Castell y Bere is the largest and most elaborate of the native Welsh castles in north Wales and was built by Llywelyn ap Lorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, in the early 13th century. Typically, the Welsh princes had not constructed castles preferring to build undefended palaces called ilysoedd or courts. This tradition changed as the Normans advanced into Wales in the 11th century taking lands in the north and establishing a band of occupied territory in the south called the Welsh Marches.
Llywelyn built the castle as a result of a dispute with his illegitimate son Gruffudd. Gruffudd had been given control of Meirionydd and Ardudwy but due to a fractious relationship, Llywelyn imprisoned him, and built y Bere on the captured lands. The castle was intended to project his authority over the local populace and to defend the lands between the Dyfi and Mawddach estuaries and the mountain road over Cadair Idris to Dolgellau.
Eventually control was ceded to Gruffudd and then to his brother Dafydd, on Grufford’s death at the hands of the English in 1282. Dafydd used y Bere as a power base before being chased to Dolbadern. Dafydd struggled vainly to keep the rebellion alive but as the other Welsh castles fell one by one to King Edwards’ forces, led by Roger Lestrange and William de Valence, the garrison was besieged in 1283 and y Bere was captured easily on 25th April due to an act of treachery by the castle’s Welsh Commander who surrendered the site for the princely sum of £80. Castell y Bere was the last Welsh castle to fall to the English. Dafydd was eventually captured and executed in October. A team of five masons and five carpenters under the command of Master Bertram were left at y Bere to make good repairs and expand the castle further. Edward continued to invest in the castle and the surrounding area establishing a small town at the foot of the castle’s mount in an attempt to boost the economy in this remote and mountainous area.
Despite the King’s attempts to forcibly quell any resistance the Welsh rebelled again in 1294 under the leadership of the self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, Madog ap Llywelyn. The castle was besieged by Madog and apparently burnt in an attempt to capture the stronghold for his family. Madog’s revolt was put down the following year but y Bere was never re-built and has remained a ruin. Whilst the castle was well situated it could not be supplied by sea and did not fit well the King’s plans for controlling this part of Wales.
The castle itself is tailored, as many Welsh castles were, to fit the rock plateau on which it stands. Roughly triangular in shape the walls were fairly low and poorly constructed. However, its main defensive strength was garnered from its craggy location and the presence of twin D-shaped towers, a construct typical of Llewelyn.
Today, you enter the barbican through a short group of wooden stairs which traverse a deep rock-cut ditch in the west side of the site. A drawbridge would have replaced these wooden stairs when the castle was built. Just inside the gateway are the remains of two gatetowers which overlook the stone steps approaching the inner gate. Once through the barbican you enter the bailey where the castle’s well is located and is notable for its size being much larger than wells in most other castles. To the left of the gate (north) is the first of Llewlyn’s D-towers. This D-shaped, or apsidal design, is characteristic of Welsh castles of the early 13th century. This tower is claimed to be a chapel but certain architectural features suggest a more domestic use. To the right (south) stairs rise to a rectangular keep and across a courtyard to another D-tower. This south tower, in reality a secondary keep with 10 foot thick walls, was probably intended as the final refuge for defenders in the event of a siege if the outer defences were breached and is believed to represent the private dwellings of the lord of Castle y Bere.
These defensive elements provide a daunting prospect for any combatant intending to enter the castle. Invaders would have first needed to cross the ditch representing the castle’s first defence and then breakthrough the wooden doors and portcullis of the first gatetower. They would then need to charge up a set of stone stairs to face another drawbridge, gate, and portcullis. During all of this time the invaders would have come under attack from soldiers stationed on the battlements. Once through these outer defences the castle’s defenders would have retreated to the keep and south tower which were capable of being defended should the outer wall be lost.
Entrance is free. The castle lies 11 km northeast of Tywyn and can be reached along a signposted road from the village of Abergynolwyn off the B4405 to Dolgellau.
Open daily 10.00am – 4.00pm
For further information visit Castell y Bere’s website.
The BBC has a short feature relating to y Bere which can be viewed here.
Directions to Castle y Bere
Head towards Abergynolwyn on the B4405 (nearest postcode LL36 9TS). Once you have entered the village keep an eye out for the Railway Inn which will be on your left when travelling from Tywyn. As soon as you see the pub start indicating left as you need to turn immediately into Llanegryn Street. Keep on this road as it narrows and climbs up hill. After a couple of miles you will come across a right turn with a brown National Trust sign and a BT phone box as the road you are on turns sharply to the left. Turn right here. After about a mile you will come across parking on your left. Park-up and walk through the kissing gate and follow the path up and to the left through the woods. This path will lead you to Castell y Bere. Please note that the postcode takes you to St Michael’s Church Llanfihangel-y-Pennant as Royal Mail haven’t got around yet to allocating y Bere its own despite it being sat there for almost a millenium.
Mary Jones’s Bible
Just down the road from Castell y Bere are a couple of landmarks associated with Mary Jones. There is St Michael’s Church which houses a rare Leper’s window and a Mary Jones exhibition. There is also a monument to Mary’s life, erected in 1907, in the ruins of Tyn-y-ddôl – the family home of Mary at the time of her walk to Bala.