About Holt Village Print

Holt is situated in North East Wales, part of the Welsh Marches, and sits on the banks of the River Dee. The Dee at this point marks the boundary between Wales and England and Holt Bridge was an important border crossing for centuries.

In 1282 Holt (also known as Villa Leonis or Lyons) was founded as an English town when lands were granted to John de Warrenne who built Holt Castle following the failed rebellion of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

Over the years, history has left its mark on the village in many forms including holes in the door of St. Chad's church, caused by musket shot during the English Civil War.

Further information can be found on the Wikipedia website.


We have reproduced below and artilce by P.H.W. Booth, M.A., F.R.Hist.S., given with his kind permission.



The Corporation of Holt, the Manor of Farndon, and the Bridge over the Dee

by P.H.W. Booth, M.A., F.R.Hist.S.

Published in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 146 (1997), pp. 109-16.

One of the most substantial beneficiaries of Edward I’s second, and decisive, war against Wales in 1282–83 was John de Warenne, the seventh earl of Surrey (1) . On 7th October 1282 he was given the two districts of Maelor Gymraeg (Welsh Maelor) and Iâl, which he held as the marcher lordship of Bromfield and Yale, the southernmost sector of the later ‘old’ county of Denbigh. With his new territory came the Welsh-built stone castle of Dinas Brân, which was isolated, near the southern border of the lordship, and apparently in a poor state of repair. It is not surprising to find that some time later a new castle, together with a planned town, was to be built further north at Holt, at the strategically important crossing of the river Dee. The first mention of this new castle is dated 1308, but a recent article by Laurence Butler suggests convincingly that it had been begun before Warenne’s death in the autumn of 1304, and possibly not long after the 1282 grant (2) .


The castle was called ‘Lion’s Castle’, Castrum Leonis (Latin), or Chastellion (French), and for that reason the name of the town became Villa Leonis. Quite why this name was chosen is unclear. There is no obvious heraldic reason, since the arms of the Warenne family do not incorporate a lion, and it may have been just a flight of fancy (3) . The subsequent construction of a fortified bridge over the river Dee from Holt to Farndon, in Cheshire, completed a strategic complex which was to remain of some importance until the seventeenth century (4) . It has not been known hitherto when the bridge was built, or by whom, although there has been an assumption that it dates from the mid fourteenth century (5) . Students of the history of the Anglo-Welsh marcher country have to look for evidence on both sides of the border, and the records of south-west Cheshire throw some considerable light on this question. They enable us to date the beginning of the construction of the bridge reasonably precisely, identify its builder, and obtain a detailed description of its condition before the substantial reconstruction which took place in the late eighteenth century.


In September 1368 a jury of presentment at the Chester county court complained that a bridge had been built across the river Dee, between Farndon and Holt, by John, earl of Warenne, late lord of Bromfield (6). Upon the bridge, they added, there was a fortified gateway (quedam forciletta cum quadam porta). The reason for their complaint was that the bridge had been constructed partly on Cheshire soil, and that unlawful tolls were being imposed on those crossing the bridge to work in Holt ‘against the state of  the earl of Chester [that is, Edward, the Black Prince] and the dignity of the sword of Chester’ (7) . Moreover, criminal gangs were being allowed by the officials of the ‘present lord of Bromfeld’ (Richard FitzAlan, earl of Arundel) to live under his protection in Holt and the surrounding district. These men ambushed and attacked people from Cheshire, the jury claimed, a somewhat ironic counter to the much more serious complaints that were made about the behaviour of Cheshire people outside their own county in the later fourteenth century (8). Furthermore, the earl of Arundel’s officials had caused the channel of the river to shift from the Cheshire side through the removal by night of great stones under the bridge ‘to the disinheritance of the earl of Chester and the prejudice of his lordship’. The indictment concludes by stating that the building of the bridge had taken place in the twelfth year of the reign of Edward III (that is in 1338) (9) .


