On 20th July 2017, Dennis Roberts – local historian, retired headmaster, and chair of the Penmaenmawr Historical Society – led about 45 members and friends of the Group on a fascinating walk around Conwy. Stopping at places of special interest he brought vividly to life the action and intrigue that took place in Conwy during 1646, towards the end of the Civil War.
The story began with the birth of John Williams in 1582 at Parlwr Mawr on what is now Chapel Street, where there are some remains of what was once a great mansion, built at the same time as Plas Coch and Plas Mawr.
John Williams’s father was related to the Penrhyn and Cochwillan families, and his mother to the Wynns of Gwydir, so there was sufficient backing to send their bright son to school in Ruthin and then to St John’s College, Cambridge, after which he rose rapidly. In 1612, he was chaplain to the Lord Chancellor, and in 1620 he was made Dean of Westminster – he was an excellent preacher, with a fine singing voice. In 1621, James I appointed him Keeper of the Great Seal, and Bishop of Lincoln. During the reign of Charles I, he swung in and out of favour – and in 1625 was sent to the Tower of London for ten years, on a false accusation of treason. On his release from prison, he found himself back in favour, as Charles’s advisor regarding his relationship with Parliament, and in 1641 he was made Archbishop of York – an appointment which is commemorated in the name of the street adjoining Chapel Street: York Place.
After another spell in jail, and with aggravation between Charles and Parliament coming to a head, Archbishop Williams returned home to Conwy and began to organise in support of the Royalist cause. He prepared for war by paying for repairs to the Castle, which was in a poor state, and by stockpiling arms and other supplies. He encouraged local gentry and landowners to bring their valuables to the Castle for safe-keeping, and used his considerable wealth to create a stronghold. He invited high-ranking people to come to Conwy for protection, including the Bishops of Bangor and Chester, and the Bishop of Ossory in Kilkenny, SE Ireland, who was originally from Bangor. During these preparations, there would have been a lot of frightened people outside Conwy Castle, but the war was still far away, and Archbishop Williams was firmly in control of his own patch.
However in 1645, war arrived at Chester, and Sir John Owen of Clenennau entered the scene. Sir John was tough and battle-scarred, and a favourite of Prince Rupert, the leader of the Royalist cavalry with a reputation for arrogance and foolishness. Sir John demanded the governorship of Conwy, and Prince Rupert granted it to him, to Williams’s fury. He refused to leave the Castle, which he had spent a fortune on carefully preparing. As the ultimate insult, Sir John forced his way in with iron bars, threw his rival out and moved his troops in, including an Irish contingent. This was the beginning of a rift between Williams and the Royalists.
The following year the Parliamentarians, led by General Mytton, took Chester, followed rapidly by Chirk, Ruthin, Caernarfon, Rhuddlan and Denbigh – bypassing Conwy for the time being. They were pursued by the Royalist army, which was now an undisciplined rabble, stealing cattle and destroying crops – including on Williams’s Penrhyn Estate, and on the Wynn family’s lands in the Conwy valley. The fact that men from his own side were laying waste to his land added to his rift with the Royalists, and with Charles I captured by the Scots and advocating surrender, Williams began to change tack. When the Parliamentarian army surrounded Conwy later that year, he echoed Charles’s call to surrender so as to minimise the suffering of the townspeople, but Sir John refused to do so.
In August 1646, canon were positioned at Bodlondeb, and the town walls at the bottom of Town Ditch Road were bombarded, giving the impression that the attack would come from this side of the town. However, it actually came from the Porth y Felin side, and was coordinated by Archbishop John Williams, who had changed allegiance following the provocations of Sir John and the destruction of his estates, and now sought a quick victory to end the violence. The plan was to scale the walls with ladders in darkness; in the event, these were about three feet too short, but the feat was accomplished with some difficulty and the loss of a few lives: the town was taken, during what must have been a terrifying night for its inhabitants. Some of the Irish soldiers were taken prisoner, bound hand and foot and thrown into the estuary – a move which is reported to have shocked both Williams and Sir John.
The Castle was besieged and bombarded from August until November, with guns on the hills on the other side of Gyffin taking aim at the walls, and Parliamentarian soldiers walking the streets of Conwy with Royalist troops shooting at them from within the Castle. Williams wrote repeatedly to Sir John telling him that Charles had surrendered, but to no avail. It was not until the winter that agreement was reached – the Royalists were allowed to march out with their banners and swords, but not their muskets, and the troops, including the remaining Irish, were allowed to leave unharmed. The agreement does not mention the valuables which had been deposited in the Castle for safe-keeping, but it is believed that they were retrieved by their owners.
So Conwy Castle fell to Parliament, and Sir John Owen returned to Clenennau near Tremadog – and started another war a few years later near Bangor. Archbishop John Williams died at Gloddaeth in 1650, and was buried in the church at Llandygai, where his magnificent tomb can be seen. We are very grateful to Dennis for recounting so vividly the tale of a boy from Conwy who experienced wild swings of fortune, influenced history and lived through such tumultuous times.
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