King Edward I’s chain of stone fortresses across Wales is as imposing today as it was 700 years ago.
Approaching Conwy Castle from its overflow parking lot, your view is blocked by a high railroad embankment with a long pedestrian tunnel beneath it. This turns out to be a good thing. Now the castle can simply spring upon you, its massive southern wall bathed in light. It rises as a black monolith flanked by giant towers, emerging organically from the bedrock that erupts from the greensward. From this view, you can get some of the feelings that a 13th-century Welshman might have felt when he first saw this castle in its glory. You can understand what the English king Edward I “Longshanks” wanted it to be when he built it in 1287.
It’s a terror weapon.
Two centuries before Edward built Conwy, Duke William of Normandy invaded England to become King William I “The Conqueror,” and his Norman vassals seized English and Welsh estates alike. In Wales, these new Norman lords took over estates primarily in the south and along the borders (“marches”) with England. These “Marcher Lords” came and went, sometimes enlarging their lands, sometimes getting their clocks cleaned by the natives. In the 1210s there was a great deal of clock-cleaning, as rebellious English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, then got him involved in a protracted civil war that would lead to his death in 1216. In the confusion, a resurgent Welsh nobility had the chance to get some of their own back.
Past Welsh revolts had failed, dissolving into internecine conflicts that were easily exploited whenever the English monarchy managed to get its act together. This time it would be different. The prince who ruled Wales’ mountainous northwest, an unconquered region known then and now as Gwynedd (pronounced gwinneth), became the unchallenged leader of unconquered Wales. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as “Llywelyn the Great,” used diplomacy and war to unify the Welsh nobles under him and take lands from the Marcher lords.
In 1218 King John’s successor, Henry III (then 11 years old), acknowledged Llywelyn as “Prince of Wales.” Skillful politics and carefully considered warfare kept the title and lands intact, to be inherited by his son Dafydd, then his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, “Llywelyn the Last.” It was Llywelyn the Last who lost all of Wales to the English king Edward I, and got himself killed in the process.
After Edward Longshanks had received Llywelyn’s head from his killers, he built four great castles in the heart of Llywelyn’s principality: Conwy, Harlech, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris. They were among the largest and most sophisticated castles ever built.
Northwest Wales is dramatically mountainous, and at Conwy these mountains extend to the sea’s edge. The north-flowing Conwy River marks the eastern border of the mountains, a wide tidal slash that has long been a barrier to trade and conquest; behind it, the princes of Gwynedd had long been safe. Mostly, the Conwy River is edged by muds and marshes, but at Conwy a hard mountain ridge-line runs straight to the river and disappears under its waters. This is the narrowest point at the river’s mouth, and the only practical crossing for miles. It was here, in 1283, that Edward’s men started work on the first of the four castles.
Up through the 1950s, this eastern approach to Conwy presented one of the finest views in Britain. The castle rises straight out of the water, a looming hulk framed by massive bare cliffs, with a charming walled town hugging its downstream side. Thomas Telford’s delicate 1826 suspension bridge links it with the eastern shore, a graceful span whose castellated towers complement the castle. The railroad crosses behind Telford’s bridge on an 1848 tubular structure whose castellated piers are larger and clunkier than Telford’s, but still attractive. The castle, the town and the two bridges made for a stunning set piece—but Telford’s 8-foot-wide bridge could not handle the traffic, and a new bridge opened beside it in 1958. It’s not an ugly bridge, but some of the grandeur is gone.
Read more: Six places to see on the west coast of Wales
Like all true castles, Conwy was both an aristocratic residence and a military base. It had to meet the daily needs of a fine lord and his lady, it had to house a bunch of rough soldiers and it had to withstand the most brutal and prolonged attacks. These needs converged to serve one overarching goal: to project power, both practically and psychologically. As a military base, the castle could completely control a 20-mile radius with just a small force of mounted knights, and it could defend itself so well that only the most powerful would dare challenge it.
