Animosity between the Welsh and the English can be traced back to the 13th century, when the efforts of Edward I to conquer Wales were resisted by Llywelyn, Prince of Wales and his followers. Today, physical conflict between the nations is confined to the rugby pitch but the network of Castles built in the late 13th century remain a lasting legacy to this period of conquest and resistence.
Edward I built castles along the North Wales Coast at strategic points to help his campaign to conquer Wales and protect his forces from the Welsh resistence, concentreated in the hills of Snowdonia.
Beaumaris Castle, on Anglesey was commissioned by Edward I as part of his plan to conquer North Wales. It was deliberately built on the opposite bank of the Menai Straits to Garth Celyn the 13th century home of the Princes of Wales in an attempt to quash local resistance. Work began in 1295 and while the castle was never completed Beaumaris has been awarded World Heritage Site status.
Caernarfon is the largest, and most famous castle, built by Edward and was the venue for the investiture of Prince Charles as the current Prince of Wales in 1969. The castle dominates modern Caernarfon and there also remain some of the walls that Edward built to strengthen his defences. Caernarfon’s position at the meeting of the River Seiont and the Menai Strait gave Edward domination of the surrounding area. This domination increased as Edward developed a network of Castles along the coast from Conwy to Harlech.
Edward did not have a monopoly on castle building in the 13th century. Criccieth Castle was started earlier in the century by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd and continued by his grandson, and Edward’s adversary Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales. Then, as now, the castle dominated the rocky peninsula on which it was built and the Welsh used it as a base for their war against the English, until it was captured by Edward’s army in 1282.
Crossing the River Conwy was vital to Edward if he was to capture the North West corner of Wales. The tidal estuary provided a natural barrier which Edward needed to control. Edward’s father, Henry III had established a castle on the estuary at Deganwy, but this was destroyed by Llywelyn The Last in 1263.
The strategic importance of Conwy was such that Edward lost no time in building a replacement. It took just 6 years from 1283 to build the current castle. 1500 men worked on the site and the cost of roughly £15000 made Conwy the most expensive of Edward’s Welsh castle projects. £15000 may not seem much today but estimates put the modern comparison at in excess of £150 million.
Harlech was the most southerly of the four castles Edward built to surround Llywelyn’s heartland. The coastal position gave Edward control over the shores and enabled supplies to be shipped on the Irish Sea. Again the castle was completed in under 7 years and completed Edward’s grip on what we now call Snowdonia.
Harlech played vital roles in British history long after Edward’s death. Between 1461 and 1468 it was besieged for 7 years as a Lancastrian stronghold in the War of The Roses. It is thought that the traditional Welsh song “Men of Harlech” was written in honour of those who survived the longest siege in British history.
In the English Civil War, Harlech was the last Royalist defence against the forces of Parliament and the castle has not been used as a fortress since its capture by Cromwell’s men in 1647.