The History of Denbigh
The existence of hillforts such as the Iron Age one at Foel Fenlli near to Denbigh shows the defensive properties of such positions were nothing new when the Welsh built what they originally called Castell Caled-Vryn yn Rhôs, the Castle on the Rocky Rhôs Hill. But strangely Denbigh is more an English creation than a Welsh one.
After Llewelyn’s death what is now Denbigh passed to his brother Davydd. He plotted against Edward I , was captured, tried, and eventually unpleasantly executed in Shrewsbury . Davydd’s Denbigh property was given to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, one of Edward’s most senior and trusted war leaders.
Denbigh was one of the 10 great English fortresses within Wales that Edward I ordered to be built to suppress the Welsh. To this end in Henry de Lacy had all the old castle destroyed, replacing a symbol of Welsh power with an English one. Equally, many English merchants and skilled craftsmen were attracted to settle in Denbigh as colonists. But for de Lacy, as for many of those who followed him in lordship of Denbigh, the place seemed to carry a curse: his son drowned in a deep well in the castle. The shattered de Lacy lost heart and never completed the fortifications.
The town walls, begun in 1282, were a further defensive measure, no doubt needed to persuade English settlers to move there. In 1289 a Carmelite Priory was built just beyond the walls, adding religious authority to military might; and the economic was not ignored, Denbigh receiving its first charter in 1290. In spite of these dispositions, however, the Welsh did indeed rebel in 1294, defeating de Lacy if only temporarily.
After de Lacy’s death Denbigh passed to Thomas Earl of Lancaster, who had married de Lacy’s daughter: he was stripped of the property for plotting, the first of several such scenarios: Edward II gave it to his favourite Hugh Spencer, who then fell spectacularly from grace; Edward III offered Denbigh as a gift to Roger Mortimer, eventually executed in London for treason; thus the town passed to William Montacute in part as reward for him helping Edward dispose of Mortimer.
Further owners succeeded through the 14th and 15th centuries, until Denbigh became a Yorkist and then a Crown possession. The town itself rather than just its owners suffered in the 15th century, burned down twice during the Wars of the Roses . Jasper Tudor held the place for Henry VI for some time, before the Yorkist cause prevailed there in 1460; Jasper returned in 1468 and devastated the place in retaliation for his earlier humiliation.
The Tudor period was quieter for Denbigh, the town given parliamentary representation in the reign of Henry VIII . Elizabeth I conferred it in 1563 on her favourite and possible lover Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester. Dudley managed to anger the townsfolk to such an extent that some rebelled against him violently, their leaders executed for their temerity. This led Dudley to seek reconciliation with the town by a campaign of construction: in 1579 he laid the first stone of a chapel within the castle that may have been intended as a cathedral, though it was never completed. He also built the first Town Hall and a Market Hall.
During the Civil War Denbigh, with local magnate William Salusbury to the fore, repaired its castle and garrisoned it for Charles . Parliament won the skirmish at Denbigh Green in 1645, but the castle held firm, even briefly sheltering the King in September 1645 after the defeat at Rowton Heath ; indeed it was only receipt of written orders from the King in September 1646 that the castle’s garrison surrendered.
The last recipient of Denbigh was the Earl of Portland, given the honour by William III , though only for a short time. Local discontent was so marked that – given its history perhaps not to Portland’s displeasure – the gift was cancelled. Since that time a steward appointed by the crown has overseen it.
While Denbigh passed from one overlord to another the local economy largely thrived, with tanning and gloving its principal trades. Culturally, in spite of its English past, Denbigh held Eisteddfods in 1828, 1882, 1939 and 2001, an honour balanced by the loss of its status as Denbighshire’s county town in 1888. And a greater blow was the loss of so many of its troops in WWI , the so-called Denbigh Terriers as trained men rushed into the calamitous early phase of the war.