Crowning Perfection: The Welsh Castles of Edward I

England’s monarchy has long been associated with the territory of Wales. From Edward of Caernarfon, the first heir presumptive to be named Prince of Wales in 1301, to Elizabeth II’s son Charles, who assumed the title in 1958, it has been portrayed as a indispensable part of the royal inheritance. Such claims, however, were only made possible by the conquest of Wales and the death, in 1282, of the last native prince of Wales–Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. These events drew to a close with the appropriation of the princely title, but not before their main architect–King Edward I–left his indelible mark upon the Welsh landscape.

This map of modern Welsh counties in the North depicts several important Edwardian sites, including Caernarfon and Conwy.

This map of modern Welsh counties in the North depicts several important Edwardian sites, including Caernarfon and Conwy. Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the northwest corner of Wales known as the Kingdom of Gwynedd (now Snowdonia) Edward built a series of castles unlike anything seen in the country until that time. Raised between 1283 and ca. 1300, the fortresses at Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris, and Caernarfon(to name only the most spectacular) were an unmistakable statement of England’s martial prowess and sophistication.

For the most part, they were constructed close by the sea, where they could easily be provisioned by boat. This was a practical choice, given the difficult mountain terrain further inland, but it also enhanced the beauty of structures fit for royal residence. The picturesque (and imposing) setting of Conwy can be seen in the photo below, where the castle dominates a town still ringed by Edward’s mediaeval walls.

Conwy Castle, situated along a riverbank, is still exceptionally well-preserved.

Conwy Castle, situated along a riverbank, is still exceptionally well-preserved. Wikimedia Commons

This picturesque site had been the grounds of the abbey of Aberconwy, a large Cistercian house, as well as the burial site of Llywelyn the Great–a beloved Welsh hero. By relocating the monks, Edward clearly intended to overbuild or stamp out any reminders of independent Welsh greatness. The crassness of his gesture, however, is belied by the fantastical landscape of towers crowning his new construction.

When I visited Conwy, I used a whole roll of film trying to capture the skyscape from every angle.

When I visited Conwy, I used a whole roll of film trying to capture the skyscape from every angle. (Phillip Capper via Wikimedia)

With two barbicans and 8 towers, Conwy presents an aspect at once militaristic and Arthurian. Its ample space inside the castle wards, accommodating a large hall, furthermore, clearly allowed for a leisurely enjoyment of the setting. All of this came at a steep price (an estimated £15,000) and was completed under the supervision of the king’s builder James of St. George.

This plan display's Conwy's elaborate system of towers and walls.

This plan display’s Conwy’s elaborate system of towers and walls. (Cadw via Wikimedia)

By comparison, Harlech’s appearence is far more uncompromising. The site itself was probably associated with British royalty before Edward I’s arrival, since in the Welsh tale of the Mabinogion, it appears as the seat of the giant king Bendigeidfran.

The defences of solid Harlech are augmented by the outcrop of stone on which it was built.

The defences of solid Harlech are augmented by the outcrop of stone on which it was built. (Cadw via WIkimedia)

In the 13th century, the towering rock on which the castle stood was linked to the sea by a purpose built canal. Easy to supply, but of difficult access (the 61m path to the top is exposed to the castle’s defenders), Harlech was a statement of the sophistication of English military architecture.

Harlech's round towers and system of concentric walls were cutting edge features.

Harlech’s round towers and system of concentric walls were cutting edge features. (Cadw via Wikimedia)

Notable in Harlech is the symmetry of the design, as seen in the plan above. Although some elements of Conwy displayed this elegant sense of proportion, it is in Harlech that this preference is more strongly seen.

It culminates, however, in the unfinished behemoth of Beaumaris, often cited as the most technically perfect castle in Britain, if not in the whole of mediaeval Europe. From above, the similarities with Harlech are readily apparent, although the desire for ever more–of everything–has here been given free rein.

Beaumaris, on Angelsey, is a palace wrapped inside a fortress wrapped inside a moat.

Beaumaris, on Angelsey, is a palace wrapped inside a fortress wrapped inside a moat. (Cadw via Wikimedia)

Designed with the capacity to hold 11 different households, this castle is as much a residential palace as a military strongpoint, perhaps expressing Edward’s desire to integrate North Wales into the regular circuit of kingly travel.  By this point, however, Edward I had become embroiled in a costly battle over the rule of Scotland, and even the English monarch’s seemingly boundless purse ran dry. Beaumaris, his most ambitious project, was put on hold, and work never resumed.

All three of the castles we have already toured shared a similar design. High walls–ideally in concentric shapes–were combined with round towers and projecting barbicans designed to be impregnable. The last of Edward’s great castles, though, is radically different.