There are several difficulties with this account, which is in Latin, but there is no reason to doubt that it gives at least a reliable date for the beginning of the bridge’s construction. The Cheshire jury were, after all, recalling an event that had taken place only a generation before their time, and such an expensive enterprise was much more likely to have been undertaken before the Black Death of 1349 than afterwards. The builder, John de Warenne, the eighth earl of Surrey, had succeeded his grandfather as lord of Bromfield and Yale in 1306, when he probably completed the castle at Holt, and may have given it its name in honour of his wife’s family (10). Warenne suffered great loss in the troubled years of Edward II’s reign, partly because of the ‘moderate royalism’ which led him to incur the enmity of the dissident Earl Thomas of Lancaster, and also because he and Lancaster had personal grudges against each other. In 1316, Lancaster had been involved in putting official pressure on Warenne to try and force him to give up his adulterous relationship with Maud Neirford and take back his wife, Joan of Bar, who was a granddaughter of Edward I. The following year, Warenne in turn was responsible for the political abduction of Lancaster’s estranged wife, Alice Lacy, with the king’s tacit approval. By the beginning of 1318 Lancaster had seized all Warenne’s Yorkshire estates, including the castles of Sandal and Conisborough, and followed this with a letter to the people of Bromfield and Yale announcing that he was going to take their land as well, adding that he would be a good lord to them, but that they were to be in no doubt but that he would have it in one way or another. Warenne was powerless to resist, and in November 1318 he was compelled to surrender his marcher lordship to his enemy, together with Holt castle, and he did not receive them back again until June 1322, after Lancaster’s fall (11).


Warenne took part in the coronation of the young Edward III in 1327, and there began an unusual period in English history when tensions between the king and the nobility, and within the extended royal family, were at an unprecedentedly low level. He was involved in Edward Balliol’s unsuccessful campaign to recover the Scottish crown in 1335, and by 1338 he was in his early fifties, and times were more tranquil, at least at home (12). We know that he was in England for at least part of the latter year, as he served as a guardian of the realm in the absence of Edward III. The evidence is against the building of the bridge before the date given in the indictment. It could not have been built before 1315, since an Extent of the lordship of Bromfield was made in that year that records a ferry at Holt and does not mention a toll-yielding bridge, which it would certainly have done had it been in existence at that time (13). It is also very unlikely that construction was begun in the turbulent period between 1315 and 1322, or between 1322, when Warenne received the lordship back, and 1338. This is confirmed by the Extent of the manor of  Farndon, which was made in 1298 for Walter Langton,  bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and updated some 20 or 30 years later, which records another ferry which must have been in existence in the years on either side of 1330, this time at Farndon on the opposite bank of the Dee, and not a bridge (14).


The earl died in 1347, nine years after the bridge was begun, and as he left no legitimate children his earldom and estates descended to his sister’s son, Richard FitzAlan, the tenth earl of Arundel (15). He did not receive Bromfield and Yale immediately, though. The Black Prince’s officials took possession of the lordship in July 1347, following Warenne’s death the previous month, and in August it was transferred to Countess Joan, Warenne’s widow, as her dower (16). She held it for six years, until 24th  October 1353, when it passed to Arundel and he did homage to Edward III for the lordship of Bromfield and Yale, in the presence of the Black Prince, and with his consent (17). The reference in the county court presentment to the removal of stones from under the bridge on Arundel’s orders, which must have taken place after that date, is a little puzzling. Even if Pennant’s memory of the vanished date-stone of 1345 cannot be relied on as a record of completion (18), it is likely that the main structure of the bridge was finished by 1353, but it is possible that the ‘stones’ were the remains of the coffer-dam constructed to allow the foundations of the bridge to be set in the river bed. Another possibility is that the they were something to do with the construction of wharves for river-going vessels on the bank. Or again, Arundel might have constructed the gate-house on a bridge completed in 1345 by his uncle. Each of these operations could have had a noticeable effect on the course of the stream.


