1200 -1240 AD. Like his predecessors, Llywelyn
the Great rules and administrates the 800-year-old Kingdom of
Gwynedd by travelling among his 20 or so
llysoedd (royal court compounds).
1282 AD. Edward I of England conquers
Wales. The llysoedd are abandoned, then demolished.
Today. How many of these 20 historic court
sites have actually been located and excavated?
Llys Rhosyr, in Anglesey's southwest
corner, is the only medieval court of a Welsh king that you
can actually visit, anywhere in Wales.
In the footsteps of Llywelyn
Just to stand here, in what remains, is to stand where Llywelyn
the Great (Llywelyn Fawr) once stood, where (perhaps) he
rallied soldiers, collected taxes, settled disputes, hosted fetes,
danced with his wife, or hatched a plan to conquer Ceredigion or
Llywelyn ruled most of Wales for 40 years -- but just 40 years
after he died, it was all over. Under the Norman/English crown, the
mighty, 800-year-long dynasty of the Kingdom of Gwynedd was
crushed. And its court buildings were abandoned.
So complete was the conquest and the subsequent centuries of
subjugation, that the court sites (and local memory of their exact
locations) were lost to history.
Where are the other llysoedd?
For example, historians know that Llywelyn also ran a llys at
Abergwyngregyn, but where? While there's been some publicity
surrounding a certain manor house, local archaeologists favour a
site near the centre of the village, next to an earthen mound
possibly built by the Normans. A few medieval artefacts have been
recovered there, and some building remains, but there's no funding
for a fullscale investigation as yet.
In Aberffaw, archaeologists suspect that the field called
Maes Llywelyn may hold a clue to the location of the
village's ancient court site, but the 1950s-era council estate atop
it obstructs any possibility of excavation.
Discovering Llys Rhosyr
In fact, until about 20 years ago, Llys Rhosyr was also "lost" -
until archaeologist Neil Johnstone found it.
"At that time, archaeology as a
discipline was looking at prehistoric sites or Greek and Roman
architecture," Neil explains. "There wasn't a lot of interest in
medieval Welsh sites, so it wasn't until the early 1990s that Cadw
first funded the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT) to investigate
"I was just lucky enough to be the dogsbody who got to sift
through the historical record and then go out to Newborough to look
around," remembers Neil, who worked for GAT at the time. "I went
out there on my own one day in 1993, aware of what Henry Rowlands
had written -- that a storm in the 18th century had
briefly revealed some remains of stone walls in a field south of
A local farmer holds the key
"So there I was, in a field, looking around, leaning on a fence,
when a farmer came up to ask what I was doing," Neil says. "I
explained briefly, and then he points to a field nearby and says,
'That one is called Cae Llys.'"
"Well, that's not written down anywhere," says Neil. "It's not
in the historical record - believe me, I've studied it. Field names
are sometimes known only to local people, and they hand them down
from generation to generation.
"Once we knew exactly which field to search, we went out, myself
and Alun Griffiths who was with me in GAT, and we dug holes in
the ground," Neil remembers. "We found some pottery right away and
we sent it off for analysis."
When the shards were confirmed as medieval, GAT
found funding for an excavation. Neil and the team returned, with
students from Aberystwyth and Cardiff, for three seasons. Still,
they've revealed only one quarter of the site.
What did they find?
"We've identified a hall, one of the llys's main buildings, and
we've uncovered the perimeter wall," Neil explains. "We know
for certain that most of these artefacts (coins, pottery, animal
bones) date to the 13th century, but we don't yet have
an exact date for the building, which may be even earlier."
That date will help determine the architectural style used when
(and if) the Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum creates a
reconstruction of Llys Rhosyr at its open-air site, St. Fagans in
Cardiff. A 1201 llys would feature Romanesque styling, with rounded
windows; a later building would not.
The future of the past
But what of the real Llys Rhosyr? Will it be further
excavated or rebuilt and developed into a full-blown heritage
The future is uncertain. The site is now scheduled, so it can't
be built on. At present, though, there is no funding for any
further research or development.
"That is disappointing," says Neil, who now works as heritage
officer for Menter Môn, which leases the property on behalf of the
people of Anglesey. "Discovering Llys Rhosyr was certainly the
highlight of my career as an archaeologist," says Neil. "And now I
feel responsible to care for it, but funding is the problem."
"Llys Rhosyr is unique and precious. It's the only llys site we
have," says Neil. "We need the support of the community and the
whole island to come up with a long-term solution, to safeguard the
site into the future."