Ten Interesting Facts About Castles in Wales

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey was one of the castles built by Edward I after his conquest of Wales in the late thirteenth century.

Construction work began in early 1295 with many hundreds of men employed on the project and huge quantities of stone, timber and other supplies sent to the site. Over the course of the next five years the massive sum of almost £11,500 (a very large amount of money in the Middle Ages) was spent on building the castle, before a shortage of funds forced work to stop in 1300. Further work was carried out from 1306 to 1326, with a further £3,000 spent on the castle.

However, despite this vast expenditure Beaumaris was never finished (wars with France and Scotland meant that it become unaffordable to finish the castle) and has remained semi-built for all of its existence.[1]

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon was also constructed by Edward I to secure his control over north Wales. The castle has a strikingly unusual and distinctive design with polygonal banded towers that are still very impressive.

Caernarfon is located nearby the ruins of the Roman fortress of Segontium, which in the Middle Ages was associated with the legend of the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus. According to the tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the emperor dreamed about a beautiful woman and when he awoke sent men all over the world to find her. Eventually she was located at the fortress of a chieftain at Segontium and became the emperor’s wife.

Edward deliberately invoked the grandeur of Roman architecture and the legend of Magnus Maximus when he built Caernarfon.[2]

Caerphilly Castle

The powerful Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare built Caerphilly in the late thirteenth century as a defence against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales.

One of the most striking things about Caerphilly is the elaborate water defences that surround the site. Two large artificial lakes were created to turn the castle into an island with the outer, middle and inner wards defended by a series of drawbridges and gatehouses. This made Caerphilly an extremely difficult fortress to capture, as besiegers found to their cost in 1316 and 1326-7.

By the sixteenth century the castle was a ruin and the lakes gradually dried up. However, the lakes were refilled in the mid-twentieth century by the Ministry of Works, thereby returning the castle to its former glory.[3]

Carew Castle

The wealthy landowner Rhys ap Thomas acquired Carew Castle (dating back to the twelfth century) in c. 1480 and set about transforming it into a lavish residence.

In 1507 he organised a great tournament to be held at the castle which was described by a contemporary writer as ‘The most magnificent entertainment in the history of Wales’. Amongst the guests at the tournament were members of the royal family, including Henry VII, his son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon, Arthur’s wife.

It was most likely in preparation for the royal visit to the castle that Rhys added their coats of arms to the porch of the Great Hall, where they can still be seen to this day.[4]

Carreg Cennen

Carreg Cennen is of native Welsh origins but was rebuilt by the English lord John Giffard in the late thirteenth century.

In the mid-fifteenth century it was held for the Lancastrians by the prominent landowner Gruffudd ap Nicholas who improved the defences of the castle. It was most likely during this period that one of the arrow loops was converted into a gun-port. This would have been intended for the use of early handguns, which fired lead bullets.

However, the works carried out at Carreg Cennen failed to prevent the castle from falling to the Yorkists in 1462, who set out about destroying it with crowbars and pickaxes, leaving it in ruins.[5]

Conwy Castle

Conwy is another one of the great castles built by Edward I in the late thirteenth century, situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the estuary. Despite the strong defences of the fortress, the government of Henry IV suffered a major embarrassment when the brothers Gwilym ap Tudur and Rhys ap Tudur seized the castle on 1 April 1401 with a small force of men whilst the garrison was attending a church service in the town.

This forced the Prince of Wales (who later became Henry V) to besiege the castle with a small army, who cut off the defenders from receiving any provisions. Dwindling food supplies prompted the brothers to carry out a ruthless act to save their own lives. In return for handing over nine of their followers, who were bound in their sleep after serving on the night watch, they were permitted to leave the castle.

Their unfortunate companions were far less fortunate, suffering a gruesome death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Nevertheless, the success of the Tudor brothers in seizing a major castle helped to spark the fire of rebellion in Wales led by Owain Glyn Dŵr, which took the English years to subdue.[6]

Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Castle was built by the ruler of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Gruffudd, in the late twelfth century, later passing into the possession of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a prominent supporter of Henry VII.

