Medieval Castles along the Wales Coast Path

When asked what comes to mind when thinking of Europe, many North Americans would reply: "Castles!"  Not surprising, since there are few - if any - real castles on the western side of the Atlantic moat.  This story is the first of the IAT Natural and Cultural Heritage Series on architectural and cultural wonders.

Caernarfon Castle

 

Medieval Castles along the Wales Coast Path

Often called the "Land of Castles", Wales has more castles - over 500! - than any other country in Europe, and is home to many of the finest examples of these Medieval fortifications.  The Wales Coast Path itself contains a representative sample, beginning with Flint Castle, the first of a series of castles built during King Edward I's campaign to conquer Wales.

 

 

Featured in Shakespeare's Richard II, Flint Castle was built in a strategic location in North East Wales. The castle was only one day's march from Chester and supplies could arrive on the River Dee.  Its most impressive feature is the Great Tower, isolated from the rest of the inner ward by a moat and drawbridge.

 

Flint Castle

 

Building work began in 1277 under Richard L'Engenour, who would later become Mayor of Chester in 1304.   In November 1280, the Savoyard master mason James of Saint George began overseeing construction on the French inspired fortification, similar to ones visited by Edward I on his way to join the Eighth Crusade in 1270.

 

Flint Castle by William Turner, c. 1838

 

Conwy Castle

Approximately 25km to the west of Flint, another castle built by Master James of St George for Edward I is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain.  Built between 1277 and 1307 for an estimated £15,000, Conwy Castle was constructed as part of a wider project to create the walled town of Conwy.  It contains two barbicans (fortified gateways), eight massive towers and a great bow-shaped hall.  All sit within its distinctive elongated shape, due in part to the narrow rocky outcrop on which the castle stands.

 

Reconstruction of Conwy Castle and Town (CADW)

 

By a royal charter of 1284, the castle's constable was also the mayor of the new town and oversaw a castle garrison of 30 soldiers, including 15 crossbowmen, supported by a carpenter, chaplain, blacksmith, engineer and stonemason.  In 1294 Madog ap Llywelyn, son of Llywelyn ap Maredudd (the last vassal Lord of Meirionydd), rebelled against English rule, and Edward was besieged at Conwy for two months before forces arrived to relieve him.

Conwy Castle

 

Caernarfon Castle

On the west coast of Wales where the Isle of Anglesey meets the mainland is Caernarfon Castle, another of the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd which together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Like many of the castles in Wales, it is managed by CADW (a Welsh word meaning 'to keep or protect'),  the "Welsh government’s historic environment service working for an accessible and well-protected historic environment for Wales."

 

Caernarfon Castle

 

Of the eight new castles begun by King Edward I of England in opposition to Llywelyn, the finest were Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, all on coastal sites in north-west Wales.  Two of these, Caernarfon and Conwy, were associated with new towns enclosed within massive walls built at the same time as the castles. These four great castles and two sets of town walls collectively make up the World Heritage site. All were begun and substantially completed within the period 1283 to 1330.

 

Caernarfon Castle and Town Reconstruction

 

The castles at Caernarfon and Conwy were elongated fortresses, each with a pair of adjacent wards surrounded by a high curtain wall with projecting towers. The defences were extended by a massive wall encircling the town, again with twin-towered gatehouses at the principal points of entry and projecting towers at regular intervals.  But they were not designed simply as garrison strongholds; they were also seats of government and symbols of power. 

 

In 1969 Queen Elizabeth II formally invested the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle

 

Criccieth Castle

Situated on a headland between two beaches in Criccieth, Gwynedd, Criccieth Castle is a native Welsh fortification on a rocky peninsula overlooking Tremadog Bay. It was built by Llywelyn the Great of the kingdom of Gwynedd, but was heavily modified following its capture by English forces under Edward I in the late 13th century.

