Y tŵr y sydd fal tu’r sêl,
The preference for timber in late Medieval Wales seems to have been widespread and, as noted by Richard Suggett, carpentry was regarded as a more skilful craft than masonry. Timber was often more readily available and therefore much more practical since building a whole house out of stone was expensive and very time consuming. However, the evidence suggests that timber-framing was also common in areas such as Anglesey where trees were rare. It is also possible that the Welsh favoured timber because masonry was associated with the English castles in Wales.
Large houses of lordship status tended to be built in the masonry tradition. These also generally adopted the wall fireplace. A yellow stone was used to build Raglan, and, according to Guto’r Glyn, the walls at Coldbrook were also yellow, like ‘golden stone’ (poem 22.39). However, the most remarkable description of Coldbrook is one that mentions a tower made from bricks:
Y tŵr y sydd fal tu’r sêl,
Ar barc sych, o’r brics uchel.
The tower is like the side of a prison,
upon a dry park, made of tall bricks.
Coldbrook was therefore a tower-house although the use of brick in this period was very rare in Wales.
Most houses combined timber and stone as timber-framing needed a good foundation, and stone was occasionally used for the exterior walls as well as the traditional method of wattle and daub; Cochwillan is a fine surviving example (see Carpentry).
The exterior walls of houses were often given a coating of white limewash, and this practice may be suggested by Guto’s references to the whiteness of houses such as Vaynor, Llannerch and the house in Llandrinio (poem 38.44, poem 53.39 and poem 85.49). Guto mentions the whiteness or brightness of Moeliwrch several times (poem 90, lines 46, 50, 60, 64 and 67), saying it has a ‘shirt like the rock crystal’ (crys fal y maen grisial, poem 90.34) and comparing it to the shooting star that had been seen in 1402 during Owain Glyndŵr’s revolt (Neuadd fal seren Owain ‘A hall like Owain’s star’, poem 90.38). He also refers to the ‘colouring’ (lliwio) of the house (poem 90.19) and describes it specifically as a ‘limewashed court’:
Calcheidlys, coeliwch wawdlef,
Cryswen yw, cares i nef.
She is a white-shirted, whitewashed court,
believe a cry of praise, heaven’s beloved.
Although thatch was used extensively on gentry houses of the fifteenth century,  tiles or slates are occasionaly referred to by the poets as a material used on roofs of their patrons’ houses.
Iolo Goch mentions that tiles (teils) were used to roof Sycharth, the home of Owain Glyndŵr, and the newly built house at Llandrinio, home of Sir Sion Mechain, was roofed with ‘stones’ from the local Corndon Hill according to Guto’r Glyn:
Cerrig ar frig awyr fry
Cornatun yn cau’r nawty.
Stones from Corndon Hill on top in the air above
roofing the nine buildings.
Another poem by Guto’r Glyn gives a detailed insight into one of the most important materials and industries in Wales: the early slate industry in Gwynedd. It is a request poem for roof slates or ysglatys quarried not far from the river Ogwen near Bangor, addressed to Rhisiart Cyffin, dean of Bangor, on behalf of Sir Gruffudd ab Einion of Henllan, near Denbigh (poem 61). Sir Gruffudd wants a slate roof for his new house instead of a thatched roof because slates were more long-lasting:
Er dwyn gwŷr i doi’n gywrain
Gwellt rhyg mawr gwell y trig main.
Despite getting men to expertly roof
with large rye thatch, stones last better.
Evidently the slates were to roof a house located somewhere ar y fron (‘on the hillside’) in the vicinity of Henllan (poem 61.1). They are described as cerrig Gwynedd, craig gaened, (‘Gwynedd’s stones, a rock’s grey mantle’, poem 61.10) and as tlysau o’r allt (‘jewels from the slope’, poem 61.17) and it seems that they were quarried from the mountains of Snowdonia:
Toi sy ym bryd tŷ a siambr wen,
To brig tai Aberogwen,
Cyfrio llys, caf ar ei lled
Cerrig Gwynedd, craig gaened.
