Welcome back folks! What started as a day trip to Anglesey has turned into a trip around all four of Edward I’s castles in north Wales! For day three, let me take you around Conwy.
Perhaps the most arresting approach to any town in Britain, this is the sight that greets you on the way in to the town. Amazing stuff!
I’ve written two similar blogs already this week – Beaumaris and Caernarfon – but I don’t feel that I’ve done the subject of the Conquest of Wales much justice. Well, I won’t go into it here, but I will at least sketch in some info for you. Llywelyn the Great reigned as Prince of Gwynedd and Lord of Snowdonia from 1199 to 1240. He was married to the daughter of King John, but his expansionist foreign policy brought him into frequent conflict with England. However, he was recognised as Prince by Henry III, his brother-in-law.
Llywelyn left his kingdom in turmoil when he left his lands entirely to his youngest son Dafydd, disinheriting his illegitimate son Grufudd (under Welsh law at this time, land was inherited by all children as a partition). Dafydd immediately imprisoned Grufudd at Criccieth and consolidated his power from Llywelyn’s castle at Deganwy. Henry III then decided to intervene, however, and supported Grufudd. In 1246 Dafydd died, and the castle at Deganwy was captured by the English, who made it a mighty seat of power in the area, establishing a town in its shadow.
The castle at Deganwy was destroyed by Grufudd’s son, Llywelyn, in 1263, as he led a campaign to expel the English from his ancestral lands. In 1267, Henry III accepted Llywelyn as Prince of Gwynedd, in return for Llywelyn’s homage. Henry died in 1272, and was succeeded by his son Edward I. Llywelyn begged off attending the coronation, then repeatedly refused to pay homage to Edward. Things probably could have been handled better, of course, insofar as Henry had requested Llywelyn pay him homage, but Edward demanded it. In what can easily be imagined as a towering fury, Edward launched a concerted attack on Llywelyn, with forces coming from Chester, Montgomery, Carmarthen and by boat to Anglesey. It didn’t take long for Llywelyn to surrender at Aberconwy Abbey in 1277.
The terms of this surrender were to confine Llywelyn to Snowdonia, and to ensure they were kept, a massive programme of castle-building began, with fortresses being put up at Flint, Rhuddlan, Builth and Aberystwyth. Edward granted land to his lords across most of north wales, and further castles were built at Denbigh, Holt, Chirk, Ruthin and Hawarden. It was a misguided attack on the latter by Llywelyn’s younger brother Dafydd in 1282 that sparked the second campaign of Edward I, with an even larger army intent on ending the Welsh problem once and for all. Llywelyn was killed at Cilmeri, and Edward established his forward command post at Aberconwy Abbey in March 1283. It was from here that the capture of Dafydd was led, and evidence suggests that Edward had initially planned to make Conwy the administrative centre of his power in Wales, though ultimately it was Caernarfon that fulfilled this role.
Conwy was planned from the outset as a castle and town, and the initial planning stages began even before Dafydd’s capture and execution. Building work was incredibly swift, with the curtain walls being built within the first two years of construction. By 1287, both the castle and town walls were complete, at the cost of £15,000 (over £12.5m by today’s standards).
The castle has the most complete interior of any royal castle from medieval Britain, including the royal apartments in the inner ward, and the hall in the outer ward.
During the rebellion of 1294, Edward and his queen Eleanor of Castile stayed at Conwy while the English response was carried out. This is apparently the only known time that the king stayed at the castle. Of course, he was soon off fighting up in Scotland, anyway.
The town that sprang up around the castle was intended for English habitation only, and until the Tudor period, Welshmen were forbidden from entering any of the English towns in Wales, much less from trading with them. There are few surviving buildings in the town from this early period, though Aberconwy House is a typical medieval merchant’s house.
The town walls encircle an area of 22 acres and run for 1400 yards in a virtually unbroken circuit, with three fortified gates and twenty-one towers placed at regular intervals:
Not far from the massively-fortified Upper Gate is the site of ‘Llywelyn’s Hall’, a timber-framed structure that originally stood flush to the town walls, and is marked now by the only section of wall with windows built in. The hall was moved to Caernarfon in 1316 as a symbolic show of domination over the Welsh, but has long since vanished.
The entire project of building is really crazy when you think that, firstly, it was finished in four years, but also that it was being built at the same time as Caernarfon and Harlech Castles over on the west coast! An awesome amount of manpower and materiel was needed for this project, which really goes to show just how powerful the medieval monarchy was!
Conwy Castle was the first of the four royal castles of Edward I that I visited, nearly seven years ago now, and it is probably the one I’ve been to most since. It’s definitely worth a visit, with a stroll along the town walls to finish! Marvellous!