An architectural look at the castles of North Wales

North Wales is a dreamland for an architect, full of interesting buildings, many of which were built centuries ago. This makes it a great place to visit to get a picture of how architecture has developed in the UK.

Of particular interest are the area’s castles. The history of these amazing building is an interesting one. They were built for different reasons, and used in a range of ways, which means each has a unique character. This diversity is why these castles capture the imagination of tourists, and modern architects alike.


Where are the castles located?

Most of North Wales’ 23 castles are located close to the border with England or are scattered along the coast. These played an important role in defending the country from invaders. The story of the castles of North Wales is a long and interesting one.

The Norman Castles of North Wales

The first castle we know of was built on the Island of Anglesey. In 1088, Robert of Rhuddlan built Aberlleiniog Castell, at Llangoed.

It was a typical motte and bailey fortress, which was built on a steep hill with strong walls and towers, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. A siege carried out by Gruffudd ap Cynan, in 1094, failed. It eventually fell when Edward I invaded the area.

It was one of several castles in the area. It is believed that there was one of these small castles at Abergwyngregyn. The fact the two castles were so close and built at high vantage points meant that they could communicate with each other, which is thought to have played an important role in keeping invaders out.

Initially, the structure was built using local materials, so it was constructed mainly from timber. Later, stone replaced the timber, which is why this early example of defensive architecture can still be enjoyed today.

The Edwardian Castles of North Wales

The vast majority of the castles built in North Wales were built by command of Edward I, after he invaded North Wales in 1282. He went further than just building castles; his idea was to colonise the area, so he built huge castles that were effectively fortified towns. One could argue that he was the first person to plan and build towns in the UK in an organised fashion.


Harlech Castle

The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward is a UNESCO-World Heritage Site that includes the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech. The town walls and castles of Caernarfon and Conwy are also included in the UNESCO site. The fact that these castles have been so well preserved makes it is very easy to see how they were built, which gives us insight into why they were constructed.

The military role of the castles

When you look at these castles, it is very clear that they were primarily built for defence. They were heavily fortified.

The castles were surrounded by not one, but two sets of walls. The height and angles of both sets of walls were calculated so that attackers could be fired upon from all angles. Arrow slits and firing platforms were built into the walls at every point, which helped to make both the castles and towns easy to defend.

Earlier castles in the area were built with traditional keeps that provided a single stronghold. Edward’s castles also featured fortified gatehouses, with twin towers, providing a fortified entranceway that was difficult to breach. If necessary, the towers could be used as strongholds to protect the most important inhabitants from the worst of the battle.

Conwy castle is a great example of this. It is well preserved, and even today is still an impressive sight. All eight of its towers and the gateway are still intact.


Conwy Castle

These gateways also helped to control who had access to the fortified towns during peacetime. This protected the town from a surprise attack and helped them to thrive as centres of trade. They were safe places for traders to do business.

Where possible, natural barriers were incorporated into the design of the castles. For example, Caernarfon Castle was built on flat land, but it was completely protected on one side by the fact it was situated on the very edge of the River Seiont. Harlech Castle was protected by the fact it was built on the edge of sea cliffs.

The building project was huge. In just 20 years, 10 castles were built, and several former castles and fortresses were restored. It is hard to imagine the amount of labor and materials that were needed to achieve this massive building programme.

The flaws

Edward I‘s castles were far bigger than anything, that had been built before. It was clear that he wanted to make a statement, and stamp his authority on the area. He also wanted to provide a safe place for as many of his supporters to live as possible, to help him to hold the territories he had secured, and discourage the Welsh Princes from rising against him.

Interestingly, Conwy and Caernarfon castles were both build on sites that once belonged to Welsh Princes. This suggests that Edward used them as a way to demonstrate that he was now the new power in the area. At both of these sites, Edward took the extra step of adding a fortified town to the castles. Doing so, allowed him to base thousands of British soldiers right in the former heartland of the Welsh Princes.

The only problem with this approach was that these castles cost a fortune to build, and were too expensive to maintain. Their size made it all but impossible to man them fully. Each castle needed a huge garrison of men in order to staff, and defend the entire length of the walls.

Symbols of power and palaces

Over the centuries, the castles Edward I built were also used as palaces, particularly during the 20th and 21st Centuries. They were ornate places, with royal courts, and were richly decorated. For example, Caernarfon’s walls included elaborate and expensive carvings. Each castle featured large courtyards and gardens, with plenty of space for the Royal families to live, in luxury, and hold events.


Caernarfon Castle

The future of the castles

The fact that these castles are now an important part of the tourist industry in the area should mean that they will be kept in good condition. Restoration work is uncovering more about the history of these castles, and helping us to learn more about the architecture of these fascinating buildings.

Posted by Mark
August 18, 2016

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