Holt castle is now a mere fragment, and little but the ground-plan remains of the medieval borough. The bridge, with eight of its ten arches, still stands, shorn of its fortified gate (19). A recent survey of the bridge was undertaken by Chester Archaeological Service following the completion of the new bridge and by-pass over the Dee allowed the modern road surface to be removed from the medieval bridge, and stone-by-stone survey of its external faces. (fig 1). Several depictions of the bridge survive, the best known being Richard Wilson’s painting of 1760, in the National Gallery, London, done when the gatehouse still survived, probably in a somewhat ruinous condition, although the number of arches is unclear (20). The best evidence how the bridge looked when it was still complete comes from another estate survey of Farndon, that made for Thomas Morton, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, in 1627 (21). It is incorporated into a record of the manor court, in which a jury of fifteen of the manorial tenants, including four described as ‘gentlemen’, begin the survey by setting out the bounds of the manor, beginning ‘at hoult Bridge’. There follows a detailed description of the bridge, which states that it has ten arches over the Dee, and divides the manor of Farndon ‘from the corporacion of Hoult’ .  (22)The jury go on to say that on the fifth arch of the bridge from the Holt side there is a tower or ‘gatehouse of fortification’ (presumably the quedam forciletta cum quadam porta of 1368). High up on the tower, on the side facing Holt there is a carved statue of Christ crucified, which still contains, say the jury, some of its original gilding. Underneath the cross are two statues, one of which is of the Blessed Virgin while the other is described as being ‘her sonne’. Long after the tower’s disappearance, the arch on which it was built was called ‘the Lady’s arch’ (23). It is surprising to find such a religious symbol in such a prominent place nearly 70 years after the Elizabethan settlement, and also interesting that, despite its survival, the iconography of the crucifix had by then become so unfamiliar, at least to a group of Cheshire gentlemen and farmers, that they were unaware that the ‘son of the Virgin’ was must in reality have been St John the apostle. There had originally been two other statues on the tower, according to the Farndon jury,  possibly on the faces looking up and down the river - the document is not wholly clear - but only one survived in their time, that of a woman ‘which it seemeth hath bin richly guilt’. On the side of the tower facing Farndon, was a stone carving of a lion ‘to the full passant, and the like Lyon is upon the gates of Hoult Castell’. The survey concludes this description by remarking that ‘The County of Chester doth repaire the Bridge to the Lyon’ (24).


Clearly the bridge has lost two arches since 1627, and the sketch made to accompany an estate survey of 1734 shows that one had already gone on the Welsh side by then, although the tower was still intact (25). By 1854, when Thomas Gilks produced a drawing to illustrate the Chester Archaeological Society’s visit to the area that summer, it showed that the second one on that side had gone, as well as the gate-tower (26) (fig. 2). Holt bridge, though, was not just an important river-crossing, part of a military defence complex, but also represented a boundary between two jurisdictions, the marcher lordship on the Welsh side and the county palatine on the English, the lords of both of which wielded royal powers in their territories. The Cheshire jurors expressed this in words in 1368 when they recorded the alleged affront to the ‘sword of Chester’, and the lords of Bromfield riposted no less effectively in stone with their gilded lion high up on the tower, on the entrance to their own small country.