 

 Criccieth Castle

 

Unlike most other Welsh native strongholds, the inner ward at Criccieth was protected by a twin D-shaped towered gateway that was protected by a gate and portcullis, with murder holes in the passage, and outward facing arrowslits in each tower.  In the 1260s or 1270s, an outer ward was added during the second building phase under Llywelyn the Last.  A new gateway was added in the outer curtain with a large two-storey rectangular tower.  The castle, although not a proper concentric design, then had two circuits of defence.

 

Criccieth Castle 

 

In 1283 Criccieth was captured by the English under the command of Edward I.  It was then remodelled by James of St George who added another two storey rectangular tower.  In 1294, Madoc ap Llywelyn, a distant relation of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, began an uprising against English rule that spread quickly through Wales.  Several English-held towns were razed and Criccieth (along with Harlech Castle and Aberystwyth Castle) was besieged that winter.  Its residents survived until spring when the castle was resupplied.  

 

 

 Criccieth Castle Reconstruction

 

Criccieth Castle was used as a prison until 1404 when Welsh forces captured it during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr.  The Welsh then tore down its walls and set the castle alight.  In the 19th century it was cast in a different light when Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner used it in his famous series of paintings depicting shipwrecked mariners.

 

 Criccieth Castle by William Turner, c. 1835

 

Harlech Castle

Built by built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales between 1282 and 1289, Harlech Castle played an important role in several wars, withstanding the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn between 1294–95, before falling to Owain Glyndŵr in 1404.   It then became Glyndŵr's residence and military headquarters for the remainder of the uprising, until being recaptured by English forces in 1409.

 

Harlech Castle

 

During the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Harlech was held by the Lancastrians for seven years, before Yorkist troops forced its surrender in 1468, a siege memorialised in the song Men of Harlech.   Following the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the castle was held by forces loyal to Charles I, holding out until 1647 when it became the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentary armies.

 

 Harlech Castle

 

Laugharne Castle

In addition to the north, south Wales also contains scenic and historic coastal fortifications, including Laugharne Castle.  Established by 1116 as the castle of Robert Courtemain, it was the meeting place of Henry II of England and Rhys ap Gruffudd in 1171-1172, when they entered into a formal peace treaty.   When Henry II died in 1189, the castle - along with nearby Llansteffan Castle - was seized by Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth.

 

Laugharne Castle

 

It was in Laugharne in 1403 that Owain Glyndŵr's rebellion stalled. Perhaps lulled into complacency, he was tricked by an ambush and lost 700 men. When a local soothsayer then warned him to leave the area or be captured, he retreated. After this the rebellion petered out under the weight of greater English numbers, and by 1415, Glyndŵr had disappeared, fading into myth.

 

Welsh ruler Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales (Tywysog Cymru)

 

In 1644 during the English Civil War, Laugharne was captured by Royalists after a weeklong siege when Parliamentary forces under Major-General Rowland attacked the castle.  It had been damaged by cannon fire and further destroyed to prevent later use. It was left as a romantic ruin during the 18th century, and around the start of the 19th century the outer ward was laid with formal gardens.

 

 

Laugharne Castle, Unknown Artist, c. 1800

 

Llansteffan Castle

Perched on a headland overlooking the sand-flats at the mouth of the river Tywi is Llansteffan Castle.  The natural strength and strategic importance of this stunning location was recognised by the Norman invaders of Wales who established an earth-and-timber enclosure, or 'ringwork', within the ancient defences of an Iron Age fort. The castle controlled an important river crossing and it changed hands several times during fierce fighting between the Normans and the Welsh.

 

Llansteffan Castle

 

The transformation of the early earth-and-timber stronghold into the powerful masonry castle visible today was the work of the Camville family who held the castle from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century. The castle was held briefly by Owain Glyndŵr’s supporters in 1405-06. At the close of the fifteenth century, King Henry VII granted it to his uncle, Jasper Tudor, who was probably responsible for blocking the great gatehouse passage to create additional accommodation.

 

Llansteffan Castle

 

The most noteworthy building in the Upper Bailey is the well-preserved Inner Gate. Once the castle's main entrance, the three-storied rectangular tower was once connected to the curtain wall with a brief length of masonry, topped by a wall-walk.  Other notable structures in the Upper Ward include the castle's well, the foundations of the Round Tower (the castle's keep) and other auxiliary structures, probably including workshops, stables, and a small hall.

