In the nineteen thirties and forties, Professor Joshua Bandstand (Bangor) was considered the foremost expert in Medieval Welsh manor houses. In nineteen fifty he began a project to document the history and archaeology of Cythry, both the castle and the village. Over the next few years he made extensive and wide-ranging researches but his work came to an abrupt end in December of nineteen fifty two when he was arrested and charged with making an affray after attempting to pay a Bethesdan prostitute in Anglo Saxon coinage. Dismissed from academia, he was found dead six months later in mysterious circumstances. Much of his work was subsequently destroyed and thrown out by his former peers, only to later be re-claimed by other archaeologists
At the time of his death his work on Cythry remained unpublished. After the demise of his daughter in nineteen sixty his handwritten journals were given over to the Morfasson family and since that day they have resided in the library at Cythry.
Transcribed below is Bandstand’s overview of Cythry, unedited, and released to the public for the first time.
Human habitation in the area of Cythry, defined as the circus enclosing Llyn Cythry and all the land between it and the Ogwen road, which includes the castle and village, can be traced back to the Bronze Age. Evidence comes in the form of a small farmstead located around a third of a mile from the centre of the present village. This was probably founded no later than B.C.1000 and abandoned shortly before the arrival of the Iron Age in B.C.800. There is no evidence, which I can find, for Iron Age occupation of the site. The farmstead comprised of five roundhouses, each of local-stone construction, and one of these was almost certainly used for keeping animals. The farmstead was surrounded by a rubble wall, again of local-stone construction. Small scale excavation in two of the roundhouses revealed no dateable objects.
There may be some connection with the extensive tunnel network which lies underneath the present day castle. Many of the tunnels, including one which passes beneath the whole mountain of Llewelyn, are of a later period but at least three, somewhat close to the surface, show minor evidence of Bronze age mining, likely copper. A deer antler pick, similar to those found elsewhere, was shown to me by a member of the family. It was reportedly found during extensions to the basement in the last century. I suspect these same extensions destroyed much of the extent evidence for mining activity. As it stands, I cannot say with any certainty how long the site was mined for, I suspect that it was for no longer than the nearby farmstead was in occupation, or on what scale.
The Bethesda Chronicle, supposedly written by the monk Ysgwyd of Pibell around the eleventh century, dictates that the present village was founded in 211 by Filius Pallus, a soldier in the retinue of the Emperor Septimus Severus. On the death of Severus Pallus initially pledged loyalty to the new emperor, Caracalla, but for a reason not stated by Ysgwyd he and seven close men quickly deserted and took shelter in the mountains of Wales. Later sources make the claim that Pallus made an enemy of Caracalla by refusing to obey an order, although this has been disputed by modern historians. Pallus is also mentioned in a genealogy of the Morfasson family, of a similar date to the Bethesda Chronicle, though its reliability is unknown.
In my opinion there is little weight to this story. Although Cythry is well isolated, set a half mile back from the modern A5 road, in 211 it would have been a dangerous place for deserters to hide. It was within a half day’s march of both the Roman forts of Caerhun and Segontium and any deserters who hid here would have soon been discovered.
There is also no archaeological evidence for any Roman occupation around the current village or castle. If there ever was any it was likely destroyed by later works.
There was certainly a village on the present site in medieval times, tax records and court rolls confirm as much, but no traces remain. The oldest building in the village is the inn, the Oak and Crozier, which dates to sixteen twenty three. This is also the tallest and largest building, having three floors. Every other building dates from after the end of the eighteenth century, with most having been built in the eighteen twenties. All were thatched until around eighteen fifty five when they were re-roofed with dressed slate stolen from the Penrhyn Slate Quarry at Bethesda.
The Bethesda Chronicle makes reference to a ‘citadel’ built at Cythry by Rhodri ap Myrfa in the early tenth century. Unlike the claim of Roman occupation, this one retains some archaeological merit. At the current north western perimeter of the castle grounds, excavations have revealed three post holes of which the bottoms had been lined with ninth century pottery fragments. These fragments were unusual for this region as they were of a Danish origin. The posts holes, two to the right of the north west perimeter and one to the east, suggest they formed part of a substantial structure, perhaps a hall. Although at the present moment in time it is difficult to determine the exact size of this ‘citadel,’ it is known that, for the time, it was not atypical.
By 1203 the foundations of the present castle had been laid down. This was in the form of a fortified manor house. The earliest part was the gatehouse, a two storey structure which today opens directly onto the cliff face above Llyn Cythry. Only a small section of stone wall remains. It was probably accessed by a wooden staircase ascending the cliff from the lake and a series of holes drilled into the rock above the eastern shore would appear to support this theory. From the 1203 structure, which also included an observation tower, a curtain wall and a domestic service building, this was the only part that was made of stone. The main manorial complex lay in the centre of the site but much of this was, I assume, made of wood and no trace survives.
