The country has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world – and a rich history to accompany them, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher
Wales is the castle capital of the world, and the tiny country’s huge number of fortresses have a rich and fascinating history. Ettie Neil-Gallacher advises on which Welsh castles are not to be missed.
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When you think of a castle, what comes to mind? A romantic château in the Loire? A whimsical schloss in Bavaria? Our very own Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world? Perhaps few of us would think to look over the Severn to Wales, but we certainly should. For the land of rugby and sheep and leeks and unpronounceable place names is the castle capital of the world, with more per square mile than anywhere else. Of the 600 castles that once stood, around 100 are still in existence, either as restored structures or ruins, and just under half of those are under the auspices of Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service.
This is a huge number for a tiny country. It is even more startling if we’re specific about our definition of a castle: a medieval, private fortification of a noble or lord. Paul Martin Remfry, in Castles of Breconshire, describes how they were a departure from what had preceded them and a very far cry from the palatial country houses that appeared after this time. “Castles were not built to any preconceived, rigid plan as Roman forts once were. Rather, they took advantage of any existing defensive features. Once the position had been chosen, elements [such as a motte, tower or surrounding ditch] were added to make the defensive attributes of the site greater.”
An obvious question is why Wales needed quite so many castles. The answer lies not only in the bloody fighting between the English and the Welsh but also in the equally fierce confrontations between the Welsh princes themselves. The landscape of their native land – with ridges, rivers, hills and marshes – readily lent itself to the construction of defences.
THREE CATEGORIES OF CASTLES
It’s tricky to make sense of such a vast number and, therefore, it’s tempting, if simplistic, to divide the medieval castles of Wales into three groups (simplistic because it omits the Norman motte-and-bailey structures that predate the first of these categories, as well as the more aesthetically attractive Tudor-style castles, such as Carew, which emerged towards the end of the period). The first group comprises the Norman castles, such as Caerphilly, Chepstow and Pembroke. Found mainly in the Welsh Marches – the border with England – these seats were established by William the Conqueror, who bestowed them on his cronies and tasked them with subduing the locals. The Marcher lords enjoyed independence from England, each presiding over what was, essentially, a private kingdom.
The second category is comprised of the native Welsh castles, which belonged to the country’s ruling families and princes. Good examples are Criccieth, Carreg Cennen, Castell-y-Bere and Dolwyddelan. The castles in this category are perhaps less celebrated than the Norman and Edwardian castles, but were built at least partially in response to the former, for the ruins we can see today are “fascinating survivors of a heritage marked by conflict – not only with the conquering outsiders but between princely brothers vying for control of their inheritance”, notes Lise Hull. The construction took defensive advantage of the inhospitable topography and can be found on top of ridges and rocky outcrops, surrounded by precipitous drops and ditches.
The third – and, perhaps, most magnificent – category is that of the Edwardian castles: grander and more impressive than the other two, though of no less strategic importance, Edward I built these across North Wales to quell the insubordination of its princes. Examples are Harlech and Beaumaris. Jeffrey L Thomas observes that, “Edward I’s fearsome Iron Ring of colossal fortresses represents Europe’s most ambitious and concentrated medieval building project, designed to prevent the recurrence of two massively expensive military campaigns” against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Two-thirds were designed by Master James of St George, perhaps the greatest military architect of the medieval period.
The need for castle construction decreased after the Middle Ages, and many of the existing castles were transformed into something more comfortable (Weobley, for example, a fortified manor house). Indeed, the English Civil War highlighted their unsuitability for evolving warfare: arrows might bounce off the walls but cannonballs and gunpowder were more devastating.
It was the sentimental Victorians who spotted the cultural and touristic potential of these ruins and set about restoring them and attracting visitors. Sir Llywelyn Turner, the constable of Caernarfon Castle, charged four pence entry at the end of the 19th century to cover repairs. Today, the castles remain enchanting echoes of a bloody past, with the plucky Welsh defying English subjugation. Sounds a bit like last year’s Six Nations.
With such an embarrassment of fortified riches, it might be hard to know where to start. Here’s our, somewhat subjective, list of the ones you shouldn’t miss.
The oldest castle in Wales and one of the oldest extant post-Roman stone structures in the UK. Started in 1067 as part of a chain of castles in the Marches, the immediacy with which William the Conqueror identified the location is indicative of its strategic importance. Building started under his friend, Norman Lord William FitzOsbern, and it was then in turn lived in by the Earls of Pembroke, Norfolk and Worcester. While Chepstow was at the frontline during the Civil War, thereafter it declined in importance and under the tenure of the Duke of Bedford it was left to fall into decay, though its picturesque setting and aspect saw it become a tourist destination as early as the end of the 19th century.
