On a hillside, just off the A55 between Caernarfon and Conway, is a large house which is joined on to a strange-looking tower. To the casual visitor it might appear to be some sort of Victorian Gothic creation, but in truth they would be quite, quite wrong. Garth Celyn, also known as Pen-Y-Bryn, is a building steeped in Welsh history. Back in the thirteenth century, it was the site of the palace of Llywelyn Fawr, and his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native Prince of Wales. Both men were constant thorns in the side of an English (Anglo-Norman) monarchy who wanted Wales under their control. Both Llywelyns fought hard for Welsh independence against what was an implacable foe with larger numbers and greater resources at its command.
Of course, we know the result: Edward I, ‘Longshanks’, finally conquered the Principality; Llywelyn Gruffudd was slain near Builth Wells and his brother Dafydd was later captured and hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor. These days, while Edward’s dominating castles of Conway and Caernarvon draw visitors by their thousands, Llywelyn’s palace still remains relatively unknown and uncelebrated, although locals still remember its original importance.
In 1988, Welsh historical researcher Kathryn Gibson and her family bought the house without knowing its history. In fact, at the time it was described as a ‘chicken farm’. Bit by bit (starting with the locals), she became aware of what they had actually bought and continued with research of her own. Since then, an archaeologist, David Austin of the University of Wales, has confirmed the date of the tower (a D-shaped native Welsh watchtower) as being from around 1200 and there is still much more to be investigated. The house abutting the tower, by the way, was originally built in the 1570s by Rhys Thomas among the ruins of the palace and modernised by Sir William Thomas in 1620. Parts of the Medieval palace, apart from the tower, can still be found within the grounds and under the house (for example, three tunnels). There is an informative piece about Garth Celyn and its history that can be read here.
I first became aware of ‘Aber Palace’ after reading Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons. It was this book that forged the beginnings of the love for all things Medieval that I have today, so I owe much to it. At the time, I also became besotted by native Welsh history and studied as much of it as I could. My need to visit the native Welsh castles and sites took me to Garth Celyn (or Pen-Y-Bryn as I knew it then), where I met Kathryn and her family. Apart from making me very welcome, she showed me around the architectural and archaeological features and I came away with the feeling of having experienced somewhere very special. The atmosphere is soaked with the history of the place: I almost expected Llywelyn Fawr to come riding in with an escort at any moment, or for Joanna (King John’s illegitimate daughter and Llywelyn’s wife) to greet us at the door.
I’ve already mentioned Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons, but I shall mention it again, as well as the other novels of her ‘Welsh Trilogy’: Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. The research that has gone into these books is phenomenal and very well done: if you want to learn about this period and the Welsh princes, you could no better than read them. The palace at Aber is frequently the setting for important events in the novels (one of the reasons why I went to visit) and as such it has come to the attention of a wider audience.
Back in 1991, when the new A55 was being built, the Gibson family were offered £2,000,000 for their home. Thankfully, they realised that the site was priceless and refused to sell up to the developers who wanted to turn the place into flats. However, if history has taught us anything, it is that things can change. While the Gibsons continue to live there, the place is safe, but its long-term future needs to be secured. Kathryn has set up a fund designed to do just this. She wants Garth Celyn to be preserved as a permanent memorial to the Princes of Wales and as a Centre for the Interpretation of Welsh History. She now has a website at http://www.garthcelyn.com, as a means of spreading the word on the Internet. It is well worth a visit to learn more and, if you value preserving a place that has been written out of history up until now, please consider donating something, anything, to the fund.
Oh, and for a bit of Hugh interest, the men that probably lured Llywelyn ap Gruffudd into his fatal trap were the Mortimer brothers, the father and uncle of the Roger Mortimer who had Hugh Despenser executed. Hugh’s grandfather, Hugh Despenser the Justiciar also fought on the side of Simon de Montfort during the Baron’s Revolt (and by inference would have been an ally of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd). On the other hand, Roger Mortimer was also descended from Llywelyn Fawr through his daughter Gwladus Ddu (she would have been his great-grandmother).
Other articles on Garth Celyn can be found below:
http://www.llywelyn.co.uk/index.html (An older version of the Garth Celyn site but still with interesting details)
* All photos taken when I visited in 1993/4