My trip to Harlech

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that I would get to Harlech in my chronicle of the great Welsh castles! Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to Thursday! To bring you up to speed, I’ve been off around the north-west coast of Wales all week, visiting each of the castles built by Edward I during his Conquest of Wales in 1283. Starting on Anglesey, I’ve been to Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy, and now the iron ring around Snowdonia is complete with a trip out to Harlech!

Harlech Castle

At this point, there seems very little history left to tell – my previous blogs have all told the story of the Conquest of Wales to some degree or other (Conwy with perhaps the most concision), but there are a few more tidbits left! As previously mentioned, then, Llywelyn ap Grufudd, ‘the Last’, was killed at Cilmeri in December 1282, leaving his brother Dafydd as the sole rallying point of Welsh resistance. However, the castles of Snowdonia soon began to fall, first with Dolwyddelan in January 1283, then Castell y bere surrendered in March. With that, Edward I’s lieutenant Otto de Grandison led the march up the west coast and arrived at Harlech in April. Almost immediately, plans for a castle were begun.

Harlech Castle

Harlech was built over a period of seven years, with work completed by 1289. Upon completion, the master of the king’s works, James of St George, was made Constable of the Castle. The castle was completed just in time for the Madog rebellion of 1294, where it was actually besieged from the landward approach. It was in circumstances such as these that the location of Edward’s castles showed its importance. Every one of the castles Edward I was personally responsible for (with the obvious exception of Builth) was sited directly on the coast, and could be supplied by sea in times of siege.

Harlech Castle

It’s not obvious now of course, but Harlech was built directly on the coast, and the above picture would have only been possible in 1289 if I were standing in the sea (and, y’know, if both I and cameras were around then). This is the water gate that was among the last of the fortifications to be built, and which allowed the siege at Harlech to be broken by provisions to the castle brought from Ireland.

Harlech Castle

The castle is quite compact, compared with the sprawling fortresses of Conwy and especially Caernarfon. Perhaps it was never intended as a royal castle in the same way as those two, but the rock upon which it was built no doubt determined much of the geography and planning. But it’s compact in a good way, if you follow me.

Harlech Castle

The castle next played a prominent role during the revolt of Owain Glyndwr between 1400 and 1414, when Owain actually captured the castle from the English and used it as the base for his court between 1404 and 1409, until it was recaptured by the future Henry V. But the Glyndwr rebellion is definitely the subject for another blog!

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Harlech is quite dramatically sited, in the shadow of Snowdon, and is a fantastic day out! It’s also quite close to some of the native Welsh castles, which are very much worth a visit as well. I’ve already taken you to Dolbadarn, of course, but hopefully in the coming weeks and months I’ll take a look at some of the other imposing ruins from the Princes of Gwynedd! Criccieth is, after all, only across the water…

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My trip to Conwy

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.

Conwy Castle

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 the Great

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.

Deganwy Castle

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 present church apparently incorporates elements of the abbey
The present church apparently incorporates elements of the abbey

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 Castle

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).

Conwy Castle

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:

Conwy Castle

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.

Conwy Castle

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:

Aberconwy 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:

The Mill Gate
The Mill Gate
The quayside
The quayside
The town wall and ditch
The town wall and ditch
The Watchtower
The Watchtower
The Upper Gate
The Upper Gate

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.

Conwy Castle

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

 

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!

Conwy Castle

My trip to Caernarfon

Good afternoon everyone! Following on from yesterdays Anglesey antics, I spent the day today at Caernarfon, the centre of Edward I’s castles-of-Wales complex. And what a castle it is! I haven’t really visited this place in six years, so was quite overawed!

Caernarfon Castle

The modern town of Caernarfon sits directly on the banks of the Menai Strait in a location that is positively brimming with legend. Settle down, for I’m going to tell you a story…

Macsen Wledig – perhaps better known by his Latin name Magnus Maximus, a later Emperor of Rome – had a dream of a beautiful maiden in a distant land. When he awoke, he sent his men to scour the world for her, and she was eventually found in Segontium, just outside modern Caernarfon. Macsen is so overjoyed that the maiden, whose name is Elen, loved him in return that he made her father king of all Britain. However, in Macsen’s absence, a new Emperor seized power. Macsen, with an army led by Elen’s brother Conan, marched back to Rome and regained his throne, and in gratitude he gave Conan land in Gaul, modern-day Brittany. As for Elen, she became a Saint, often credited with road-building across Britain.