It’s my intent to roof a house and a fine chamber,
the houses of Aberogwen’s most splendid roof,
covering a court, I’ll have across its width
Gwynedd’s stones, a rock’s grey mantle.
Cilgwyn quarry in Dyffryn Nantlle seems to be the oldest quarry in Wales, dating from as early as the twelfth century. But where did the slates requested by Guto’r Glyn come from? It is likely that they were from the Penrhyn quarry. There is a reference to this quarry during the thirteenth century, and in 1413 and 1450 the tenants of Gwilym ap Gruffudd and his son, Wiliam Fychan ap Gwilym of Penrhyn, in the parish of Llandégai, received payment for quarrying there.
According to the poem, the slates were transported from the mountain to Aberogwen (to the east of Bangor), probably on land (see note on line 8, poem 61). They were shipped further up the Menai Straits and then along the coast towards the east as far as the mouth of the river Clwyd (poem 61, lines 36 and 38). Seemingly, the slates were transported to Rhuddlan along the river, and thence past Denbigh and to Henllan either along the river Elwy or, more likely, over land (see note on line 64, poem 61). A similar journey is described in a poem by Siôn Tudur, where tiles to roof tŷ Meiradog are requested, namely, perhaps, Plas-yn-cefn on the northern bank of the river Elwy in Is Aled. Indeed, the fact that two of the three poems of request for slates that have survived were composed for patrons in the region of Is Aled suggests that there was a stable sea-trade between Aberogwen and Rhuddlan by the late Middle Ages. Is it possible, therefore, that these request poems reflect an increasing demand for slate roofs in Wales in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?
<<<Carpentry >>>Stained glass
Bibliography: R.Suggett, ‘Creating the Architecture of Happiness in Late Medieval Wales’, in B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen and D.F. Evans (eds), ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’: Essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-century Wales (Aberystwyth, 2013), 393-428 (397-8).
: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (London, 1975 & 1988), figs 14a, 38c. Recent scientific study suggests that some of the timber used for structural carpentry on Anglesey was imported from Ireland, see R. Suggett, ‘Creating the Architecture of Happiness’, 397 (n. 7).
: R. Suggett, ‘Cerrig neu Bren: Blaenoriaethau a Rhagfarnau ddiwedd yr Oesoedd Canol a’r Cyfnod Modern Cynnar yng Nghymru’, Cerrig Yng Nghymru: Deunyddiau, Treftadaeth a Chadwraeth: Papurau o Gynhadledd Cerrig Yng Nghymru, Caerdydd 2002 / Stone in Wales: Materials, Heritage and Conservation: Papers from the Welsh Stone Conference, Cardiff 2002, ed. M.R. Coulson (Cardiff, 2005), 70-6.
: A. Emery, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales 1300-1500, Vol. 2: East Anglia, Central England and Wales (Cambridge, 1999), 166.
: See further E. Salisbury’s explanantory note on this line.
: J. Lindsay, A History of the North Wales Slate Industry (Newton Abbot, 1974), 19.
: D. Johnston, Gwaith Lewys Glyn Cothi (Caerdydd, 1995), 171.17-18; R. Suggett, Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400-1800 (Aberystwyth, 2005), 38.
: D. Johnston, Iolo Goch: Poems (Llandysul, 1993), 10.47.
: J. Lindsay, A History of the North Wales Slate Industry (Newton Abbot, 1974), 18, 314.
: J. Lindsay, A History of the North Wales Slate Industry (Newton Abbot, 1974), 27.
: E.P. Roberts (gol.), Gwaith Siôn Tudur (Caerdydd, 1980), poem no. 81.47.
: R. Suggett, Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400-1800 (Aberystwyth, 2005), 144.
Unless otherwise noted, copyright on the content of this website belongs to the University of Wales