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The Castles of Wales


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Wales has not inappropriately been called the "land of Castles." There exist to-day extensive remains of some one hundred castles, whilst the sites of another hundred are known. Around such vast and imposing structures as those which encompass Snowdonia, in their exquisite decay there clings the halo of a departed glory. Time

" Has mouldered into beauty many a tower,"

but they remain also as the monumental record of that grim struggle in which a warrior race sought to impose its yoke upon the Welsh people. To the student of medieval military architecture in all its phases Wales furnishes a profusion of material unequalled in Britain.

The castles of Wales-save for the few built by the native princes in imitation of their English neighbours-fall into two main groups representing the two great stages in the conquest of the country. To the first group belong the baronial castles, built by the Norman lords in their penetration of Wales; to the second the ring of fortresses by which Edward I secured his hold on Wales after the defeat and death of the last native prince, Llewelyn ap Griffith. The Norman group are of great interest historically; they mark with precision the successive steps in the advance of invasion. Radiating from the three great Norman strongholds, Chester against the northern March of Wales, Shrewsbury against the Middle March, and Gloucester against the Western March, the line of castles follows the valleys to the sea coast. To the Chester group belong Hawarden, Ewloe, Mold, Flint, Basingwerk, Ruthin, Rhuddlan and Deganwy. The middle group includes the border castles of Ludlow, Cleobury and Wigmore, with such castles as Chin, Knighton, Montgomery, Oswestry and Knucklas. The Western or Southern March, unprotected by the mighty ramparts of mountains, was an easier prey to the invader. From the line Gloucester-Hereford to the sea the land is thickly studded with his forts, from Abergavenny, Usk and Chepstow- through the lordship of Glamorgan, with its fifty castles, to the magnificence of Pembroke, with its reminiscences of Strongbow, dominating the coast.

The second group, which may be conveniently designated as the Edwardian castles, are part of the elaborate scheme by which Edward I secured a permanent hold on the last stronghold of the Welsh resistance-Gwynedd or the Principality. Aberyst-wyth, Bere, Harlech, Criccieth, Carnarvon, Conway, Rhuddlan, Denbigh and Flint form the girdle of fortresses designed to hold the mountain fastness and to overawe the native resistance. Nothing is more characteristic of Edward than the greatness of his design and the energy with which he pursued it. The work was begun in 1282 and pushed on vigorously, but such was its magnitude that it was not until forty years later that the last stone was laid at Carnarvon.

A Welsh rising in 1295 seriously damaged the new castles, Carnarvon being utterly demolished. Not only were the ravages repaired; not only was Carnarvon rebuilt on a larger scale, but the new and splendid castle of Beaumaris arose on the Anglesey shores of the Menai Straits. Under the shadow of the royal castles were planted walled boroughs, manned by Englishmen, forming with the castle one unit of defence. In the first days of their existence the boroughs were purely garrisons to secure the military conquest; to emphasise their military character the constable of the castle was ex officio the mayor of the borough. Later they became centres of a subtler process of Anglicisation by economic forces.

Architecturally, the castles of Wales fall into three distinct types; first, the Norman castle with its shell or rectangular keep. Secondly, the "Juliet" or cylindrical tower-a transitional form of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Thirdly, the concentric or Edwardian castle of the late thirteenth century.

The shell keeps were almost invariably erected on a natural or artificial mound and represent the development from the original motte-and-bailey, where the crown of the mound was defended by a wooden palisade. In the shell keep a stone wall of some five to eight feet thick replaces the wooden palisade. No great thickness of wall was necessary, which explains why so few of this type remain.