  1. Derrick Pratt, ‘The Medieval Borough of Holt’, Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, 14 (1965), pp. 10-12; R.R. Davies, Lordship and Society in the March of Wales, 1282-1400 (Oxford, 1978, p. 27).
  2. Laurence Butler, ‘Holt Castle: John de Warenne and Chastellion’ in John R. Kenyon and Richard Avent, eds, Castles in Wales and the Marches: Essays in Honour of D.J. Cathcart King (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1987) pp.105-24.
  3. Butler, ‘Holt Castle’, p. 105.
  4. See, in particular, R.N. Dore, The Civil Wars in Cheshire (Chester, 1966) pp.30, 50, 52, and idem, ed., The Letter Books of Sir William Brereton, II, Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 128 (1990) p.378, in which Brereton, the Cheshire parliamentarian commander, wrote in December 1645, that the royalists ‘are making up Holt Bridge that so they may have the greater command on both sides the river’.
  5. The date ‘1345’ is derived from Pennant’s remark that a stone with that date on it been lately preserved on the bridge (e.g. B.H. St.J. O’Neil, ‘Holt Bridge’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 88, pt 1 (1933), pp.101-2), although W.J. Hemp, ‘Holt Castle’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 90 (1935) pp. 357-58,  thought the bridge was not built until the late fifteenth century, or even as late as the sixteenth. Pratt, in ‘Medieval Borough of Holt’ p. 43, expressed the view that the bridge had been built shortly before the second survey of the lordship of Bromfield and Yale, which was made in 1391, and that it was subsequently rebuilt c. 1490.
  6. Public Record Office, Palatinate of Chester, Indictment Rolls, CHES 25/4 m.21. Subsequent to the discovery of this entry by the author of this article, Mrs Phyllis Hill has completed an edition (text and translation) of the roll entitled ‘County Court of Chester Indictment Roll, 1354 to 1377’, University of Liverpool M.Phil thesis (1996).
  7. In the 1391 survey of the lordship, the tolls taken for passage across Holt bridge were valued at £4  6s.  8d. a year (Pratt, ‘Medieval Borough of Holt’, pp. 42-3, 55-6).
  8. See P.H.W. Booth, ‘Taxation and Public Order: Cheshire in 1353’, Northern History, 12 (1976), pp.17-18. For a complaint in 1355 that Cheshire men were crossing over into Bromfield and Yale, and poaching in the earl of Arundel’s park, see Register of Edward the Black Prince, III (London, 1932) p. 202.
  9. Strictly speaking between 25th January 1338 and 24th January 1339.
  10. Butler has suggested that it could have been named in reference to Châtillon-sur-Sâone (Vosges) a property of the family of Joan of Bar, whom Warenne married on 25th May, 1306 (Complete Peerage, xi, no.1 (London, 1953) p. 508.
  11. See J.R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322 (Oxford, 1970), pp.197, 205, 220, 234-37.
  12. Complete Peerage, xi, no.1 (London, 1953) pp. 508-12.
  13. T.P. Ellis, ed., The First Extent of Bromfield and Yale, A.D. 1315 (Cymmrodorion Record Series, 11, 1924).
  14. The Farndon Extent lists a  passagium worth one mark a year which, in this context, most likely refers to collection of tolls from ferry-passengers across the Dee (Staffordshire Record Office, D1734/J2268).
  15. E.R. Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey and the Distribution of his Possessions’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 19 (1907), pp. 193-267; Davies, Lordship and Society, pp. 57-8.
  16. The prince’s original order, of 10 August, had been to deliver the lordship to Arundel, but it was countermanded in Joan’s favour seventeen days later (B.P.R., I, pp.96, 111-12). Apparently Edward III had considered retaining the important Warenne inheritance after the earl’s death, and using it to endow the royal family, but was persuaded otherwise by the earl of Arundel (Davies, Lordship and Society, p. 285).
  17. A.N. Palmer, ‘The Town of Holt in County Denbigh’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 6th series, 7, part 1 (1907), p.11.
  18. See above, note 5.
  19. See S. Ward, ‘A survey of Holt-Farndon medieval bridge, Cheshire Past, 1 (1992) pp.14-15. A full report of this survey will eventually be published by the service. I am most grateful to Mr Ward for his advice, and for allowing me to use the plan and elevations of the tower arch of the bridge as an illustration (fig. 1). N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, in The Buildings of England: Cheshire (Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 218, give the bridge nine arches, and date its building to ‘c.1345’ (see above, note 5). The extra arch is presumably the small flood-arch, noted by O’Neil in ‘Holt Bridge’, p. 102.
  20. See Judy Egerton, National Gallery Catalogues: the British School (London, 1998) pp. 326-331. There is also a preliminary sketch of the painting in the Birmingham City Art Gallery (ibid., p. 328).  I am most grateful to Mr Peter Boughton, of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, for his advice and for leading me to this reference.
  21. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Court Rolls, B/A/21/123308/1. Morton had been translated to Lichfield in 1619 (F.M. Powick and E.B. Fryde, eds, Handbook of British Chronology, 2nd ed. (Royal Historical Society, Guides and Handbooks, 2, London, 1961).
  22. Palmer, ‘Town of Holt’, (1907) gives a transcript of the Holt borough charter of 1411, as recited in an inspeximus of 1563, pp. 27-31. This did not make Holt a corporate town, and Palmer mentions no later charters.
  23. O’Neil, ‘Holt’, pp. 101-2. There is no reference in the survey to the drawbridge mentioned by O’Neil (‘Holt Bridge’, p.102).It is true that there was a drawbridge somewhere on the bridge in 1643, since Sir Wm Brereton reports that the royalists had ‘...alsoe made a towre and drawbridge and strong gates upon the bridge’. The parliamentarians had made ‘desperate assault upon the bridge by placing ladders to the toppe of the drawbridge and cuttinge the ropes’ (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 13th Report, Appendix, part 1- Portland MSS, vol. 1, p. 151). This probably refers to a drawbridge in the temporary fortifications constructed by the royalists on the Cheshire side of the bridge, and not to the tower arch itself.
  24. The successor authority to the lordship of Bromfield and Yale, the short-lived (1974-1996) county of Clwyd, continued to share responsibility for repairing the bridge with Cheshire until the new bridge was built on the Farndon-Holt by-pass, when it was decided that Cheshire would look after the medieval bridge and Clwyd the modern one (information from Cheshire county highways department).
  25. N. Tucker, ‘John Robinson, Civil war Colonel’, Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, 4 (1955) pp. 32-3. The sketch is from a plan of Bradshaw’s tenement, ‘scituate in the Corporation of Holt on the Banks of the Dee between the Castle and the Bridge’.
  26. Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society of ... Chester, 1 (1857), p. 438.