Britain has the largest collection of castles in the world. A huge part of them is located in Wales. They say in Wales there are over six hundred castles and still counting. Some of the most impressive gems in this collection make up the “iron ring” of fortresses built by king Edward I. Considered today as fine medieval strongholds Caernarfon Castle, Conwy Castle, Harlech Castle and Beaumaris Castle are all smartly located at different strategic points of north-east Wales. We visited all four of them and were impressed by their military planning and by human quest for conquest and power.

 

Landscape of the north-west Wales as seen from the tower of Harlech Castle. The Red Dragon flag in the front as well as the seaside and Snowdonia National Park in the background of the picture.

 

Wales

In this land of proud princes and rugged mountainous interior the rebellions were often ignited and the national identity was as strong then, centuries ago, as it is today. Although united with England since 1536 by the Act of Union (under king Henry VIII), Wales has always been a country set apart. “Welsh “ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for “foreigners” and so the Welsh  maintained their language, national pride and traditions until now. At the end of XIII century, when most of king Edward I’s castles were built, the memory of the power of Welsh rulers was still vivid. Thus the English had a strong need to safeguard the new rule.

King Edward I

King Edward I via public domain

King Edward I (1239-1307) was a tall for his times (1,88 cm) temperamental man, embodying a medieval ideal of king, soldier and administrator. He held respect of his subjects and used to intimidate his contemporaries. During his adventurous life he was imprisoned, took part in a crusade, conducted numerous wars and had no less then sixteen children with his dear wife, Eleanor of Castile, a well-educated and influential woman. In 1283, after repetitive rebellions of the Welsh princes, king Edward I conducted a successful conquest of Wales. This meant actually the end of Welsh independence. In order to ensure his power in the newly subjugated principality of Gwynedd, the rebellious north-west part of Wales, he introduced a plan to build numerous castles across the country. The plan included the most significant strongholds – Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech. Each of them was different and had a different strategic importance. The sister castles are until now a reminder of the king’s determination and a triumphant display of power.

Construction

Edward’s construction programme started in 1283.  Masons, carpenters and diggers or ditchers were drawn from all over England. They gathered in the English towns of Chester and Bristol (not far from the Welsh border) before being sent to work on one of the new royal fortresses. This labour force, numbering thousands, was indispensable to fulfill the royal ambitious plans. The materials were obtained both both locally and far afield. The huge logistical operation has left extraordinary detailed records by the Wardrobe and the Exchequer; the key financial institutions in the king’s government. These records identify some of the leading figures in the work force and track the progress of the construction. Edward’s castles in Gwynedd were designed and built by the master builder James of St. George. The results of this enormous effort were soon visible – in just a few years three of the four mightiest castles were largely completed. Following another rebellion in the years 1294-95, king Edward ordered the construction of one last new castle at Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey. Considering its scale and near-perfect symmetry Beaumaris Castle is acknowledged as the most perfect of them all. Yet ironically, it was never to be finished. 

 

Of the chief castles of the north-west, Conwy seems to float, Caernarfon is a statement of power, Beaumaris squats comfortably and Harlech glowers menacingly.

John Davies, Wales in 100 places

 

Cearnarfon 

Planned as the administrative and military seat but also manifestation of royal power, Caernafon is probably the most famous of them all. Shaped like an hourglass it is also one of the landmarks of Wales. The mighty banded colours walls are inspired by those of Constantinopole, which Edward admired while on a crusade. They are topped by the battlemented wall-walks. The access to the courtyard was protected by two drawbridges, several heavy doors and portcullises, arrow slits and murder-holes (very pleasant to anyone who dared to enter). In 1301 Edward I’s baby son was born in Caernarfon (he became later king Edward II). To save the Welsh pride, Edward I decided to invest his newly born son the title of the Prince of Wales. This tradition survived throughout the centuries. Latest investiture took place in 1969 – Prince Charles was then invested as the current Prince of Wales. 

The inner court of Caernarfon Castle presents a magnificent view.
 

Conwy 

The construction of the Conwy Castle was completed, after enormous effort, in only five years. It was here that Edward and is wife spent much of their stay in Wales in the years 1283-84. Their apartments belonged to the most opulent in Europe. Built at the edge of estuary of Conwy river, provided with eight round towers, the castle has extremely massive walls (more than five meter thick in some places). They follow the edges of the rock on which the castle was built. With the whole structure mirrored in the water of the river and with often misty mountains in the background, the castle presents a fabulous view. Yet it has a long and bloody history. The medieval town of Conwy which grew up in its shadow. It is surrounded by walls with 21 towers. This makes it a unique ensemble in Europe with the most complete medieval city walls in the world (forget about tourist trap of Carcassone).

Conwy Castle as seen form the waterfront Conwy Quay at the town of Conwy.
 

Harlech

Situated on a rocky outcrop, once surrounded by water, this impressive castle is visible from afar. Currently located on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, between mountains and the sea, the castle occupies the most dramatic location of them all. Concerning that Harlech is quite remote, it is hard to believe in its eventful history. Besieged many times, recaptured by the Welsh and the English, Harlech remains one of the most spectacular strongholds in Britain. At the times of king Edward I there was sheer drop to the sea on one side of the castle. Nowadays the sea has slipped away and Harlech stands among the dunes.

The only way to reach today Harlech Castle is the new floating bridge (visible to the left). The castle remains as inaccessible now as it was centuries ago.

 

Beaumaris

Edward I wanted the castle to secure his control of the Menai Strait. He employed nearly 3000 men in order to build it.  Furthermore, the Beaumaris has a concentric design, wide moat, high double ring of walls and strong towers and thus it was thought to be impregnable. Yet the construction stopped due to king’s death in 1307 and lack of funds. Beaumaris ( mening “fair marsh” from the French beau marais) was never involved in any serious military action and therefore is considered as perfect example of late Norman fortress.

The mighty walls of Beaumaris castle in early spring. Alike most of Edward’s castles it is hard to fit its vast structure in one photo.

 

***

Today all four of these great castles are on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. You can see them as gloomy ruins but for me they are a testimonial of an insatiable desire for power of an ambitious king. Time flies, people pass away but the mighty stones last and speak history. Do come and see them.

Logo of World Heritage List in front of Harlech Castle. The name is in English, French and Welsh.
Sources

Bibliography & further read

If you wish to know better the fascinating history of Wales as well as king Edward I and his castles, here is a handful of very useful reading positions:

Best of Britain’s Castles, AA Publishing 2010

John Davies, Marian Delyth, Wales in 100 Places, Y Lolfa Cyf 2016

John Manion, Discover Castles form Above, Myriad Books Limited 2010

Joyce Robins, The Beauty of Britain and Ireland, Chancellor Press 1997

Roger Thomas, A journey through Wales, The Pitkin Guide 2011

When writing this article I used a very good and concise article on Welsh history published by BBC Wales. as well as Wikipedia’s website concerning the life of Edward I

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Gosia

A journalist, traveller and mother of two. Passionate about European art, languages, history and culture. Appreciates good literature, smart people and brilliant architecture. Loves wandering around well-preserved old cities like Florence or Prague, however it seems that her heart belongs to England. Gathers memories, photographs and souvenirs from every trip. Created this blog to share all of this with you!

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