square rods and left to cool.  The metal produced was wrought iron. After re-heating the rod in a forge, the blacksmith would cut off a nail length and hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point. Then the nail maker would insert the hot nail into a hole in a nail header or anvil and with four glancing blows of the hammer would form the rosehead (a shallow pyramid shape).”  http://www.glasgowsteelnail.com/nailmaking.htm

wood houseThe oldest wooden house we have still standing was built in 1287. It is a two story structure in Switzerland:

“It is the summer of 1287 in Schwyz in central Switzerland, four years before activists in this region signed the Federal Charter, the country’s founding document.

A well-to-do local family is in the middle of building a fine two-storey wooden house. They’ve already cut the timber from the local forest and they are helping the master carpenters assemble their dream home.

They are proud of their comfortable new dwelling with its modern blockhouse design and practical layout. The family, whose name we do not know, hope their house will last and be passed on to the next generation.

Amazingly the house still stands more than 700 years later, now a museum and the oldest surviving wooden house in Europe.

By some quirk of fate the House of Bethlehem survived the ravages of time, a fire which destroyed most of the village in the seventeenth century and the kind of wrangling that led to the even older Nideröst House (1176), just a stone’s throw away, being dismantled and put into storage in 2001.”  Read more here.

This is the oldest wooden church in England, dating to 1050.  Read more here.

One of the oldest houses in Wales was built in 1402. Unfortunately, wood rots and decays, so these type of houses are few and far between. Read more here.

The Kingdoms of Wales

Map of Anglo-Saxon EnglandWales as a country evolved over a period of time after the Saxons completed their conquest of the rest of Britain. To recap, the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, leaving the ‘Britons’ to fend for themselves against succeeding waves of raiders from the north and east. These includes the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Historians are not in agreement as to exactly how this worked, but the Britons as a culture and society were driven further and further west until they reached their last bastions in Wales.

Map of Early Medieval Wales
Credit to David Ford, Early British Kingdoms www.earlybritishkingdoms.com

Regardless of the actual timeline, by 800 AD, the Saxons were well established right up to the border of what is now Wales.  Offa’s Dyke, an earthen wall built in the 8th century, delineated the border for much of the early Middle Ages.

“Offa was King of Mercia from 757 to 796 AD. His kingdom covered the area between the Trent/Mersey rivers in the North to the Thames Valley i

n the South, and from the Welsh border in the West to the Fens in the East. At the height of his power, however, he also controlled Kent, East Anglia and Lindsay (Lincoln), and had alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, sealed by the marriage of two of his daughters to their Kings, Aethelred and Beorhtic respectively. He was, therefore, effectively an early King of England.” http://www.offasdyke.demon.co.uk/dyke.htm

Llywelyn the Great's Wales 1217
Wales c. 1217. Yellow: areas directly ruled by Llywelyn; Grey: areas ruled by Llywelyn’s client princes; Green: Anglo-Norman lordships.

By the time of the two Llywelyn’s in the 13th century, the kingdoms of Wales were more consolidated. Llywelyn the Great, who ruled in the early half of the century, controlled all but a few regions of Wales, which the Marcher (Norman) lords still controlled.

His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, gained and lost (and then gained again) much of this territory over the course of his reign from roughly 1246 to his death in 1282.

Roman Roads (Bwlch y Ddeufaen)

In an earlier post, I discussed the routes across the Welsh and English countryside during the Middle Ages.  Many of these roads were based in the Roman roads, built between the 1st and 4th centuries AD.  In Wales, the Romans built roads but also improved old ones, which wasn’t their normal operating procedure. It was forced upon them, however, because they found the land so inhospitable that it made it difficult for them to lay down their straight roads.