What a lovely tale! Well, at any rate, the story – together with the remains of the Roman fortress at Segontium – proved to be a very evocative symbol of the status associated with the site. While the Normans had built a motte-and-bailey castle here, it had been in Welsh control since the early twelfth century. There is some documentary evidence that the Princes of Wales, while more comfortable at their llys than a castle, also spent time here.

The ghost of the Norman motte can be seen here
The ghost of the Norman motte can be seen here

As mentioned in my Beaumaris blog, Edward I was very big on symbolism. Well, the whole medieval world was to a large extent – that’s why heraldry was invented. But anyway. A site associated with the Emperors of ancient Rome, as well as rich in the native Welsh tradition, he didn’t waste any time in making it the administrative and judicial centre of English Wales following the successful subjugation of the Welsh in 1283.

The whole history of the Edwardian Conquest is absolutely fascinating, and one that deserves its own blog, really. So for now I’ll just stick to Caernarfon. Work began around 24 June 1283, with the king and queen arriving the following month. By the following year, it is believed that the massive Eagle Tower had been completed to at least first-floor level.

Caernarfon Castle

The castle was planned and built alongside the neighbouring town, and by 1285 the town walls were largely complete.

Caernarfon town walls

Work on the castle continued throughout subsequent building seasons, and surviving documents indicate that expense was almost seen as no object. By 1288, however, expense dropped off noticeably, until 1292, where it ceased. The guidebook tells us that the entire project up to this time cost £12,000 – over £11m in today’s prices. However, by this time the town-facing side of the castle hadn’t really been built properly, largely because it was defended by the town itself.

The King's Gate
The King’s Gate

However, in 1294, rebellion broke out. By the Statute of Rhuddlan issued a decade earlier, Caernarfon had been made the centre of English government. As such, it was the prime target for the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn. Records relate how the walls were ‘thrown down’ and the castle building site was torched. The English response was brutal, and work began immediately on re-fortifying the town – expense accounts suggest that half the town walls had indeed been demolished in the attack.

Caernarfon Castle

Building continued apace for the rest of the century, with the distinctive horizontal banding in the curtain walls that was a deliberate echo of the walls of Roman Constantinople. Edward turned his attention to Scotland as the fourteenth century dawned, and work on all of his Welsh projects stalled until the victory at Stirling in 1304.

Caernarfon Castle

In 1316, the timber hall from Conwy, known vaguely as the ‘Prince’s Hall’, was dismantled and brought here, where it was reassembled at the Great Hall within the castle (seen as foundations on the right, above). Another gesture pregnant with symbolism – the hall was the traditional centre of a stronghold and the place where the king dispensed his justice. By bringing Llywelyn’s hall to Caernarfon, Edward made his new castle the seat of justice for Wales as well as making it impossible for the Welsh to rule themselves anymore.

Caernarfon Castle

By 1330, it seems that the fabric of the castle and the town was largely complete, to the extent that it stands today. Total expenditure is given by Cadw as no more than £25,000 – over £23.5m in modern terms. For the next two hundred years, Caernarfon Castle continued to be the administrative centre for Wales, and the town was off-limits to the native Welsh.

The Exchequer Gate
The Exchequer Gate

According to legend, following the defeat of Llywelyn at Cilmeri in 1282, Edward I attempted to pacify the Welsh resistance that had continued by offering the natives a prince ‘borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English’, before showing his newborn son Edward to the assembled crowds at the castle in April 1284. Well, whether that scene actually happened or not, Edward did indeed bestow the title of Prince of Wales upon his son and heir in 1301, as well as the earldom of Chester.

Edward I confers the title of Prince of Wales upon his son
Edward I confers the title of Prince of Wales upon his son

Since then, the eldest son and heir of the reigning monarch has been declared Prince of Wales, though of course, with some exceptions. Edward II did not declare his son, the future Edward III, as Prince of Wales; when George II’s son Frederick died after a tennis injury he made Frederick’s son George the Prince. Also of note, Richard of York had himself made Prince of Wales in 1460 in order to secure his succession to the incapacitated Henry VI. It wasn’t until 1911, however, that a ceremony at Caernarfon was instituted, when George V made his son Edward the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Again in 1969, Elizabeth II invested her heir Charles as Prince of Wales, at the famous televised event for which the slate dais was installed in the upper ward. The castle has an exhibition of the Princes of Wales, including the specially-made throne and stool for the occasion:

Caernarfon Castle

Investiture

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Caernarfon Castle

So there you have it! Caernarfon Castle in all its imperial pomp and splendour! It really is a fantastic castle, the photos in this blog really don’t do justice to the scale of the place. I was particularly surprised at how easy it is to get lost within the wall passages, though that may say more about my sense of direction than anything else. Perhaps more than any other castle in Wales, it still gives the impression of might that it was originally designed for. Go on, go visit it!

Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle Caernarfon Castle

 

My trip to Anglesey: Beaumaris

Beaumaris Castle

Hello everyone, and welcome to another trip-focused blog! Being off work this week, I’ve got several trips lined up, beginning with what turned out to be an absolutely incredible trip to Anglesey! I love that island so much it’s untrue, but with perfect weather, it was just grand! So let me share some snaps with you of stage one: Beaumaris!

Obviously, any trip to Beaumaris these days almost has to include the famous castle. Built from 1295, it was the last of the four great fortresses constructed by Edward I in an ‘iron ring’ around the Snowdonia strongholds of the Princes of Gwynedd. By the time work had begun at the castle, the last Prince, Llywelyn ap Grufudd, had been dead for thirteen years, and the Edwardian invasion of Wales pretty much successfully concluded, but revolts throughout the final years of the thirteenth century showed a need for visible English dominance still.

Beaumaris was the only castle Edward built on Anglesey, its location chosen expressly for the purpose of supply by sea. The Welsh town of Llanfaes that already existed at the site was seen as the most prosperous in the whole of Wales, benefiting from its location on the main route between Chester and Holyhead, and beyond to Ireland. It was also the final resting place of Joan, the daughter of King John and wife of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth ‘the Great’.

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That the town was also built on a marsh was of little consequence to Edward – the need for symbols of might and dominance was never far from his mind, so placing his castle here was the natural choice. Before work began, however, the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn the Last, broke out across English-controlled Wales. This revolt is most startling to me because it was led by a chap who had once been on good terms with Edward. Anyway, at one point the revolt razed the incomplete castle at Caernarfon, and the sheriff of Anglesey, Roger de Pulesdon, was lynched. The revolt was brutally quashed by the English, and it was perhaps in response to this that work was ordered to begin immediately at Beaumaris.

Beaumaris Castle

The castle was built on flat, open ground, which is probably why the architect, Master James of St George (see picture below), was able to make it the almost-perfect concentric fortress that it is. For years, the English had been building castles in Wales in this manner, perhaps most notably at Rhuddlan and Harlech, but at Beaumaris, the example is really quite stunning.

Edward I and Master James of St George

The castle was built speedily, with stone quarried from nearby Penmon, and within about ten weeks or so, there was enough standing for the records to describe the king as staying in thatched buildings ‘within the castle’ here. Some pretty amazing records survive, showing that the castle was costing about £270 a week to build in the first season, and was projected to run around £250 a week throughout the 1296 building season.

Beaumaris Castle

However, almost as soon as the conquest of Wales was considered complete, Edward turned his attention north to Scotland, and began waging wars up there. The consequence was an increasingly tight budget for all of the royal castles in Wales, and the records show that labourers and other workmen were leaving the site in droves because they weren’t being paid. As 1300 loomed, expenditure on the castle was virtually nonexistant.

Beaumaris Castle

The work was resumed early in the fourteenth century, but on nowhere near the scale that it had been taking place earlier. The primary focus was to secure the site, and complete the curtain wall circuit across the north and west (shown above). The reason for this was a commonly-held fear that the Scots might join forces with the simmering Welsh and attack the castles of north Wales. While the curtain walls were completed, work on the castle was eventually halted around 1330.

Beaumaris Castle

As an incomplete castle, Beaumaris has a peculiarly squat appearance in comparison with the other royal castles of Wales. No turrets here! The outer curtain towers were left at pretty much single-storey, and the work continued just long enough to secure the towers of the inner ward around a storey higher. A survey of 1343 estimated costs to bring the castle to completion at £684. This work wasn’t carried out, evidently.

Beaumaris Castle

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Beaumaris is a superb castle, and is justly referred to as a perfect design. For years now, I’ve thought of Aberystwyth as my favourite of the Welsh castles, but walking around Beaumaris today, it makes me think that I may have to revise that opinion! An excellent day out – you should all go! Now!

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle