Exploring Plas Mawr-North Wales’ Elizabethan Manor House – A guest blog by Kayla Jones

Nestled on the North Wales coast in the historic town of Conwy, Plas Mawr is a unique example of an Elizabethan era Welsh townhome. Built in the late 1500’s, Plas Mawr is one of the most intact examples of townhouses in the UK during this period. Through the years, it has been used as a family home, a school, lodging house and the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art. But despite its many changes, it has stayed remarkably architecturally sound. Now, the house is a Cadw (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service) property and is run as a heritage site where visitors can get a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in Elizabethan Wales.

About the Town of Conwy

Centered around Conwy Castle, this walled town has stunning views, unique shopping and pivotal Welsh heritage that makes for a fascinating day out. Having been to Conwy more than a dozen times myself, I find it’s quaint aesthetics and rich history make it one of my favorite local places to visit and a must see in North Wales.

Built by Edward I in the 1200’s, the castle and its walled town were a part of Edward’s conquest of the majority of Wales. Throughout the years, the castle has been used as a defensive location, from Richard II in 1399, Owain Glyndwr in 1401 and Carles I in 1642. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Conwy and a great location to learn about medieval Wales through tours, seasonal medieval reenactments, ghost tours, Shakespeare plays, comedy nights and art installations.

Nearby heritage sites include Plas Mawr, the National Trust’s Aberconwy House and The Smallest House in Britain. One of my favorite spots is right across from the castle, The Knight Shop, which sells historical gifts such as replica weaponry, clothing, jewelry, tableware and more! Other stores around Conwy include boutique shops such as an artisan chocolatier, an antique clock store, coffee shops and bookstores and Welsh jewelry studios.

Conwy works great as a day out location, or as a weekend trip away, and Plas Mawr should definitely be one of your first stops.

The History of Plas Mawr

Plas Mawr, or The Great Hall was built by successful merchant and member of the Welsh gentry, Robert Gwyn in the late 1500’s. Robert was the son of John “Wynn” ap Maredudd, a member of Welsh parliament and high sheriff of Caernarvonshire and the owner of nearby Gwydir Castle. Robert followed in his father’s footsteps and also served in parliament and as the county sheriff, making himself a well known figure in local society. After fighting in the Siege of Boulogne, trading across Europe and serving under the Lieutenant of London Tower, Walter Stonor and diplomat Sir Philip Hoby, Robert Gwyn settled back into North Wales, building Plas Mawr as a sign of his rising wealth.

Together, him and his wife Dorothy Griffith, the daughter of the knight chamberlain of North Wales, bought a mansion house in Conwy, and for the next nine years the couple spent building up the house to the size it is today. Throughout the house there is colorful plasterwork, featuring heraldry, badges of nobles such as Robert Dudley and Henry IV and the arms of Robert Wynn’s family. By all accounts, the Gwyn house was a lively and welcoming place, busy with enterprises such brewing, baking, dairy farming and gardening.

When his wife died in 1586, Robert married another Dorothy, Dorothy Dymock, with whom he had 7 children. After his death in 1598, Plas Mawr had many legal disputes amongst Gwyn’s family, but in 1637 it was passed on to his grandson, also a Robert Gwyn.  He then passed it on to his daughter Elin, who married into the influential Mostyn family in the late 1600’s, and the Mostyn family owned the property until it was handed over to Cadw in 1993 for extensive restoration and preservation.

Over the years, Cadw has conducted archaeological surveys, restoration of the interiors and have repainted the interesting plasterwork throughout the house to represent the vibrant colors that would have been there when Robert and his family lived in Plas Mawr. Today, the Cadw site puts on events such as holiday festivities, living history events, kid’s history festivals and can be used as a wedding or civil service location!

What to Expect When Visiting Plas Mawr

Upon arrival, you’ll be given a house and audio guide which will take you through the hall, kitchen, pantry, parlour, brewhouse and courtyard. Starting at the hall, you’ll be standing in what was a reception room for visitors, a servant’s dining room and a useful space for meals for tenants. One of my favorite aspects of the audio guide you’ll follow, is the dramatized accounts of the Wynn family, describing their daily lives in Elizabethan Wales. This is such a great way to visualize people living and working throughout the spaces of the townhouse, and a chance to hear Welsh spoken throughout the tour for those who have never heard it spoken before.

In many of the rooms, there are Cadw volunteers to answer questions you may have about The Wynn and Mostyn family and life in Early Modern Wales. The last place you’ll visit is the garden, which is a recreated version of the one that Robert Wynn created in 1600. The small garden is an interesting walk around, as it is based on the original archaeological study of the garden and of other Welsh Elizabethan gardens of the time. At the end of your tour, enjoy playing dress up with reproduction hats and clothes in the hall!

 

Top Tips

  • Plas Mawr has a joint ticket with Conwy Castle from Cadw which is worth the price and definitely doable within a day! There is also an option to buy a yearly membership to Cadw, which is from 18-43 a year. This gives you unlimited access to over 100 heritage sites, as well as 50% off entry into any English Heritage and Historic Scotland sites. After your first year of membership, that 50% turns into free entry! I have had this membership for two years and it has been well worth the price for sites across the UK!
  • Many of the rooms have detailed information cards that are worth taking the time to read! It helps to explain the detailed plaster work in many of the rooms, the symbolism of the Gwynn and Griffith family arms and some of the animals and words written throughout the house.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for pronunciations of Welsh words you’ve heard in your audio guide, foods that you see in the kitchen and great chamber, the lineage of the family or the architectural style of the building and nearby buildings with similar features. During my visit the volunteers were great for giving in-depth information about the history of the home and helping me understand the distinctive history of this Welsh townhouse, so definitely utilize their expertise during your tour!

About the author:

Kayla is Ediotr and writer of A Regency Blog and loves all things period drama. A writer, traveller, PhD researcher and a great amature historian. She grew up in America and moved to Wales to study History and fell in love with the country and has not left. You can visit her blog here:

https://aregencygirl.com/

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