The Roman roads lasted such a long time because the Roman legions who built them designed them to do exactly that.  The Romans built over 53,000 miles of roads, intended to connect every corner of their empire ultimately with Rome.  Britain, of course, was one of the places Rome conquered that couldn’t connect directly, as it is separated from Europe by the English Channel.  Still, within Britain itself, the road system was extensive.    “The roads were first surveyed to keep them straight. Roadbeds were dug three feet down and twenty three feet across. It was then filled with large gravel and sand for the foundation. A layer of smaller gravel was placed down and leveled. The sides were lined with blocks and hand-carved stones. Stones were often pentagonal in shape (five sided) and fitted together to make the top layer of the road. The roads were sloped from the center so rainwater would drain off into ditches at the sides of the roads.”  http://www.historylink102.com/Rome/roman-roads.htm  The following image is an illustration of this construction:


In Gwynedd, in particular, the Romans built a road from Chester to Caernarfon. Instead of following the coastal plain, as the modern highway now does, it skirted the rock formations along the coast, running through St. Asaphs, curving north to Caerhun where it crossed the Conwy, took the ancient Welsh track between the standing stones at the pass of Bwlch y Ddeufaen, and then back down to the coast at Aber.

This is the road that Welsh people used from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and beyond. The best maps in for this era in Wales are the Ordnance Survey maps of Roman Britain and Ancient Britain, and online: http://www.multimap.com/maps/

Make sure you choose the ‘ordnance survey’ map, to show all the castles, forts, roads, and ruins.

Much of what existed in the past has disappeared into the earth, as evidence by the discrepancy between this map, and what archaeologists have actually uncovered.

Caerhun (Canovium)

The Roman fort of Canovium (Caerhun) sat at an important ford on the Conwy river that connected the Roman center at Caernarfon (Segontium) with Chester (Deva).  The following site has an extensive discussion of viritually every aspect of the Roman fort:  http://www.betws31.freeserve.co.uk/Kanovium_Index/kanovium_index.html

“Situated on the west bank of the River Conwy, the Roman fort at Caerhun, known to the Romans as Kanovium or Conovium, is believed to have been established at this point to control a network of trackways already in existence at the time of the forts founding in the late 70’s A.D.  Basically known as a ‘route blocker’ a fort situated at an area of strategic importance with the aim of restricting native movement.  These tracks which ran N-S, and E-W had been dictated by the nature of the land which North Wales consisted of, basically the N-W area was a great upland massif, which consisted of the Carneddau, Glyderau, and Snowdonia mountain ranges, while the N-E area consisted of the Mynydd Hiraethog (Denbigh Moors) which ran north to end at a flat coastal plain.  The people before the Romans desired easy routes into this area (and indeed Anglesey and the western seaboard) the route N-S entered North Wales near Llangollen, and used the Dee Valley to enter this broken landscape.

The E-W track connected the modern area of Deeside to Anglesey and the west, climbing up from sea level at modern Greenfield (near Basingwerk Abbey). The route today is slightly mirrored by the A55 road, however it veered away from the coast near St Asaph to eventually reach the Conwy river (above).  From the river crossing it reached for the mountain pass of Bwlch y Ddeufaen, (pass of the two stones) to finally descend to Aber and once more be reunited with the coast (and now the A55).  It would seem this track was considerably antique by the time of the arrival of Vespasian’s legionaries and auxiliary cohorts during 75-8 A.D, it was common practice for the army to utilize tracks already in existence especially in difficult terrain.  While the Roman road was a strong factor in impressing the local folk and could be built as a large straight ‘agger’ even when the ground did not dictate such vast amounts of man hours to construct, however such ostentations were not considered appropriate in North Wales, and natural arteries already in use were transformed into something resembling the Roman road, though often were narrower than a Roman road in gentler countryside.”   http://www.betws31.freeserve.co.uk/Bath-house/Caerhun_s_Dock/caerhun_s_dock.html

“About the year 1650 the antiquarian Samuel Lee unearthed a hypocaustand tiles stamped

, and Gale in 1719 reported others, recently unearthed, bearing the legend

, which may have been broken. In 1801 Samuel Lysons uncovered a bath-house, 128 feet (39m) long, outside the north-east defences of the fort, along with tile-stamps marked


This fort is contemporary with the forts at Cicucium (Brecon Gaer/Y-Gaer) and Segontium (Caernarfon), being built around AD75. This is a square fort, each side measuring 410 feet within the ramparts, giving an occupation area of 3¾ acres. Defenses consisted of a 20 foot wide clay bank, fronted by two ditches. The gateways and internal buildings were of timber construction.

