Thursday, February 18, 2010

Flint and Denbigh

Let us now journey westward from the Dee into Wales, coming first into Flintshire. The town of Flint, it is conjectured, was originally a Roman camp, from the design and the antiquities found there. Edward I., six hundred years ago, built Flint Castle upon an isolated rock in a marsh near the river, and after a checquered history it was dismantled in the seventeenth century. From the railway between Chester and Holyhead the ruins of this castle are visible on its low freestone rock; it is a square, with round towers at three of the corners, and a massive keep at the other, formed like a double tower and detached from the main castle. This was the "dolorous castle" into which Richard II. was inveigled at the beginning of his imprisonment, which ended with abdication, and finally his death at Pomfret. The story is told that Richard had a fine greyhound at Flint Castle that often caressed him, but when the Duke of Lancaster came there the greyhound suddenly left Richard and caressed the duke, who, not knowing the dog, asked Richard what it meant. "Cousin," replied the king, "it means a great deal for you and very little for me. I understand by it that this greyhound pays his court to you as King of England, which you will surely be, and I shall be deposed, for the natural instinct of the dog shows it to him; keep him, therefore, by your side." Lancaster treasured this, and paid attention to the dog, which would nevermore follow Richard, but kept by the side of the Duke of Lancaster, "as was witnessed," says the chronicler Froissart, "by thirty thousand men."

Rhuddlan Castle, also in Flintshire, is a red sandstone ruin of striking appearance, standing on the Clwyd River. When it was founded no one knows accurately, but it was rebuilt seven hundred years ago, and was dismantled, like many other Welsh castles, in 1646. It was at Rhuddlan that Edward I. promised the Welsh "a native prince who never spoke a word of English, and whose life and conversation no man could impugn;" and this promise he fulfilled to the letter by naming as the first English Prince of Wales his infant son, then just born at Caernarvon Castle. Six massive towers flank the walls of this famous castle, and are in tolerably fair preservation. Not far to the southward is the eminence known by the Welsh as "Yr-Wyddgrug," or "a lofty hill," and which the English call Mold. On this hill was a castle of which little remains now but tracings of the ditches, larches and other trees peacefully growing on the site of the ancient stronghold. Off toward Wrexham are the ruins of another castle, known as Caergwrle, or "the camp of the giant legion." This was of Welsh origin, and commanded the entrance to the Vale of Alen; the English called it Hope Castle.

Adjoining Flintshire is Denbigh, with the quiet watering-place of Abergele out on the Irish Sea. About two miles away is St. Asaph, with its famous cathedral, having portions dating from the thirteenth century. The great castle of Denbigh, when in its full glory, had fortifications one and a half miles in circumference. It stood on a steep hill at the county-town, where scanty ruins now remain, consisting chiefly of an immense gateway with remains of flanking towers. Above the entrance is a statue of the Earl of Lincoln, its founder in the thirteenth century. His only son was drowned in the castle-well, which so affected the father that he did not finish the castle. Edward II. gave Denbigh to Despenser; Leicester owned it in Elizabeth's time; Charles II. dismantled it. The ruins impress the visitor with the stupendous strength of the immense walls of this stronghold, while extensive passages and dungeons have been explored beneath the surface for long distances. In one chamber near the entrance-tower, which had been walled up, a large amount of gunpowder was found. At Holywell, now the second town in North Wales, is the shrine to which pilgrims have been going for many centuries. At the foot of a steep hill, from an aperture in the rock, there rushes forth a torrent of water at the rate of eighty-four hogsheads a minute; whether the season be wet or be dry, the sacred stream gushing forth from St. Winifrede's Well varies but little, and around it grows the fragrant moss known as St. Winifrede's Hair. The spring has valuable medicinal virtues, and an elegant dome covering it supports a chapel. The little building is an exquisite Gothic structure built by Henry VII. A second basin is provided, into which bathers may descend. The pilgrims to this holy well have of late years decreased in numbers; James II., who, we are told, "lost three kingdoms for a mass," visited this well in 1686, and "received as a reward the undergarment worn by his great-grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, on the day of her execution." This miraculous spring gets its name from the pious virgin Winifrede. She having been seen by the Prince of Wales, Caradoc, he was struck by her great beauty and attempted to carry her off; she fled to the church, the prince pursuing, and, overtaking her, he in rage drew his sword and struck off her head; the severed head bounded through the church-door and rolled to the foot of the altar. On the spot where it rested a spring of uncommon size burst forth. The pious priest took up the head, and at his prayer it was united to the body, and the virgin, restored to life, lived in sanctity for fifteen years afterwards: miracles were wrought at her tomb; the spring proved another Pool of Bethesda, and to this day we are told that the votive crutches and chairs left by the cured remain hanging over St. Winifrede's Well.

South of Denbigh, in Montgomeryshire, are the ruins of Montgomery Castle, long a frontier fortress of Wales, around which many hot contests have raged: a fragment of a tower and portions of the walls are all that remain. Powys Castle is at Welsh Pool, and is still preserved—a red sandstone structure on a rocky elevation in a spacious and well-wooded park; Sir Robert Smirke has restored it.

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