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Rugged Flint and the defence of Edward I’s realm

Posted in British Towns, Castles, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about Flint originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Flint in Wales, picture, image, illustration

The coat of arms of Flint and the arms and crest of Richard II (inset, top) beneath, with Flint Castle in Edward I’s day (left) and in ruins today; Richard II’s emblems of sunburst and the hart (bottom left). Pictures by Dan Escott

Wales has long been part of the United Kingdom, but it also has its own history and traditions and today looks very much towards a future that will add to them.

Anyone from the English side of the border who enters Wales for the first time will be astonished at the extent to which the two countries are linked. Sometimes it is a whole town that reminds one of our common history, sometimes no more than a few stones. At the little town of Flint, in Clwyd, it is the forlorn remains of its castle.

What is left of Flint Castle is not very impressive, and the nearby rayon mill’s tall chimneys hardly give it a suitable setting. And yet this ruined donjon, or keep, has featured in a surprising amount of the dramatic story of England and Wales.

Edward I ordered it to be built in 1277, the most easterly, and first, in a chain of similar strongholds he built, as a means of maintaining his grip on rebellious territory. They stretch from Flint through Conway, Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Criccieth as far as Harlech.

The man responsible for building Flint Castle, and indeed most of Edward’s Welsh castles, was the master mason, James of St George, who held the appointment of Master of the King’s Works in Wales. The designing and building of castles was familiar work to this gifted man, who had come from the court of Count Philip of Savoy, where he had been an acknowledged expert on the subject of military fortifications.

For his foundations at Flint, James of St George used a great mass of rock facing the estuary of the River Dee. The outcrop was recorded in early times as Y Flynt, Literally “hard rock”. The castle he raised was unlike any other in the country, although there is a similar one in the South of France, the Tour de Constance at Aigues Mortes, which he may have used as a model.

It consisted of a square wall with towers at three corners, with a larger fourth one that may well have been the keep. This, for some reason, was built outside the walls on a little rocky island of its own. The keep, if it was indeed a keep, was constructed with two concentric walls and was known as the Double Tower.

Some think that it may have been designed as a prison, but, keep or prison, it is hard to think of what the original reason may have been for building it outside the walls, which would otherwise have protected it.

Seven hundred years ago the estuary of the Dee came right up to the walls of the Double Tower, which was connected to the walled fortification by a drawbridge.

It was close to his new castle that Edward I founded the borough of Flint. According to legend, the local lead mines had encouraged the Romans to build a settlement on the same site, but it was not lead that interested the English king so much as the necessity of securing a base in Wales. By offering land at low rents to English settlers, he encouraged the growth of what he felt he could rely on as a friendly town.

Flint certainly prospered, particularly as a port, with its ships going to and from Ireland. The next king to visit its castle was Edward II, who met his widely distrusted favourite, Piers Gaveston, there when the latter returned from exile in Ireland.

It was not a lucky meeting for either of them, for Edward’s enemies at court were to triumph in the end. Gaveston was fated to be beheaded and the king himself murdered with horrific cruelty in Berkeley Castle.

So far as the kings of England were concerned, Flint was certainly never a lucky fortress, for the next royal visitor was Richard II, when he arrived to gather forces with which to fight Henry Bolingbroke.

The Welsh, who would have stood by the young king, could not face the huge forces sent by the English, and Richard was at Flint Castle, it is believed, when he was forced to submit to the man who was to become King Henry IV.

According to one historian, even Richard’s favourite greyhound, Mathe, who up till that time had refused to be touched by anyone else, left his master’s side and fawned on Henry.

“Take him,” Richard said sadly. “He will follow you and forsake me.” Perhaps Henry just had a way with dogs, or perhaps the animal had an instinct that warned him that his former master would soon be entering another castle – Pontefract – as a captive, never to leave it alive.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard II the king speaks of Flint Castle’s “tattered battlements”, but in his day the fortress was still in good condition. It was not until the Civil War that its usefulness came to an end. It was held as a royalist stronghold by Sir Roger Mostyn, until he was starved into surrender after a siege in 1643. Two years later it was recaptured, but the following year Cromwell’s men took it again and this time the castle was “slighted”, or systematically wrecked so that it could never be used for warlike purposes again.

The old port has long been silted up. Only the very high spring tides still reach the castle walls, from which the sands of the Dee stretch up the estuary, seen as sandbanks when the tide is low.

Charles Kingsley, the Victorian poet whose ancestor, Adam de Kyngslegh, was Constable of the castle in the 14th century, wrote a famous poem in which a girl named Mary called her cattle home “across the sands of Dee”.

Today there is a scheme to barrage the estuary and turn it into areas of land and fresh water. In the town of Flint, traditionally known as “the Gateway to Wales”, it is still possible to trace the regular street planning, dating from the time the town was laid out by order of Edward I.

Today it is an industrial town, and English manufacturers use the roads and railway into Flint as a quick route by which to get their goods to the docks at Holyhead. The town’s most important modern industry was started before the First World War, when a German company opened a factory for the production of artificial silk.

This was taken over and expanded by the firm of Courtaulds, which for a time brought great prosperity to the area. Unfortunately, this business is declining now and there is a growing number of men and women in Flint who are without a job and have no immediate prospect of finding one.

Even after all these years, the market authorised by Edward I still flourishes and stalls are erected in the Market Square every Friday. But to a visitor’s eye, Flint is rather more Victorian than Plantagenet, and the square is dominated by the great Town Hall, which was built in 1840 and has imposing octagonal towers and turrets.

In contrast, the Flint Sports Centre dates from 1974 and is thoroughly modern, with a fine 25-metre swimming pool, a sports hall and a floodlit outdoor playing area with a special synthetic weatherproof surface. There are squash courts, a keep-fit room with the latest training aids, a sauna and a solarium.

Visit the sports centre and you may feel that the people of Flint devote most of their spare time to sport, but this is Wales, and above all Welsh people like to sing. Flint is particularly proud of its operatic society and its famous male voice choir, as well as the fact that in 1969 the Welsh National Eisteddfod was held here. It was then that the Prince of Wales visited the town – a much happier and more peaceful occasion than previous royal visits in Flint’s distant past.

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