Historic Landscape Characterisation

Bala and Llyn Tegid - Area 15 Caer Gai Roman fort (PRN 24715)



Historic background

Caer Gai is a Roman auxiliary fort, garrisoned c. AD 75-80 to 130, that stands on a rounded spur on the left bank of the River Dee close to the south-west end of Llyn Tegid. The name is Welsh and taken from the legend of the giant Cai Hir: the Roman name is unknown.

The earliest part of the fort is a rectangular turf rampart that has been dated to AD 70-85. The rampart is best-preserved on the south-west side where it stands almost complete in the form of a bank 8m wide. Both the south and south-west corners are excellently preserved with the ditch curved around them. The bank is surmounted by a modern field wall, probably partly overlying the foundations of the original Roman stone wall that surrounded the whole area, and incorporates a few of its squared stones. The original south-west gateway is in the centre of this side below the disused avenue, which leads up to the enclosure. It is marked by a rampart about 4m wide. Round the west corner the rampart and ditch are well-preserved and on the north side there is a low bank on the outside edge of the ditch. The existing wall on the south-east side is certainly of Roman workmanship but may have been incorporated into a stone retaining wall.

Excavations in the southern part of the fort in 1965 revealed three additional phases of activity within the main visible rampart. Two phases of wooden barracks were identified, with a later anomalous phase of building on a different axis. Investigations on the north-west rampart of the fort revealed three phases of defences; the turf rampart identified in 1965, a mid 2nd -century stone rampart cut into the original rampart and a massive, possibly post-Roman, earth rampart (White, 1985).

A description of the fort in the Report of the Annual Meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1884 has been interpreted as suggesting the presence of a post-Roman citadel that extends outside the ramparts visible on the ground today. The report states that ‘At a little distance [from the vallum] an outer dyke encloses a considerable circuit, probably 6 or 8 acres; and on the north-western side are large quantities of boulders, some standing as if they formed a scarp or chevaux-de-frise, and others dispersed as if they had been the foundations of some primitive buildings’. The boulders mentioned are thought to be associated with the field name Wern Dwyndir (rough or hummocky land).

A wide range of extramural activity has been identified at this site. Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt (1592-1666) recorded the discovery of a coin of Domitian and an early Christian stone with the inscription HEC [sic] IACET SALVIANVS BVRS (? or G) OCAVI(s) FILIUS CVPETIAN[I] (Nash-Williams 1950). Edward Lhuyd recorded in Parochialia (c.1665) that ‘There was a chapel formerly in the field known as Kae’r Kapele, where there is a pavement when dug up’. In 1885 D R Thomas records that ‘Bones have been dug up lately in this plot of ground, near the traces of the foundations of a building about 15 feet square, near the centre of the field. The outlines of the building are visible on the surface when the grass is scorched. This field is also called ‘Y Fynwent’ or the graveyard’. A shrine consisting of a burnt square structure and part of an inscription in the name of the First Cohort of the Nervii, possibly dating from the early to mid 2nd -century was discovered to the north-east of the fort in 1885 (Thomas 1885). Flavian burials were also found to the north-east of the fort (Nash-Williams 1950).

Aerial photography has revealed evidence of road systems running from the south-east and north-west gates, along with a road running diagonally from the north-east gate. The outline of a building at the south-west end of Cae Capel could also be seen in enough detail to interpret it as a bathhouse (St Joseph, 1977). Recent geophysical survey work by the GAT (Hopewell, 2003) has provided further evidence of the roads running from the fort and has shown ribbon development in the form of a possible vicus, or settlement, running alongside the road to the north-east. The vicus appears to include a shrine and an extensive complex of buildings of unknown date and function. A variety of specifically military features are also clustered around the fort and include a bathhouse, a parade ground and a possible mansio.

The northern quarter of the fort is covered by farm buildings and a sub-medieval manor house. This gentry house is the former seat of the Vaughan family of Caer Gai, one of the principal families of the county during the 17th -century. The earliest recorded occupant was Tudur Penllyn, a poet and drover, who wrote a famous poem about Ty Gwyn. Members of the family served as High Sheriffs of Meirionnydd in 1613, 1620, 1642, 1669, 1680 and 1708.

Captain Rowland Vaughan, MP (c. 1590-1667), who was a notable poet and translator (he translated Latin and English books and hymns into Welsh) as well as a staunch Royalist, originally built the house in the late 16th -century, though the present structure is largely a product of post-Civil War rebuilding. In 1645 Vaughan and his Company fought at the battle of Naseby and in August of the same year Caer Gai was sacked and burned by General Myddleton's Roundhead troops. In March 1650 Vaughan was captured and imprisoned in Chester Castle for three years, during which time the house was burned down. Vaughan rebuilt the present house on his release (Berry, 2004, 28); a recorded exterior date of 1650 clearly relates to this rebuilding.

Below the fort, to the south west, is Weirglodd Wen, the home of Michael Jones, a minister, and founder of Y Bala College, and his son, Michael D. Jones (1822-98), who succeeded his father as Principal and is known for his association with the Welsh colonisation of Patagonia, South America.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Roman remains, 17th-century manor & estate with cultural associations

The distinct earthworks of the Roman fort at Caer Gai, along with the imposing manor house, are the two most significant features in this area. The influence of these two structures over the surrounding landscape is wide-reaching.

The visible remains of the Roman bank and ditch defences are obvious, while the upstanding remains are also extensive, with over 300m of fort walls. Roman fabric can be seen woven into features from many periods throughout the locality. The distinctive square Roman masonry blocks are visible in many of the post-medieval field boundaries within the character area, and one brown sandstone block, thought to be reused Roman material, is extant above the entrance to the main house as an inset plaque. Elsewhere in the property, between the floors of the left-hand wing of the house, can be seen inscriptions in Latin and in Welsh.

The re-use of local materials is an important theme at Caer Gai, as is the continuity in use of the site. The close geographical relationship between the house and the fort shows some significance despite the two sites being separated temporally by over 1500 years. The imposing position makes good use of the strategic advantages afforded by this south-facing hillside landscape overlooking the lake and main road. However, the positioning of such an historically important house on the site of a Roman fort cannot be seen as coincidence and must have also held some historical, social or cultural associations. Indeed, according to legend, during the early medieval period, following the abandonment of the fort, the site became the seat of Cai Hir ap Cymyr, the Romano-British chieftain named Timon by Edmund Spenser, the 16th -century poet. Cai Hir ap Cymyr is thought to have been the foster father of King Arthur, who is said to have been educated here.

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