February 2020 – Chris Jones-Jenkins

Castrum Leonis Roars Again: Reconstructing Holt Castle, Denbighshire

This month’s lecture was given by Chris Jones-Jenkins, a member of the Swansea Historical Association and a specialist in reconstructing historical buildings for CADW and English Heritage.

The illustrated talk explained how the paltry ruins of Holt Castle in the lordship of Bromfield and Yale were digitally reconstructed using documentary evidence and drawing on the symmetry of castle building.

Holt castle was erected in the late 13th Century after John De Warenne, Earl of Surrey acquired the lordship of Yale from Gruffydd ap Madog of Dinas Bran Castle.  It was constructed of local sandstone and situate upon a rock alongside the river Dee which forms the boundary between England and Wales.  It was known as Castrum Leonis or Castle Lyons.  During the unsettled times of Richard II alterations were carried out and the Crown Jewels were moved to Holt for safekeeping.  The castle

was attacked by Owain Glyndwr during the Welsh uprising.   In 1484 it was acquired by William Stanley who was executed within some 10 years later and the castle reverted to Henry II.  Upon the reversion, an inventory was drawn up in 1495 detailing in situ, items within the castle such as furniture and wall hangings.  All usable rooms were recorded except for toilets.  The castle then entered a period of decline and at one stage was converted to a prison.

Partial surveys were undertaken at each change of use. In the 17th century the then owner Sir Thomas Grosvenor removed much of the stone to rebuild Eaton Hall.  After the demolition of the Hall in the 19th century, the tower was retained as a garden feature.  An engraving of 1742 shows boats removing the stone by river.  One boat full of stone actually sank. A plan of 1562 shows the shape of the castle with five round towers and a courtyard in the centre, together with the names of some of the rooms and is the most accurate for interior details.  A Duchy of Cornwall plan of 1600 is similar but shows less detail and is more accurate on the size of the castle.  The Norden plan of 1620, one of the finest views of a medieval castle, shows a three dimensional view of four round towers and a rectangular one opposite the gateway.

Excavations by Wrexham Town Council and plans of other castles such as Conway, Caerlaverock (which the Earl of Sussex would have seen during the Scottish Wars) Porchester, Old Wardour and Lewes which was owned by John De Warenne were utilised.

In 2010, following a grant from The Castles Study Group, work started on the digital reconstruction with surveys on the rock and remaining elevation.  By combining the plans of 1562 and 1600, views of the castle and aerial photography, it was possible to produce an electronic photo reconstruction.  The inventory gave the length of the drawbridge but did not mention fireplaces and toilets. The former were placed in Chambers and the latter in the King’s Chamber and circular towers with access from

stairways, based on the plan of Conway Castle.  The entry into the Treasury was via the Chamber of Richard II who also built the Watergate with a staircase into the storeroom.  Country Life Magazine recreated an image of the furniture and hangings using the inventory of 1495.  The Digital Reconstruction can be seen on ‘You Tube’ by searching ‘3D Model of Holt Castle’.

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