As a noble residence, it demonstrated the overwhelming power, prestige and wealth of its owner. In this case, its owner was Edward I, the richest and most powerful lord of them all, and the era’s greatest warrior. Conwy wasn’t just meant to awe; it was meant to scare the living daylights out of anyone who dared challenge its power.
Bear in mind that Edward started Conwy Castle after he had killed Llywelyn and won all of Wales for himself. Although anti-insurgency operations would continue for another 13 years, Edward didn’t need a castle on this scale to fight insurgents. He needed it to scare them. To gain the site, Edward demolished a palace of Llywelyn’s and a monastery in which Llywelyn the Great was buried. Eight mammoth cylindrical towers bulge out from the walls, each one seven stories high and 30 feet in diameter, set so close together that the castle appears to be little more than a collection of towers. Outside, more walls enclosed—and enclose to this day—a sizable town, first populated wholly by English colonists intent on profiting from the newly conquered lands. All this construction was plastered and whitewashed, a gleaming intrusion from an enemy state.
And it was all ludicrously expensive. Built in just five years, Conwy Castle consumed an amount of money equal to the English government’s entire tax receipts for a year. It was not only physically and technologically beyond anything Gwynedd could have produced, it required more wealth than the principality could have hoped to produce in a century. No one could hope to succeed against anyone powerful enough to build such a castle; at Conwy, no one even tried. And Edward built three more castles nearby, just like it.
Amazingly, Edward started Harlech at the same time as Conwy, finishing it in 1289. Its purpose was straightforward; it anchored the southwest corner of Gwynedd, just as Conwy anchored its northeast. This squarish castle occupies the top of a tall, rocky outcrop that, at the time, rose as a near-cliff 200 feet out of the sea.
It’s even larger than Conwy, with a lower wall that encloses and protects the sea approach at the bottom of the cliff, then a stunning inner wall (a “curtain wall” in castle parlance, as it seems to hang like a curtain between the towers) rising 35 feet above its leveled platform on the knoll’s top.
Inside, it has a single large inner bailey, with one of the most massive gatehouses in Britain, providing housing for its lord and its garrison, as well as protection from attack. It worked; in 1294, 37 men held off a determined attack and long siege by Welsh insurrectionists. Today, its mountainous location makes it an impressive and romantic sight, even though two miles of sand deposits now separate this former headland from the sea.
Castles such as Harlech and Conwy were not only foreign intrusions in Wales, they were foreign to all Britain. Castles evolved on the Continent during the 9th century along the Rhone and Rhine rivers, from hill forts built using a design that placed wood palisade walls around a large enclosed area (“outer bailey”), then a wood tower on a high spot protected by its own inner palisade, which formed an inner bailey around the tower.
During the 10th century, French warriors discovered that they could throw up one of these compounds anywhere, in just a few weeks, by impressing the conquered locals as a slave labor force. From inside, they could send parties of mounted knights out to protect or oppress the countryside and be back in time for dinner.
Really successful castles would later be rebuilt in stone. By the 13th century, the palisades had become thick curtain walls hung between high towers, and the inner tower on a mound (“motte”) had evolved into the Great Tower (or donjon in French).
The Normans brought castles to both England and Wales as instruments of occupation and intimidation. By the late 12th century, the Gwynedd princes had started building castles to protect themselves from the Normans, and some of these survive.
The small castle at Dolbadarn, in the shadow of Wales’ largest mountain, Mount Snowdon, is just down the road from Caernarfon. Built by Llywelyn the Great, it features a round 50-foot great tower that commands a wide view of the surrounding peaks. A modest castle set in great natural beauty, it makes for an evocative visit, the more so after having seen one of Edward’s massive castles at Conwy, Harlech or nearby Caernarfon.
Biggest and greatest of them all, Caernarfon (pronounced kyre-NAR-vonn) sits on the coast halfway between Conwy and Harlech. It was meant from the first to be a palace as well as a castle, and Edward pulled out all the stops. Like Harlech and Conwy, Caernarfon sits on the sea with tidal access to medieval ships; unlike the others, it occupies flat land on a peninsula then nearly surrounded by water. The castle stretches the length of three football fields along the harbor, with an unbroken curtain wall 36 feet high.