The size of the fort and the arrangement of its interior buildings suggest that Caerhun housed a Cohors Peditata Quingenaria, a regiment of foot-soldiers nominally five-hundred strong. The names of none of the garrison units stationed at Canovium are known.

“Additions in stone were made in the first quarter of the second century, and early rather than late in that period. The outer margin of the clay rampart was cut off to a width of 2 feet, and a stone wall 6 feet thick at its base built between the rampart and ditch. The inner ditch was filled up soon afterwards in order to strengthen the foundation of this wall. … The gateways also were rebuilt in stone. The east gate (porta praetoria) was a double opening with guard-rooms, singular in having its two arches of different widths (15 feet and 5 feet respectively). The new south gate was a double opening with no guard-rooms; but one of the arches seems to have been blocked up during construction for use as a guard-room. At the same time the internal buildings were all reconstructed in stone.” (Collingwood, p.37)

Excavation has revealed two timber periods in the early history of this fort, rebuilding being carried out sometime during Flavian times. The sacellum in the centre of the camp was the first building to be replaced in stone during the reign of Trajan, followed by the rampart-wall in Hadrian’s reign. Hadrianic and Antonine samian ware shows continued occupation through these times, but the well in the principia was filled around AD196/7, which may indicate either destruction or desertion at this time. Occupation at the fort was soon resumed, however, as attested by the building of a new cook-house behind the rampart around 235, and continued occupation throughout the third and fourth centuries is proven by pottery and coins dateable to both these periods. The last coin recovered from the site is one of Gratian (367-383).

After the fort was destroyed in c.AD200, the civilian settlement or vicus outside the defences was only sporadically occupied until the 4th century when it was finally abandoned. There were Roman copper mines at Pen-y-Gogarth (Great Orme’s Head), eight miles north of the settlement near Llandudno at the mouth of the River Conwy.”  http://www.roman-britain.org/places/canovium.htm#rib2265

Dolwyddelan Castle


 This is an aerial view of Dolwyddelan Castle, courtesy of this site:  http://www.coflein.gov.uk/images/l/DI2006_1686/



The site of Dolwyddelan Castle has been on a major thoroughfare through Wales for millenia.  Before the present castle was built by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) early in the 13th century, an older castle sat on a knoll on the valley floor below it.   http://www.castlewales.com/dolw.html

Before that castle, a major Roman road through Snowdonia passed just to the east, connecting Tomen y Mur with the small fort of Bryn y Gefeilliau and the larger fort of Canovium (Caerhun).   (See Roman Roads:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=29)

The present Dolwyddelan Castle has been heavily restored, in keeping with it’s position as the birthplace of Llywelyn Fawr, even if  that even really occured a quarter of a mile southeast of the present castle.


The newer Dolwyddelan Castle represented a major stronghold for both Llywelyns throughout the 13th century.  Both of them improved its defenses, luxuries, and overall structure numerous times over the course of their reign.  Of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Wales – A History, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Michael Joseph Ltd. Publishing, London WC1, 1985):

“Llywelyn deliberately set out on a policy of reconstructing the whole basis of Welsh political life, and not every Welshman was happy about it. Llywelyn lived in an age which saw the emergence of the centralized feudal state. Both France and England presented the spectacle of societies elaborating their administrative machinery, putting their taxation on a new and sounder footing and systematizing their codes of justice, but Llywelyn’s principality was small and lacking resources. Hostile English observers could wax satirical about its pretensions to international status.

Gwynedd had always been the core of the power of the princes, and the expansion of Llywelyn’s territory gave him the ability to do many things beyond the power of previous Welsh rulers. We find Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (the Last) developing castle building on a considerable scale. The remains of Castell y Bere or of Ewloe, Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan even show distinctive Welsh style. The princes gave charters to the small towns growing in their domains. They supported the abbeys and the friaries. We sense a new Wales coming into being, and, at the moment, it was basically an independent Wales.”  http://www.castlewales.com/llewelyn.html

Dolweyddelan was one of the last castles that Edward I captured in the war against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and even then he didn’t conquer it until 1283, after Llywelyn’s death.