databas cerddi guto'r glyn

Tower-houses and first-floor halls

Tretower is a medieval fortified courtyard house.
Plan of Tretower
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Most fifteenth-century houses were hall-houses, with a single-storey, generally timber-built hall. However, first-floor halls, built largely in stone, were common in south and west Wales, especially Pembrokeshire, and there are also a few examples in the north and east.[1] Llyseurgain in Northop survives to this day, and it seems that Bodychen in Anglesey also had its principal living space on the upper storey.

Some first-floor halls were built with defence in mind, and stone buildings of this type with more pronounced fortifications are known as tower-houses. These, too, are particularly common in south and west Wales, though there are, or were, some notable examples in the north. An interesting fact noted by Smith is that tower houses in south Wales belonged to families of Anglo-Norman origin and the ones located in the north belonged to the native gentry.[2]

Tŷ Gwyn in Barmouth, the second home of Gruffudd Fychan ap Gruffudd, no longer exists, but the evidence of a poem by Tudur Penllyn suggests that it was a tower-house similar to the surviving one at Broncoed, Mold (known as ‘The Tower’). The poet refers to Tŷ Gwyn as a tŵr ‘tower’ several times and mentions its ‘three storeys’ (tair annedd), also noting that its neuadd ‘hall’ is higher up, or ‘closer to the sunshine’, than its seler ‘cellar’.[3] It is likely to have had its hall above a ground floor and basement, an arrangement also occurring at ‘The Tower’ (and at Llyseurgain).[4]

Coldbrook, the home of Sir Richard Herbert, seems also to have been a tower-house according to a poem by Guto’r Glyn which mentions its tower, built of brick (poem 22.3-4, and see Masonry). Penrhyn, home of Wiliam Fychan ap Gruffudd, was fortified during Guto’s lifetime and may have been a tower-house, or a tower with a hall attached to provide additional living space (little survives from this date within the modern castle). It is also possible that Bodidris, home of Dafydd Llwyd ap Tudur, originally had both a hall and a tower before it was rebuilt during the seventeenth century.[5]

Wattlesborough hall, home of Sir John Burgh and his wife Joan Burgh, also had a tower. It is unclear, though, whether the hall (neuadd) mentioned by Guto’r Glyn in a poem addressed to Joan (poem 81.9) was a first-floor room in this building or, rather, an adjacent structure.[6] Guto’s description of Wattlesborough as the White Tower of London in his praise poem for Sir John is interesting and could refer to the tower of the house:

Trwsio’r wyf tros yr afon, 
Trof iso’r sir, tref Syr Siôn, 
I’r Tŵr Gwyn â’r trugeinwyr 
A’r tai lle mae Gwalchmai’r gwŷr; 
I’m adorning over the river
Sir John’s home, I’m going to the county below,
to the White Tower with its sixty men
and to the houses where the Gwalchmai of men is;

(poem 80.23-6)

It is possible that the tower at Wattlesborough was whitewashed, as were many medieval buildings. Tudur Penllyn, for example, refers to Tŷ Gwyn’s ‘shirt of whitewash’ (crys o galch).[7]

Tretower is a 15th century hall-house.
The hall in the north range at Tretower
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Tretower, which was given by William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke, to his half-brother, Sir Roger Vaughan, is a large courtyard house which has survived and retained its medieval character perfectly.[8] Sir Roger was living there by 1457 and it seems that he was responsible for remodelling the north range, including the transformation of the originally single-storey hall into a first-floor hall. Sir Roger also extended the house by building a new west range which had a great hall of its own, open to the roof. Later in the fifteenth century walls were added to enclose the other two sides of the courtyard or gwart, along with a tower-like gatehouse. The size of the house reflects the family’s social and political importance, with its ‘fortifications’ probably being more important as a status symbol than for practical defensive purposes. (See the Tretower Court and Castle website.)

Far more imposing is the Great Tower at Raglan castle, built by William Herbert’s father, Sir William ap Thomas. This tower, which originally had five floors, would have served very well as a military stronghold though it was also a status symbol that could be seen from miles around.[9] It is no wonder that Guto remarks upon its height in a poem to Sir William ap Thomas:

Uchel yw’r llys uwchlaw’r llaill, 
A’ch tŵr uwch y tai eraill. 
The court rises taller than any other,
and your tower above the other buildings.

(poem 19.47-8)

Towers and other defensive features of houses and castles were often used by poets to refer figuratively to a patron, this imagery suggesting strength and authority. In his elegy for Robert Trefor ab Edward of Bryncunallt Guto says that Robert’s father, Edward ap Dafydd, is a castle for Trevor and his four sons ‘its great towers’ (poem 105.9-10). He goes on to develop the image by saying that Robert himself is ‘a steadfast tower, / the gate tower rising above beautiful towers’ (poem 105.15-16). Poets might also refer to a house as a figurative ‘tower’ in order to praise its height and strength. For example, because there is no evidence that tower houses were built in Mid Wales, Guto’s references to Vaynor as ‘a tower for the head of St Beuno’s land’ (poem 38.30) and to the home of Sir Siôn Mechain in Llandrinio as ‘a tower to fight’ (poem 85.37) are presumably metaphorical.


[1]: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (London, 1975 & 1988), 21-2, 135-7.
[2]: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (London, 1975 & 1988), 136.
[3]: T. Roberts, Gwaith Tudur Penllyn ac Ieuan ap Tudur Penllyn (Caerdydd, 1958), poem 16, especially lines 23-6.
[4]: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (London, 1975 & 1988), 135-6; P. Smith & P. Hayes, ‘Llyseurgain and The Tower’, Flintshire Historical Society, 22 (1965-6), 1-8.
[5]: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (London, 1975 & 1988), 136.
[6]: J.J. West, ‘Wattlesborough Tower, Alberbury’, The Archaeological Journal, 138 (1981), 33-4; J.B. Smith, ‘Mawddwy’, J.B. Smith and Ll.B. Smith (eds.), History of Merioneth Volume II: The Middle Ages (Cardiff, 2001), 165.
[7]: T. Roberts, Gwaith Tudur Penllyn ac Ieuan ap Tudur Penllyn (Caerdydd, 1958), 16.13.
[8]: C.A.R. Radford, ‘Tretower, the Castle and the Court’, Brycheiniog, XI (1960), 1-50.
[9]: J.R. Kenyon, Raglan Castle (Cardiff, 2003), 49-53.
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