Castles and Historical Locations
UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I
The castles of Beaumaris and Harlech and the fortified complexes of Caernarfon and Conwy are located in the former principality of Gwynedd, in north Wales. These extremely well-preserved monuments are examples of the colonization and defence works carried out throughout the reign of Edward I (1272–1307) and the military architecture of the time.
Cadw is the Welsh Government’s historic environment service working for an accessible and well-protected historic environment for Wales. Cadw is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’ or ‘to protect’. Their objectives include:
> Conserving Wales’ heritage to the best possible standard. We have responsibility for some of the most significant sites in the world.
> Help sustain the distinctive character of Wales’s landscapes and towns.
> Help people understand and care about their place and history - and the place of Wales in the world.
> Make a real difference to people’s wellbeing in Wales.
A brute of a fortress. Caernarfon Castle’s pumped-up appearance is unashamedly muscle-bound and intimidating. Picking a fight with this massive structure would have been a daunting prospect. By throwing his weight around in stone, King Edward I created what is surely one of the most impressive of Wales’s castles. Worthy of World Heritage status no less.
Most castles are happy with round towers, not Caernarfon! Polygonal towers were the order of the day, with the Eagle Tower being the most impressive of these. You will also note the colour-coded stones carefully arranged in bands.
The site of this great castle wasn’t chosen by accident. It had previously been the location of a Norman motte and bailey castle and before that a Roman fort stood nearby. The lure of water and easy access to the sea made the banks of the River Seiont an ideal spot for Edward’s monster in masonry.
Edward wasn’t one to miss an opportunity to tighten his grip even further on the native population. The birth of his son, the first English Prince of Wales, in the castle in 1284, was a perfect device to stamp his supremacy. In 1969, the investiture of the current Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles took place here.
Caernarfon is one of eight sites chosen by Cadw as a hub for community projects in support of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations in Wales.
‘Men of Harlech’. The nation’s unofficial anthem, loved by rugby fans and regimental bands alike, is said to describe the longest siege in British history (1461-1468) which took place here during the War of the Roses. Edward’s tried and tested ‘walls within walls’ model was put together in super-fast time between 1283 and 1295 by an army of nearly a thousand skilled craftsmen and labourers.
Edward liked to use only the best masons from Savoy and England’s finest carpenters and blacksmiths. At the time this was one of the cheapest of Edward’s castles. A snip at a mere £8,190.
The structure, overseen by Master of the King’s Works, James of St George, boasts two rings of walls and towers, with an immensely strong east gatehouse. It was impregnable from almost every angle. Its secret weapon was a 200-foot (61m) long stairway which still leads from the castle to the cliff base.
Access via the stairway to the sea and crucial supplies kept the castle’s besieged inhabitants fed and watered. When it was first built, a channel would have connected the castle and the sea. You could have sailed a boat up to the moat. Seven hundred years later, the sea has receded and you could say the castle appears almost stranded, waiting for the tide to turn once more.
Harlech is one of eight sites chosen by Cadw as a hub for community projects in support of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations in Wales.
Built for Edward I, by Master James of St George, the castle is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain. In a word, exceptional. You can’t fault it, from the grandeur of its high towers and curtain walls to its excellent state of preservation. An estimated £15,000 was spent building the castle, the largest sum Edward spent in such a short time on any of his Welsh castles between 1277 and 1307. Money well spent.
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. You won’t find Edward’s concentric ‘walls within walls’ here. They weren’t needed. The rock base was enough security in itself.
Some say it is the most magnificent of Edward I’s Welsh fortresses. To get the full picture, head for the battlements. Breathtaking views across mountains and sea.
If the outside impresses (and it will), wait until you go in. With an outer ward containing a great hall, chambers and kitchen, and a more secluded inner ward with private chambers and a royal chapel, it is very easy to imagine how Conwy functioned when the royal entourage were in town.
What a picture, what a view! Perched on a headland with the sea as its constant bedfellow. Its twin-towered gatehouse intimidates prospective attackers. So badly did the native Welsh princes and English monarchs want it, that it changed hands more often than a relay baton.
Built originally by Llywelyn the Great, this very Welsh of princes included a very English style of gatehouse. Edward I’s forces took the castle some 50 years later, undertook their own improvements and remodelled a tower for stone-throwing engines. Not as much fun for those at the bottom as it sounds for those at the top!
Owain Glyn Dŵr sealed Criccieth’s fate when his troops captured and burnt the castle in the early years of the 15th century. This was to be the last major Welsh rebellion against the English.
Criccieth Castle may also have given the name to the town rather than the other way round. Its suggested origins are ‘crug caeth’ – ‘crug’ (hill in Welsh), ‘caith’ (captives) – the name given to the jail on the hill, a function once held by the castle. Buy an ice-cream, there’s a lot of history to digest.
Dolbadarn Castle, Llanberis
Probably built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth ('the Great') early in the thirteenth century, the castle is dominated by a massive round-towered keep, still standing up to 50 feet (15.2m) high.
Castell y Bere, Llanfihangel-y-Pennant
Distinctive remains of a native Welsh castle, probably begun by Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth ('the Great') around 1221.
Cymer Abbey, Llanelltyd
Substantial remains of the simple abbey church, founded in 1198 by Maredudd ap Cynan for the Cistercian order.
Plas Mawr, Conwy
The Elizabethan era. A golden age? Think Renaissance and Shakespeare. Think Plas Mawr. An Elizabethan gem worth its weight in gold. The finest town house of its period in Britain. Its owner Robert Wynn, an influential merchant of great repute, was particularly fond of grandeur and colour. He also liked entertaining. Lavishly. Behold his finest hour, a grand house built between 1576 and 1585 in the heart of medieval Conwy’s narrow cobbled streets. A house which more than matched his grandiose ambitions.
Particularly exquisite is the ornamental plasterwork in the hall, now repainted in vivid original colours. There’s not an inch that doesn’t impress, from plasterwork ceilings to friezes and skilful carpentry. Look out for the initials ‘RW’ on various crests and coats of arms, lest you forget the master of the mansion and payer of all bills.