A major rebuilding of the site took place in the early fourteen hundreds, shortly prior to the Glyndwr revolution, and much of this structure can still be seen in the ruins which surround the main keep. This rebuilding included replacing the wooden curtain wall with one of stone but most of the renovation involved the building of the keep, which took the place of the old manorial complex. It stood at around a quarter the size of the current structure, only extending to two and a half storeys and covering only the south westernmost corner of the present building. Traces of this can still be seen in the stonework at this corner, which is rougher and less well dressed, similar in style to the stonework which makes up the ruins.
At the end of the fifteenth century an unknown building, documentary evidence suggests it may have been a chapel, was constructed at the southern end of the site. The construction was not of a high standard, however. The building only stood for around fifty years before it started to collapse due to poor foundations. Attempts were made to salvage it but eventually it was allowed to fall into ruin. The construction of this building also, for a reason I could not divulge, involved relocating the curtain wall, which disjointed the original octagonal shape of the castle.
It is also around this time that the family records first make mention of the two stones which stand either side of the road into the village. Until the last century they were inscribed with images from the second branch of the Mabinogion, from which they were dubbed as ‘Nisien’ and ‘Efnisien.’ The Welsh weather has now, unfortunately weathered the stones to such an extent that the inscribed pictures are no longer visible but drawings from the seventeenth century exist. They show that, as well as the second branch, at the base of each stone were two crescent moons. The moon of Nisien faced to the right whilst Efnisien faced to the left. I cannot come to any conclusion as to the meaning of these crescent moons.
By sixteen eighty five much of the medieval structure was in ruins. Most was left abandoned but the keep was rebuilt to the form we see it in today. The interior has been gutted and remodelled several times since then. The sixteen eighty five rebuild took the form of a late Stuart manor house. The best surviving examples from this period of the castle’s history are the library, the kitchen and service wing and the dining room. The muralled ceiling of the dining room, which depicts the battle of Camlaan, was painted by Raphael Scottari, a painter from Formaggio-Al-Seno in Piedmont, northern Italy, in seventeen hundred and five.
Most of the Stuart renovations were torn out in seventeen eighty and the layout of the castle was altered a great deal. This is when the magnificent entrance hall and winged staircase were built. Neo-Gothic additions and features, such as turrets and carved stonework, were also added to the upper floors. The most expensive part of the hall was the floor, which is comprised of Nero Marquina black marble, imported from Spain, and it cost, in today’s money, almost ten thousand pounds. Its quality is evident as it is still in remarkable condition, even after being subjected to the usual wear and tear of one hundred and seventy years and the regular tortures of over twenty five children (that I can deduce.)
A mews building was constructed to the rear of the keep at the end of the century. It is not a remarkable building but it has, in the last fifty years, been repurposed as a garage for motor cars. However, the family car collection has now outgrown this small building and there are plans being drawn up for either an extension to this building or for a new building somewhere in the village. The wildest proposal has been to use a significant part of the castle basement and to create a sort of underground garage, though this would be wildly expensive.
Electricity and modern conveniences were incorporated throughout the whole building in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The castle was the first building in the immediate area Ogwen valley to use electricity and must surely have been one of the first in North Wales. Initially it was powered by a generator housed in the mews building but by nineteen twelve a small hydro-electric station had been installed in the Bolera Ceilliau on the opposite side of the valley. This provided power not only for the castle but for all the residents of Cythry. Modern appliances and wiring were installed in all homes at the expense of the family. The hydro station remained in use until the late thirties when the village was connected to the national grid. It remains today, though the dam has been slighted so as to avoid incidents.
The castle survived the war unscathed, though several bombs were dropped in the mountains above the castle. Some damage was caused to a several paintings but this was more due to the activities of a rogue bird of prey than any direct war-time damage. On the whole it was somewhat neglected during this period and is now in need of some repair. Renovation plans include the above mentioned garage extension or, if a new building is to be built, the demolition of the mews building, and the addition of a large window at the rear of the entrance hall. Attempts have been made to involve the Office of Works and the National Trust in the preservation of the castle, as a matter of national interest, but the family’s deep reluctance to see the building turned into a tourist attraction and its isolation has meant that there will be no involvement for the foreseeable future.
Image from Wales Online
If you would like to read more about Cythry, it also appears in: The Aunt Mable stories (See here) This extract from The Khyber, The Inn of Last Orders (Iolo Fflint chapter, available in paperback from Amazon) and Max and Anna (Available from all good eBook stockists and in paperback from Amazon)