“Now that’s what you call a Castle“Us, on the approach to the town and the castle – 14th March 2020
Conwy castle is one of the great castles of Wales and one of the most impressive within the United Kingdom. (Wales, and in particular North Wales, is for my money the ‘Castle Capital’ of the world)
The place oozes history.
It is the very essence of picturesque and still, seven centuries after its construction, commands attention from anyone entering the area – a brooding, omnipresent reminder of the historic animosity between the English and the Welsh and the lengths monarchs would go to to stamp their authority over their populace and their enemies.
The castle is part of Edward I’s ‘Iron ring’ of fortresses across North Wales, designed as a display of power over the local population and a symbol of his power in his newly conquered Welsh territory.
When Edward I came to the throne in 1272, Wales was ruled by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last). He had had successfully exploited the weak and ineffective rule of Henry III to obtain complete control of the principality culminating in English recognition of his title of Prince of Wales at the Treaty of Montgomery (1267).
Whilst Edward I was initially content to sustain the status-quo, relations between the two factions quickly deteriorated. The First War of Welsh Independence (1276-7) followed which saw LLywelyn stripped of all his lands to the east of Rhuddlan. Circumstances forced the Prince into a further conflict – the Second War of Welsh Independence (1282-3) – which resulted in his death and all of Wales coming under direct English rule. To sustain the subsequent occupation a chain of fortresses was constructed which included Conwy Castle.
The best and simplest description is found in the guidebook published by CADW, the Welsh Historic Trust, which states: “Conwy is by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe.”
Masterminded by James of St. George, the King’s chief architect and mason from Savoy, the castle was begun in 1283 and built in less than 4 years which is an astonishing feat of ingenuity and craftsmanship even by today’s standards. Craftsmen including Masons, woodcutters, diggers and carpenters from all over England were deployed to work on site and it is said it took 1,500 men working around the clock to construct the castle in time.
The castle forms part of a fortress which includes the original medieval town walls which enclose the town built at the same time and from the same material as the castle itself.
The castle and the town walls are a World Heritage site.
The estimated total cost of the castle and the town walls in today’s money is £45 million.
The castle dominates the entrance to Conwy, immediately conveying its sense of strength and compactness to the observer. The eight great towers and connecting walls are all intact, forming a rectangle as opposed to the concentric layouts of Edward’s other castles in Wales.
Edward filled the town with his English subjects and largely ousted the natives from their own settlement.
The dramatic, austere ruins are so impressive from whichever angle you are facing it is genuinely breathtaking. The views from each one of the high turret towers which loom over the castle and the bay are phenomenal and you can still see the same view as those watchmen would have seen over the town and the estuary over 700 years ago.
The castle itself makes clever use of it’s natural position, being constructed on the rocky outcrop which stands as a natural defensive position to the gateway to the estuary.
The walls would originally have been whitewashed, standing out starkly against the backdrop of the Snowdonia mountainscape.
It is a surreal place. As you can walk around the walkways taking in the various levels of the remains the castle evokes an authentic medieval atmosphere at every turn.
The distinctive, darkened hue of the walls, blackened through the centuries give the castle a truly haunted look where the imagination runs wild like in no other place I have ever visited.
It is fascinating to think of the Kings who have walked these very cobbles and glided through these passageways, the servants who attended to them hurriedly pacing through the corridors, privy to all the great secrets of state; the great, the good and the not so good who have banqueted under these huge fireplaces, roaring with laughter and ale at stories of the day; the prisoners who have stared into the depths of their souls within these bleak walls; those who have perished through sword and through hunger and those, like me, who have wandered and wondered in marvel, head atilt pondering the intricate histories of such an overwhelmingly extraordinary place.
Edward I stayed at the castle only once – he was forced to stay over the Christmas of 1294 while attempting to crush the defences of Madop ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of the Gwynedd princes. The army’s baggage train had been captured by the Welsh and great flooding had ensconced the king and his court at the castle.
The chronicler, Walter of Guisborough describes a compellingly miserable, if slightly implausible, scene, with only a single Barrel of wine left for the whole garrison. ‘They were saving this for the king, but he refused it, saying “in hardship, everything must be held in common, all of us must have exactly the same. As God on high watches over us all, I am the start and cause of all this, and I should do no better than you.“
On 2nd February 1295 the newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey came through stormy weather to seek the King’s confirmation.
Edward’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, for whom Master James built a relatively modest first-floor chamber, died in 1290 after years abroad. She can only have seen Conwy as a building site.
In April and May 1301, the future Edward II stayed here, rather than at his birthplace, the still unfinished castle at Caernarfon, to receive homage as the Prince of Wales.
The castle’s heyday did not last long. By the time of a survey in 1321 the fortress was already defective in many regards. Under the Black Prince (Edward Woodstock, the eldest son of King Edward III) efforts were made to bring the castle back to it’s former glory.
On several occasions during August 1399, necessity led Richard II and his courtiers to seek refuge from the forces of Henry Bolingbroke, the exiled duke of Lancaster (and future King Henry IV).
The chronicler, Jean Creton, an eyewitness to events in the royal party, later described several scenes of the increasingly harried Richard in the castle, most vividly an embassy to the king from the aged earl of Northumberland, Bolingbroke’s loyal supporter.
Almost certainly within the Chapel in the inner ward, Northumberland took an oath in the king’s presence, swearing on the consecrated Host that he and Bolingbroke meant no harm to the king. Creton concluded ‘alas, his blood must have run cold at it, for he knew well to the contrary,’ and two days later having tricked him into leaving the castle, Northumberland handed the king to his enemies in who’s captivity he was later to die at Pontefract Castle.
In September 1400 the seeds of rebellion were sown when Owain Glyndŵr was proclaimed prince of Wales. The English king acted swiftly and seemed to have nipped the revolt in the bud but sporadic uprisings continued which led to further unrest.
On Good Friday (April 1st) when the castle garrison was at prayer, two of the unpardoned rebels and cousins of Glyndŵr, Gwilym and Rhys ap Tudur (Tudor) took the castle through the guile of a carpenter sent for extra repairs who killed the two watchmen.
Together with their adherents hey managed to hold the castle for three months before eventually negotiating its surrender and their own pardons.
During the reign of the second Tudor king, Henry VIII the castle and town walls were substantially repaired, the castle now being used as a prison for debtors and petty felons and an armament story.
Payments for the redecoration of the royal apartments were made which suggests some kind of use was planned but with the castle lying so far from the base of power and with monarchs of Welsh decent on the throne the need for fortresses in north Wales became less apparent.
Following a period of decline the castle was hastily reactivated in 1642 with the outbreak of the Civil War. The castle was occupied by John Williams, Archbishop of York who brought it back into service and garrisoned it for the King.
With Wales being predominantly Royalist, the castle saw no action until August 1646 when Conwy town was successfully seized by General Thomas Mytton on behalf of Parliament. The castle was besieged and ultimately surrendered in November 1646.
There are now three bridges crossing the River Conwy estuary on the approach to the castle. The original suspension bridge built in 1822 by Thomas Telford is a Grade I-listed structure and is one of the first road suspension bridges in the world. It is flanked by the Conwy railway bridge and the modern road traffic bridge into the town.
Famous artists, painters and poets have been captured by the romantic allure of these ruins down the latter centuries with the castle being a focal point for famous works of art, immortalising the castle.
Indeed, J.M.W. Turner regarded it as a piece of sculpture and depicted the castle several times such was its magnificence and mystic.