Constructed in the second half of the 13th century by powerful and bloody Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare, Caerphilly Castle is the largest of the castles, second only to Windsor Castle. Covering a 30-acre site, it comprised huge walls, gatehouses and towers. It is of interest for having being constructed according to a concentric plan, and for being home to South Wales’ answer to Pisa: its south-east tower tilts precariously. As pointed out by Cadw, it’s “three times the size of Wales’s modern-day stronghold and home of Welsh rugby, the Principality Stadium”. Over time, it passed from being a powerful fortress to the palatial home of Hugh Despenser, Edward II’s great and merciless friend, complete with a lake and a hunting park, before being restored in the 1930s by the 4th Marquess of Bute.
RING OF IRON
Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris Castles: it is perhaps a travesty – certainly a disservice – to lump these four magnificent castles together. They have, however, jointly been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, being “the finest examples” of the military architecture in Europe from that era, and praised for their “stylistic coherence”. UNESCO has recognised Harlech and Beaumaris as representing “a unique achievement in that they combine the double-wall concentric structure, which is characteristic of late-13th-century military architecture, with a highly concerted central plan” alongside “the beauty of their proportions and masonry”.
Having defeated the Welsh princes in 1282, these castles were built in the second phase of Edward I’s campaign and form part of what is known as his ‘Ring of Iron’: almighty fortifications across northern Wales designed by Master James of St George, the gifted Savoyard architect who pioneered medieval military architecture, to control the locals. (Harlech, for example, withstood a seven-year siege – the longest on British turf – in the 15th century). St George was responsible for 12 of the 17 castles in Wales that Edward I either built, rebuilt or strengthened. The sites were chosen for both their strategic importance as well as their symbolic significance; each was designed to function on an administrative level, too. “Each of the castles was integrated with a bastide town, an idea borrowed from Gascony in south-west France, where Edward I was duke – the town and castle mutually reliant on each other for protection and trade. The bastides were always populated with English settlers, the Welsh permitted to enter the town during the day but not to trade and certainly not carrying arms”, explains Jeffrey Thomas of Castles of Wales (castlewales.com).
The largest privately owned castle in Wales, Pembroke Castle, once the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, was abandoned and allowed to fall into decay after the Civil War. It was restored in 1880 and then later bought by Major General Sir Ivor Philipps in 1928. The castle is now managed jointly by a board of trustees comprised of his descendants and representatives from the council, and receives in excess of 100,000 visitors a year. The manager, Jon Williams, explains that “when we tell the story of Pembroke, we’re telling the story of so many aspects of Welsh and English history: the Norman invasion; the first earl, William Marshall [who served five medieval kings and was a legendary knight, military leader and, as Protector of the Kingdom, monarch in all but name, who was responsible for the castle’s unique stone-domed rounded keep); the Plantagenets; the birth of Henry VII; the Civil War. It’s a touchstone for Welsh history.”
Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire is the last of the medieval castles, after which fortresses were replaced with palaces – indeed, the modern castle dates from the 15th century to the early 17th century, when it was the seat of the Herberts and then the Somersets. Now under the auspices of Cadw, which praise its location, “crowning a ridge amid glorious countryside… the grandest castle ever built by Welshmen”. The famous, moated Great Tower came about thanks to Sir William ap Thomas while his son, Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, created the gatehouse with its flared machicolations. Jeffrey Thomas says that stately Raglan is “a handsome, unique structure in every detail” and advises, “If you ever travel to South Wales, make seeing Raglan Castle your number one priority.”
CARREG CENNEN CASTLE AND FARM
In the 1960s, Lord Cawdor’s legal team made a mistake in the wording of the deeds and included the castle in the sale of the farm. Both remain in private ownership, although the castle is managed by Cadw. Carreg Cennen boasts one of the most striking locations of any castle in Wales. Perched on a limestone crag in the Brecon Beacons, it is, according to readers of Countryfile magazine, the most romantic ruin in the UK. It is believed that the site was used by Roman and even prehistoric peoples, but the castle was built at the tail end of the 13th century by baron John Gifford, who was loyal to Edward I. It was demolished by Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses.
Predating Edward I, visitors to Snowdonia often overlook Dolbadarn, which Thomas describes as “one of North Wales’ finest treasures… every bit as significant as the more massive Edwardian castles now listed as World Heritage Sites”. Strategically sited to block any military threat to that part of the country, but now “a shell of its former self”, it has a fine Round Tower. “Visitors are awed by its simplicity and endurance, and consider Dolbadarn one of the finest of Wales’ native castles.”