The rectangular keep, perhaps the most characteristic form of Norman military architecture, has been justly described as "of all military structures the simplest in form, the grandest in outline, the most durable in design and workmanship." The type is rare in Wales, and such examples as are found cannot compare with the English ones. The castle at Dolwyddelan, in the wild and mountainous district of Llanrwst, built probably by one of the Welsh princes on a Norman model at the close of the twelfth century, even in its present ruinous condition preserves the features of its type-a square keep with a stout wall enclosing the ward. In South Wales, earlier occupied by the Normans, there are three examples: Ogmore, the castle of the lords of Kid-welly; Penllyn, in the hundred of Cowbridge, where the square Norman keep is posted on a lofty hill commanding the surrounding country, and the Fitz-Hamon castle of Fonmon, Glamorganshire.

The Norman castle had several disadvantages. Excellent for defence by reason of its passive strength, it afforded little scope for offence, and while the thickness of its walls gave adequate protection to the garrison, it was laborious and expensive to build. The rectangular form presented awkward salient angles to the sap and mine of the attacker and, moreover, these angles lay in a "dead" field, where they could not easily be commanded by the fire of the defenders. The next development, the castle with the "Juliet" or circular keep, remedied these defects. The rounded tower gave greater cohesion to the masonry, presented no "dead" angles to the sap or mine, and commanded a wider field for the fire of the defenders, allowing them to enfilade the walls of the castle. The best example of this type is Coucy, "the first military tower in Europe." In North Wales, Dolbadarn, erected on a low, natural mound between the two lakes at the termination of the Llanberis Pass, is a simple round tower. It was erected by a native prince in the thirteenth century. The Juliet keep of Tretower (Brecknock), some seventy feet in height, is a curious example of a cylindrical tower placed not on a curtain wall, but in the middle of the remains of a Norman keep. The cylindrical donjon (the medieval term for the keep) of Pembroke is the finest specimen in Wales. The castle was built during the years 1189 to 1220, probably by the great Earl of Pembroke, William Marshall, and is the last and greatest of the castles which secured South Wales. The site was one of strategic importance, commanding as it did Milford Haven and the passage to Ireland. The castle stands on a rocky ridge protected for the most part by the river, whilst the side nearer the town is defended by a dry ditch. As late as the Civil War, when gunpowder had rendered the medieval castle obsolete, Pembroke was the scene of important operations. The great Protector himself directed a siege against it, and it only capitulated when the water supply failed.

The third type, the concentric or Edwardian castle, represents the highest achievement of military architecture in the Middle Ages. The preceding types were comparatively simple fabrics designed for defensive purposes only and relying on the passive strength of the masonry. The Edwardian castle was a much more elaborate affair. Its defences were so designed that it was practically impregnable even when manned by a small garrison, while within the great area of such a castle as Carnarvon or Conway a considerable force could be concentrated for offensive operations. The idea of concentric fortifications came from the East, where the Crusaders had experienced the deadly effectiveness of the triple ring of walls which enclosed Constantinople.

The Edwardian castles of Wales, whilst differing in plan and arrangement, have their essential features in common. The main gate-house-always a powerful and imposing structure, recalling the earlier keep-is rectangular in form and guarded in front by two massive flanking towers and, in the larger castles, by two smaller towers in the rear. The walls of the towers are so looped as to protect the approaches from every direction. The entrance itself was covered by the portcullis, and in the roof of the portal arch there were often (as at Carnarvon and Denbigh) large holes or slits called "meurtrieres," the "murder holes," through which the defenders could shoot down the enemy who had forced the gate of stop his rush by lowering beams. The great hall was of the usual medieval plan, a lofty room with timbered roof, at one end a raised dais for the high table, at the other a screen with entries to the buttery and pantry. The hall at Conway is a splendid example.