Edward deliberately made the wall and its massive projecting towers to look like the walls of ancient Roman Constantinople (which he had seen on crusade), with different kinds of rocks forming long, colored stripes around the walls. This turned out to be an inspired piece of propaganda, as the Welsh had long since embraced the tall tales of Gregory of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, in which Caernarfon had featured as the site of a widespread Welsh empire during the Roman era. Edward declared Caernarfon to be the seat of his new Welsh government, just as the Welsh believed it had served as the seat of a Welsh empire in the days of King Arthur. As at Conwy, Edward extended the castle walls to enclose a sizable town of English colonists, from which Welshmen were banned for the next 200 years.
To punch up the propaganda value of Caernarfon, Edward and his family were in residence in 1284, only the second year of construction, so that his wife Eleanor could give birth there. The child became known as Edward of Caernarfon, and in 1301 Edward Longshanks bestowed the title of Prince of Wales upon his son. Edward of Caernarfon went on to rule England as Edward II, and the expected heir to the throne has been declared the Prince of Wales ever since.
Despite these royal aspirations for Caernarfon, it was never completed. In the Welsh revolt of 1294, which Harlech survived so handily, Caernarfon village was captured immediately; the rebels simply walked through the unfinished castle gate. They destroyed both castle and town pretty thoroughly, and it took mammoth expenditure to rebuild the battered town and castle and complete the defenses. When the money ran out again, several internal buildings and tower interiors were left permanently unfinished.
Modern Caernarfon Castle sits on the southern edge of a sprawling town, once rich on slate and now rather down at the heels. Its stonework remains almost completely intact, and at high tide its magnificent curtain walls reflect in the still waters of the harbor. Inside it forms nearly a figure eight with the same sort of plan as Conwy: a lower bailey for the garrison and service buildings, and an upper bailey for the royal family. The walls are especially thick, and you can walk nearly around the castle in two interior tunnels as well as along the parapet. Two of the towers hold exhibits—one on the Prince of Wales that includes the slate throne upon which Prince Charles sat so many decades ago, the other on the castle’s history. The old walled town is also worth a visit, with the lane along the inside of the east wall, Hole In The Wall Lane, being particularly scenic.
The fourth of Edward’s great castles was a bit of a historical footnote. Squat and square, this castle (whose name means “fair marsh”) occupies low land on the northeast coast of the island of Anglesey, just across the Menai Strait from Bangor. In Edward’s day this was the main ferry to Anglesey, and travelers used it to reach the Holyhead boat to Ireland, just as they do now. Edward started Beaumaris much later than the others, and despite 37 years of off-and-on work, it was never close to completion.
Beaumaris was an afterthought, the result of the Revolt of 1294 that saw Harlech resist and Caernarfon fall. The rebels quickly took over Anglesey and executed its chief official, the sheriff—a particular friend of Edward’s. Edward reacted with typical forcefulness and ferocity, launching a devastating campaign in the dead of winter that caught the rebels by surprise and routed them. At that point, Edward realized that he’d better have a castle on Anglesey.
Modern Beaumaris gets its squat appearance from the fact it was never completed. It is a square, symmetrical castle, surrounded by a flooded moat. Inside the moat is an octagonal outer curtain wall with 15 towers, intentionally built rather low to catch crossfire from the much higher inner walls. About 60 feet behind this is the main castle, with 35-foot curtain walls, six large towers and two huge gatehouses set opposite each other. These towers and gatehouses were meant to match Harlech in size and scale, but none was completed, and no tower ever came close to full height.
Brilliant and brutal, Edward Longshanks had one goal: to unify Britain under the English monarchy, as (he believed) Arthur had unified it eight centuries before. That he was the new Arthur, and fully capable of building a whole series of massively oppressive Camelots, he wanted no one in Wales to doubt. Today, his four greatest castles may have long lost their power to terrorize, but they retain their power to awe.
* Originally published in March 2008.