Conwy Castle

The original entrance would’ve stood just in front of here, up a steep stair way through the original gated entrance to the right – this would have been defended by a drawbridge and portcullis

Now that’s what you call a Castle

Us, on the approach to the town and the castle – 14th March 2020
The approach to the castle

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)

Passageway in the Gatehouse where the portcullis would have been.
‘Murder Holes’ were located above where defenders of the castle could rain down fire and all manner of objects on any attackers

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.

Phenomenal view of the castle from the top of the turret of the Chapel tower overlooking the inner ward where the royal visitors would have stayed and been protected

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.

Cellar underneath the Great Hall. Whilst the roofs have gone the spirit of this place and these rooms certainly remain. What incredible scenes the rooms above must have witnessed – from King’s banquets, to dances, to rowdy celebrations and all other manner of entertainments.

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).

A birds eye view of Conwy and excellent descriptions of the various parts of the castle

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.

Weathered locked entrance

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.”

View of the town – you can see the remaining Town walls which were built at the same time as the castle to keep the native Welsh out of King Edward I’s new town

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.

Overlooking the Great Hall

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.

From the East Barbican overlooking the estuary toward the two peaks where Degannwy castle once stood (the castle was demolished in 1263 on the orders of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd)
The remains of a water gate to the left where important visitors could land and be met by the King or his entourage without having to come all the way through the castle

The estimated total cost of the castle and the town walls in today’s money is £45 million.

“Conwy is the military and secular equivalent of the great cathedrals – a triumph of the gothic mind.” Looking up from inside one of its hollowed-out towers, you are stunned to see the sky above framed by a perfect circle of stone, with the crowning top turret a second, equally accurate, circle set on its parent like a cog wheel.

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.

Main fireplace in the Great Hall – blackened with centuries of age and of use, this would have roared throughout the cold winter nights keeping guests warm

Edward filled the town with his English subjects and largely ousted the natives from their own settlement.

It is almost too much to take in at first with a tour of the castle at first story height recommended to be able to appreciate the layout of the castle and the sheer scale of Edward’s fortress

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.

Finials and archers arrow slit window at the top of the South West Tower

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.

“A-hoy there” – Overlooking the Queen’s chamber and Bakehouse tower to the hillside. Whist standing at the very top of the turrets it is incredibly high with spectacular 360 degree views. It also gives a fantastic perspective on the castle layout below and how the rooms are positioned in relation to one another.

The walls would originally have been whitewashed, standing out starkly against the backdrop of the Snowdonia mountainscape.

The walls were once a brilliant white colour. This shows the arrival earl of Salisbury at Conwy during events that led to Richard II’s abdication in 1399

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.

Arrow slit – one of over 140

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.

Down into the Dungeon at the bottom of the Prison tower. There is no access to the bottom of this space so prisoners would’ve been suspended or thrown down. It is mentioned in accounts of the 1530s where the ‘gret wyndoo’ (window) was partially blocked up.
The walls at every turn are either blackened or turned green with age throughout the centuries
Air passage to the dungeon

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.

The only surviving archway over the Great hall and Chapel

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 Kings Chamber on the second floor with an effigy of the King overlooking his apartment. Three of England’s Kings would have walked up these steps and slept in this place between these silent stones

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.

Stunning overview of the castle and old walkways overlooking the estuary. The 4 watchtower turrets were probably intended both for security and to allow the prominent display of the royal flag

On 2nd February 1295 the newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey came through stormy weather to seek the King’s confirmation.

Edward I with a group of clergy led by an archbishop. He is known to have stayed at the castle only once, through necessity over the Christmas period in 1924. In February 1295 he met with the newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury at Conwy castle.

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.

Looking up into the King’s Chamber and to the left, the Queen’s. This was a royal castle, and behind its formidable defences it most certainly boasted the finery of a palace or abbey. 

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.

How the King’s tower may have once looked. There were various narrow passageways through the complex to attend to the King and Queen

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.

Distinct remains of a doorway to the private royal chamber. This would have acted as a barrier between the open castle and the King and Queen’s private apartments.

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).

Momentous events of 1399 led to the capture, abdication and death of Richard II. This early fifteenth century manuscript illustration depicts the fugitive king taking refuge at Conwy castle

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.

King’s incarnation – The Kings Chamber above the Kings royal kitchen on the ground floor with the great fireplace at the far end. The Queen’s apartments would have been accessed through the door to the left
East Barbican that was used as a Garden with windows from the King’s Great Chamber overlooking the space. Those great Kings of England would have looked out of these very windows as they planned their schedules

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.

The chapel. During the events that led to Richard II’s abdication he stayed at Conwy. On the alter in the royal chapel, Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland swore an oath of no treachery to the king.

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.

Birds eye view of the Kings Great Chamber to the right and the Kings Chamber on the left which would have been on the first floor. These are the best preserved medieval private royal chambers in Wales (or England)

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.

Medieval latrine toilet onto the rocks far below upon which the castle was built

Together with their adherents hey managed to hold the castle for three months before eventually negotiating its surrender and their own pardons.

Ancient fireplace on the second floor. Who stayed in this room? If these walls could talk…

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.

The King’s Hall or Great Chamber where the Throne would have stood and the Monarch would have received important visitors. It is probably in here that King Edward I met with the Archbishop of Canterbury on 2nd February 1295
Dark tunnels and passageways in every direction. The King as well as his royal household and servants would have used all of these passageways – lit at night only by medieval candlelight
Stone weathered by 730 years of exposure to the harsh coastal elements

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.

Dramatic view of the Outer ward with the Great hall and chapel to the right

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.

Footprints of buildings in the other ward toward the kitchen tower

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.

Yours truly, on guard duties at the very top of the Kings Tower

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.

The three entrances with the modern road over the estuary to Conwy on the left and the railway line on the right. The Conwy Suspension Bridge is a Grade I-listed structure and is one of the first road suspension bridges in the world

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.

Outer ward looking toward the entrance with the Great Hall and Chapel on the left and the Kitchen tower on the right

Indeed, J.M.W. Turner regarded it as a piece of sculpture and depicted the castle several times such was its magnificence and mystic.

Looking over the castle from the first story walk with the Bakehouse tower to the right and the chapel in the foreground

One thought on “Conwy Castle

  1. So much history in a relatively small place! You would have great difficult anything of these gigantic proportions here in North America. Thanks for the impressive photo essay!

    Like

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