Social History of Deganwy Castle & Other Castles

We gathered in Peniel chapel to hear our Treasurer, Morgan Ditchburn, give a fascinating talk on the castles of Conwy and the lives of the people who lived there. Our speaker is a lecturer and professional tour guide who specialises on guiding in Conwy Castle and the town of Conwy.

The talk was structured in two parts, firstly focussing on Deganwy Castle and Conwy Castle and then turning to the lives of the people who lived in medieval castles.

Morgan explained, with the help of slides, that there is evidence of habitation in the area of Deganwy Castle dating from the Iron Age. Amphora pots, dated between the 1st and 4th century AD show the possible presence of Romans around this area – one of these (that was discovered on Bryn Euryn) was used as a garden planter until the 1970s! Deganwy possibly became the Llys (fortified court) of Maelgwn, Lord of Anglesey, who died in 547 AD. The wooden castle was a fortress of the local Decanti tribe but it was burnt by a lightning strike c812 AD and in 822/823 it was besieged and destroyed by the Saxons who then left.

The castle was repeatedly built and then demolished from late 11th century to the13th century. The first Norman castle was built in 1080 by Robert of Rhuddlan. This would have been a motte and bailey structure of the type made popular by William 1 (the Conqueror). It was taken back by the Welsh and Viking raiders and in 1213 Llewelyn Fawr built a stone castle on the site. The Welsh, under Llewelyn Fawr, his son Dafydd and Llewelyn’s grandson frequently fought the Normans for control of Deganwy Castle and it changed hands many times. Under Alan la Zouche, the Justice of Chester, a town known as Gannoc grew up around the castle and in 1252 a town charter was granted to Gannoc which gave the burgesses permission to surround the borough with a ditch and wall, hold an annual fair and hold a weekly market. However, the castle was destroyed in 1263 by Llewelyn ap Grufydd. In 1277 Edward 1 stayed at the site of the castle but he decided not to rebuild and began construction of Conwy Castle. The stone used was from the headland on which Conwy Castle is built and stone from Deganwy was not used. This decision may have been made by Edward 1 in order to break the links with the Welsh princes.

Our speaker then moved on to the second part of her talk: This concerned the people who lived in these castles during the medieval period. We were introduced to the lives and habits of lords and ladies, the Constable of the Castle, soldiers, the Falconer, Chief Huntsman, blacksmiths, cooks and other servants. We were also introduced to some previously unknown professions such as “the Groom of the Stool” and “the Gong Farmer”…..

The owner of the castle was the king, a lord, a lady or a knight. The owner often did not live there all the time and the running of the castle would be delegated to the Constable. The owner usually had private apartments and a private chapel.

In Welsh society, the positions of Falconer, Chief Huntsman, Blacksmith and Cook were important ones and these individuals were granted special privileges. For example, the Falconer was granted land and “the skin of a hart from the Chief Huntsman to make him gloves for bearing the king’s hawks”. The Cook was granted land, a horse and “the entrails of all animals killed at the court, except their hearts” (which were given to the Falconer). A strict hierarchy existed within the castle but it was possible for lower paid servants to move through the ranks into better jobs within the castles.

We learnt about the eating, drinking and sleeping habits of the different social classes and the decoration of the living areas. Eating habits were very different from our own, for example the main meal of the day was in the late morning. The inhabitants of the castle ate many meats including swans, peacocks, larks and herons, as well as pork, beef, mutton, rabbits and deer. Beavers were regarded as a type of fish in order to avoid the strict rules regarding not eating meat on Fridays and during Lent. Everyone drank wine and beer in preference to water which was not always safe.

Our speaker showed how the clothes of the period reflected the wearer’s status, particularly in terms of the dyes used. The audience were amazed to discover the various uses of urine, for dyeing clothes and for keeping clothes free from insects by hanging the clothes above latrines!

Finally, our speaker discussed medieval sleeping habits which were very different from our own with an emphasis on two shorter periods of sleep. We were shown slides of people sleeping propped up, apparently to help with chest problems caused by environments which were often damp and cold. Space for sleeping was at a premium as castles were often very crowded places with sleeping space difficult to find, particularly for the soldiers.

This was a fascinating talk by a knowledgeable speaker who obviously loves her subject. She explored her topics with an entertaining and humorous approach which had the audience in stitches. A very good evening.

Diane Williams


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