The plan of the defences of these castles, whilst varying much according to the limitations imposed by the site, are controlled by one central idea- a series of obstacles which have to be overcome before the fortress is taken. If possible, these obstacles are concentric; two series, one within the other, form the two-ward concentric castle; three series, the three-ward castle. Beaumaris Castle is one of the most perfect specimens of concentric defences. It consists of a large inner area, the inner ward, encircled by a curtain wall protected by mural towers, one at each angle and one at the intermediate curtain. The towers are so placed that every part of the curtain is commanded by two of them, so that an enfilading fire can be directed on the enemy attempting to breach the curtain. The natural advantages of the site have been utilised to the full. The castle at Rhuddlan, begun by Edward I in 1277, is another example of this class. Built on the right bank of the river Clwyd, the Edwardian castle furnishes an interesting contrast with the early Norman mound above the river and the later Norman castle some miles away on the high ground. The inner fortress, unusually lofty, is rectangular and is surrounded by an outer curtain of the same form, so that the castle in this particular case is a square placed within a square.

Harlech, the most famous and romantic of the Welsh castles, stands on a magnificent site, a lofty and precipitous rock the foot of which was once washed by the sea, which has long receded. The main fortress, with its gatehouse flanked by massive towers, piled some two hundred feet above the sea, gives the castle its strangely impressive and grim appearance. The side facing the town, which needed greater defence, is protected by the curtain of the outer ward and a deep and wide ditch cut out of the solid rock. This impregnable fortress, which proudly commands a vast stretch of Cardigan Bay, was the most costly of Edward I's undertakings. Its stirring history vindicated the king's care and selection of the site. It resisted the fierce attack of the Welsh under Madoc; it withstood a siege by Owen Glyndwr, but finally surrendered to him, to become his headquarters. Here Margaret of Anjou fled after the disaster of Towton, bringing with her her young son, the ill-fated Prince Edward. Harlech was the last hope of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses. For eight years, from 1461 to 1468, the castle was held for the Red Rose against the victorious Yorkist King, Edward IV.

There remain those Edwardian castles, generally grouped with the concentric, but which might more accurately, perhaps, be described as the enclosure castles. Their defences form a single circuit only: traverses or cross-walls within this -circuit may divide the castle into wards, in this case the lower and the upper ward, but, strictly speaking, the defences are not concentric. Again the theory of concentric defences is adapted to the necessities of the site. The two great castles of Carnarvon and Conway are admirable examples of this class. Both castles were built in connexion with a walled town, and both occupy the apex of the defences; both are on sites where a river runs into the sea, so that two sides of the fortifications are protected by water. Hence the concentric system is modified, but the idea is preserved, for a series of obstacles - the town walls, the gatehouse, the lower ward and the upper - have to be overcome. The defences are, in fact, successive rather than concentric.

Conway Castle, though architecturally inferior to Carnarvon, has a picturesque charm and interest of its own. Conway has been justly described as the most perfect and beautiful example in Britain of a medieval walled town and castle. The position is one of great strength; castle and town occupy a triangle of rock, and the castle, placed on the apex, commands the whole site. The walls of the ancient borough are lofty and thick and are studded with drum towers. The castle is protected on two sides by the river and the creek, whilst the side facing the borough contains the massive and elaborate gatehouse. In plan it is a parallelogram of one hundred and ten yards in length and thirty-eight yards in breadth. Its wall has eight towers, one at each angle and two on each of the intermediate curtains. Each tower has a basement, a first and second floor and battlements from which issues a smaller tower. In the so-called Queen's Tower there is a beautiful oratory (the main chapel being placed at the east end of the hall) lighted by three slender lancet windows in the apse, with its walls arcaded by trefoil-headed arches. Its proportions and exquisite details make this little chapel an architectural gem.

In this castle Edward I was besieged by the Welsh in the Madoc rising of 1295. Surprised by a descent of the enemy from the rugged steeps of Carnedd Llewelyn, the royal army lost its commissariat and the king was forced to retire on Conway. Supplies ran short, and the garrison was in some straits, so that the king himself, as the chroniclers record, had to drink water mixed with honey instead of wine.