From the Golden Horn to the Menai Straits, Caernarfon brought imperial aspirations to North Wales.

From the Golden Horn to the Menai Straits, Caernarfon brought imperial aspirations to North Wales. (Herbert Ortner via Wikimedia)

Those familiar with the walls of Constantinople will immediately recognise the polygonal towers and banded masonry which were famed across the mediaeval world. That Edward I used this quintessentially Roman and imperial style in his own construction is both a reflection of the realities of the conquest, and of the site’s older history. The (still extant) Roman fort of Segontium , near to Caernarfon, had led to the identification of this town as the burial place of Magnus Maximus, a Roman usurper from Britain’s Dark Age history.

Now hung in Winchester, this mediaeval round table was first used to indulge Edward I's flair for Arthuriana.

Now hung in Winchester, this mediaeval round table was first used to indulge Edward I’s flair for Arthuriana. (Wikimedia Commons)

Not only did Edward exhume “his” body (as he did to Arthur at Glastonbury) as an expression of his mastery over the heroes of Welsh history, but he also staged a series of Arthurian events which included the making of a round table.

Taken together, these castles demonstrate far more than Edward I’s military needs or the skill of his master architect. They also demonstrate how an ideological war was waged over the landscape of Gwynedd. Their careful planning–which maximised Edward’s ability to quash local pride and sense of history–and deliberately impressive design remain as a testament to the deep divide between Wales and England at the close of the 13th century.

When considered in this light, their perfection is more than a matter of harmonious proportions. It also embraces the totality of Edward’s campaign of conquest over hearts and minds, and not simply over territory.

Further Reading:

My first stop for information on Edward I is Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King (London, 2008).

Robert Liddiard, Castles in Context, (Macclesfield, 2005).

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42 thoughts on “Crowning Perfection: The Welsh Castles of Edward I

    • Most definitely! Over time, the imposition of English law, as well as patterns of administration, new towns, etc. became a very pervasive sign of the conquest. I’m glad that you brought it up, because its a very good extension of the material, but you can only squeeze so much into the actual post!

      I can’t say I can lay claim to the photos myself though. I have visited Conwy, but in the days of film, and none of my snaps have been digitised. I have to say Cadw (the Welsh Heritage organisation) has some great things on open source!

  1. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing! I wish I could have a castle for myself, it’s things like this that make me sound like a child again but they are so beautiful and strong, these images are great as well. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Thanks so much! I used to dream about having a castle, until I scrambled up enough narrow, spiralling staircases and realised how few toilets (shared between many people) they had. I’d certainly take a palace, though!

      If you want more castles, you might like some of these posts: Bodiam , Peyrepertuse , or this one on Scottish palaces

  2. Wonderful post. I’m a welsh decedent but har never been. Castles intrigue me and living in Canada we don’t have anything more then 150 years old were I am. The romance of the Arthurian age calls me. I hope to visit wales and its castles

  3. Reblogged this on Gealachs Blogg and commented:
    Intressant inlägg om slott i Wales, med flera fina bilder. Jag har själv besökt Beaumaris och Caernarfon 1999, skulle vara trevligt att se andra också. Nu får jag lust att plocka fram mina egna bilder, även om de är dåligt inscannade, hade ju ingen digitalkamera på den tiden…

  4. I thought this was great, I have to say I got lost at one point, but I tend to get lost in things allot. Also I like your blog, its nice and simple and, well I don’t know how to explain it but I really like it. It was a awesome read and It is defiantly worth being freshly pressed :)

  5. For someone like me who has never been to the UK, well, I just took a brief tour.. Great post, pictures & information..
    Much enjoyed!!!

  6. You’re killing me, Marissa. Great article! Stumbled on your freshly pressed site while learning to navigate WordPress and my Welsh roots are stirring. Family names on both sides, like Lloyd, Green, Davis, Evans. This article makes we want to hock the farm and flag down a bus bound for Cardiff!

  7. I visited Wales some time ago, but never saw any of the castles. Our tour operator took us to the home of the little Blue Engine instead.
    I loved Wales. My wife sang in a concert with the Park Forest Singers in a sing down between the PFS and the Welsh Men’s choir. It was night of “can you top this?” of song.

  8. Great and interesting post! Made me think about the ‘colonialisation’ of West-Friesland (lies in the modern county Noord-Holland) by the counts of Holland. Those counts had built a few castles on the borders of this region which were designed to keep the population in check, just like these castles. In Ducht we call them ‘dwangburcht’. In the end the West-Friezen killed a count and his son waged a revenge campaign which he won and so conquered the region and it became a part of count Holland (which was later split in Noord-Holland en Zuid-Holland, respectively North-Holland and South-Holland).

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