By the seventeenth century Dinefwr has fallen into decay and had become a picturesque ruin, where the Rice (anglicised from Rhys) family could entertain their guests. The top of the keep was removed and was replaced with a summerhouse (which later burnt down). This seventeenth century modification has given Dinefwr its distinctive appearance.[7]

Kidwelly Castle

Kidwelly Castle was founded in the early twelfth century by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who had been tasked with securing control of the region by Henry I.

In 1136, a major Welsh revolt broke out in south Wales, with a Norman army defeated at the Battle of Llwchwr. This debacle prompted the Norman to prepare for a major counter-attack to avenge this defeat. Gruffudd ap Rhys, lord of Deheubarth, was absent, so his wife Gwenllian led his forces against the invaders with her two eldest sons, Morgan and Maelgwyn. The ecclesiastic writer Gerald of Wales testified to her courage by referring to her as being ‘like second Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons’.

The clash between the two armies took place only a short distance from the walls of Kidwelly Castle. Gwenllian and Morgan were killed during the fighting and Maelgwyn was captured, with the Welsh routed. The site of the battle is still called Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s field).[8]

Manorbier Castle

Manorbier Castle dates from the early twelfth century and is famous for having been the birthplace of Gerald of Wales in 1147. The castle belonged to his father, Sir William de Barry, a vassal of the earls of Pembroke, who had married Angharad, a daughter of Gerald of Windsor, the constable of Pembroke Castle.

Gerald’s older brothers were raised as knights but as a younger son he was intended to have a career in the church. After completing his education in Paris, he was appointed as archdeacon of Brecon and later accompanied Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury on his tour of Wales in 1188 to recruit soldiers for the Third Crusade. His journeys around Wales (and also Ireland which he visited in 1183) encouraged him to write about his experiences.

Gerald also wrote about Manorbier which he described as being ‘excellently well defended by turrets and bulwarks, having on its northern and southern sides a fine fish pond under its wall, and a beautiful orchard on the same side, enclosed on one part by a vineyard and on the other by a wood’.[9]

Pembroke Castle

Pembroke Castle is also the birthplace of another famous historical figure, Henry VII.

In 1453, Henry VI granted the earldom (and castle) of Pembroke to his half-brother Jasper Tudor. Three years later Jasper’s brother, Edmund, Earl of Richmond, died of the plague at Carmarthen Castle, leaving behind a pregnant wife, Margaret Beaufort. She later gave birth to her son, Henry, at Pembroke Castle (supposedly in the tower now called the Henry VII Tower).

Jasper was later forced to flee abroad in 1461 due to the victories of the Yorkist king Edward IV, leaving the young Henry behind to be raised by William Herbert, the newly appointed earl of Pembroke. Herbert was killed at the Battle of Edgcote in 1469 and Henry himself eventually fled to Brittany and then France after the short-lived restoration of Henry VI in 1470-1. Jasper later regained control of Pembroke Castle after the victory of his nephew at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.[10]

Images

All photographs taken by Dan Spencer

References

[1] H. M. Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 1 (London: H. M. S. O, 1963), pp. 395-407.

[2] Abigail Wheatley, ‘Caernarfon Castle and its Mythology’ in The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales, ed. by Diane M. Williams and John R. Kenyon (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010), pp. 129–39.

[3] Rick Turner, Caerphilly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016), pp. 13-31.

[4] R. A. Griffiths, ‘Rhys, Sir, ap Thomas’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan 2008 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-23467?rskey=9wnMTY&result=1> [accessed 15 September 2018],

[5] H. M. Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 2 (London: H. M. S. O, 1963), p. 602.

[6] R. R. Davies, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 103-4.

[7] Sian E. Rees and Chris Caple, Dinefwr Castle, Dryslwyn Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007), pp. 21-2.

[8] John R. Kenyon, Kidwelly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007), p. 7.

[9] Robert Bartlett, ‘Gerald of Wales [Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald de Barry]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan 2008 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-10769?rskey=nwzagI&result=1> [accessed 15 September 2018].

[10] R. S. Thomas, ‘Tudor, Jasper [Jasper of Hatfield], Duke of Bedford’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan 2008 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-27796?rskey=IgB0DZ&result=1> [accessed 15 September 2018].

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