The stately castle which is the glory of Carnarvon is placed on a site of unique significance in Welsh history. Near the Roman fort of Segontium, Carnarvon "of the ancient memories of heroes, the crown of every conqueror," was the "eisteddfa arbennig" or principal seat of the dominion of Gwynedd (North Wales). Here was a royal residence; here Cadwallo, the son of Cadwan, held his court and here, too, Llewelyn the Great maintained a palace. With the subjugation of North Wales by Edward I, Carnarvon became the capital, with the Chancery and Exchequer for North Wales (the "Principality" in the technical sense) within the castle. The present castle was begun by Edward I immediately after the rising of 1295, in which the earlier works had been destroyed. From 1295 to 1307 the building was actively pushed on. Thirty masons a week were employed, with twenty-six layers, one lime burner, four carpenters, five smiths, fifteen boatmen, thirty-five quarrymen and carters, and fifty-six unskilled labourers. In 1320 the work was obviously near to completion, for in that year the statue of the king was placed over the main gatehouse, surmounted by twelve spikes of iron to prevent the birds from sitting on the royal image. For the next year there is a record of the payment of id. a week to a man for blowing the horn which summoned the labourers to work. In the following year, 1322, the castle was completed.

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Pictures for The Castles of Wales

GLORIOUS SHELL OF CARNARVON, CHIEF STRONGHOLD OF THE ENGLISH INVASION UNDER EDWARD I
GLORIOUS SHELL OF CARNARVON, CHIEF STRONGHOLD OF THE ENGLISH INVASION UNDER EDWARD I >>>>
CONWAY, THE MOST PERFECT EXAMPLE IN ALL BRITAIN OF A MEDIEVAL WALLED TOWN AND CASTLE
CONWAY, THE MOST PERFECT EXAMPLE IN ALL BRITAIN OF A MEDIEVAL WALLED TOWN AND CASTLE >>>>
MODERN STEELWORK BRIDGES THE RIVER TO CONWAY'S FROWNING TOWERS
MODERN STEELWORK BRIDGES THE RIVER TO CONWAY'S FROWNING TOWERS >>>>
RUTHIN CASTLE GROUNDS AND THE DRUM TOWER OF RHUDDLAN
RUTHIN CASTLE GROUNDS AND THE DRUM TOWER OF RHUDDLAN >>>>
FOUR FINE OLD FLIGHTS OF STEPS LEAD UP TO THE DOOR OF POWIS
FOUR FINE OLD FLIGHTS OF STEPS LEAD UP TO THE DOOR OF POWIS >>>>
HAWARDEN'S BROKEN KEEP BUILT IN THE DAYS OF HENRY III
HAWARDEN'S BROKEN KEEP BUILT IN THE DAYS OF HENRY III >>>>
KIDWELLYSWELL PRESERVEDWALLS ANDTHERUINOFMONTGOMERY
KIDWELLYSWELL PRESERVEDWALLS ANDTHERUINOFMONTGOMERY >>>>
PEMBROKE, THE GREAT GREY FORTRESS WHICH SECURED SOUTH WALES FOR THE ENGLISH
PEMBROKE, THE GREAT GREY FORTRESS WHICH SECURED SOUTH WALES FOR THE ENGLISH >>>>
EWLOE AND FLINT, LINKS IN THE CHAIN OF CASTLES FROM CHESTER TO DEGANWY
EWLOE AND FLINT, LINKS IN THE CHAIN OF CASTLES FROM CHESTER TO DEGANWY >>>>
MANORBIER AND CAREW, STRONGHOLDS OF PEMBROKESHIRE
MANORBIER AND CAREW, STRONGHOLDS OF PEMBROKESHIRE >>>>
SPLENDID WROUGHT-IRON GATEWAY LEADING TO CHIRK CASTLE
SPLENDID WROUGHT-IRON GATEWAY LEADING TO CHIRK CASTLE >>>>
HARLECH, MOST FAMED AND MOST ROMANTIC OF WELSH CASTLES
HARLECH, MOST FAMED AND MOST ROMANTIC OF WELSH CASTLES >>>>

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