 

Llansteffan Castle

 

Kidwelly Castle

Overlooking the River Gwendraeth and the town of Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire (established c. 1115), Kidwelly Castle was built by Normans as a defense against the Welsh.  The earliest castle on the site was built of earth and timber, but in the 13th century it had been rebuilt in stone after Payn de Chaworth returned from the Crusades with King Edward 1 and transformed the property acquired by his family in 1244.  The present remains of the castle include work from the 13th to late 15th centuries.

 

Kidwelly Castle

 

In 1403 the castle was unsuccessfully besieged by forces of Owain Glyndŵr, with assistance from soldiers from France and Brittany who captured Kidwelly town.  The castle was relieved by a Norman army after just three weeks.  The gatehouse was extensively damaged and it was rebuilt on the instructions of King Henry V.

 

Kidwelly Castle

 

Kidwelly benefited from the latest thinking in castle design. It had a concentric design with one circuit of defensive walls set within another to allow the castle to be held even if the outer wall should fall.  The plan consists of a square inner bailey defended by four round towers, which overlook a semi-circular outer curtain wall on the landward side, with the massive gatehouse next to the river. The river prevents this from being a truly concentric plan, however a jutting tower protects the riverside walls.

 

 

 Plan of Kidwelly Castle

 

The castle largely escaped involvement in the English Civil War (1642-1651) and was used as a location for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, appearing in the very first scene after the titles.

 

Chepstow Castle

Located in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, on top of cliffs overlooking the River Wye, Chepstow Castle is the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain.  Construction began in 1067, less than a year after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England.  The speed with which William committed to its creation is testament to its strategic importance.  The site overlooked an important crossing point on the River Wye, a major artery of communications inland to Monmouth and Hereford.

 

Chepstow Castle on the River Wye

 

There is no evidence for a settlement at the site before the Norman invasion of Wales, although it is possible that it may have previously been a prehistoric or early medieval stronghold.  Castle construction began under the instruction of the Norman Lord William FitzOsbern, who was the Conqueror's version of James of St. George, Edward I's master castle builder 200 years later.  Chepstow Castle was the southernmost of a chain of castles built along the English–Welsh border which became the key launching points for expeditions into Wales, expeditions that eventually subdued the rebellious population.

 

William the Conquerer as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

 

The Great Hall - the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain - and the dramatic cliff-side at Chepstow are the castle's two most interesting features. The rest of the castle is a typical Norman structure - a large gatehouse with high curtain walls connecting a series of tall towers.  Because Chepstow was built in stages along the river Wye, the castle is constructed in a long, terraced fashion.  Though it has four baileys, added in turn through its history, it is not a defensively strong castle, having neither a strong keep nor a concentric layout.

 

 Great Hall at Chepstow

 

 Chepstow Castle

 

Chepstow Castle was visited by King Edward I in 1284, at the end of his triumphal tour through Wales.  In 1403 it was garrisoned with twenty men-at-arms and sixty archers in response to the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, however it was not attacked.   During the English Civil War, it was in the front line between Royalist Monmouthshire and Parliamentarian Gloucestershire.  It was held by the Royalists and besieged in both 1645 and in 1648, eventually falling to the Parliamentarian forces on 25 May 1648.  After the war, the castle was garrisoned and maintained as an artillery fort and barracks.  It was also used as a political prison, whose locked doors held such prisoners as Bishop Jeremy Taylor and - after the Restoration of the monarchy - Henry Marten, one of the Commissioners who signed the death warrant of Charles I.  Today some of those doors lay claim to being the oldest castle doors in Europe! 

 

Chepstow Castle Doors

 

We have come to the end of our tale, about Medieval Castles along the IAT in Wales. 

To learn more - or take a virtual tour - visit Cadw and the Castles of Wales.   

Then polish up your old hiking boots and armour, and put on your new coat of arms, strike out for the Wales Coast Path, with its ocean views and castle charms!