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Llys Rhosyr: The One and Only Welsh Court

Llys Rhosyr yn y 13eg ganrif / Artist's impression of Llys Rhosyr in the 13th century © Menter Môn

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The ruins at Llys Rhosyr are open to the public. An interpretation centre lies 200m away, at the Prichard-Jones Institute in the village of Newborough.

By car: Take the A55 to the junction for Gaerwen. Turn right at the roundabout, drive through the village and turn left turn onto the B4419 (signposted Newborough). Travel along for approximately 8 miles until you come to the village of Newborough. Take the first left by the school, continue until you come to a junction. Continue forward for a 1/3 of a mile. Llys Rhosyr is situated on the right. By bus: The no. 42 bus service serves Newborough village. Contact Traveline Cymru on 0871 2002233 or visit www.traveline-cymru.org.uk

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?

© Crown copyright (2012) Visit WalesJust one.

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 assault Shrewsbury.

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.

Aerial view of Llys Rhosyr; © Menter Mon"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 the llysoedd."

"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 the church."

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."

Llys Rhosyr coinWhen 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.

Llys Rhosyr excavationThe 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 site?

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."


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