Harlech Castle, Edward I and the beginning of the United Kingdom


Britain is littered with ancient monuments, relics and stone buildings. They give us many clues about our ancestral heritage, and also provide us with exciting evidence about the historical turning points that actually brought Great Britain into being.


None is more powerful a reminder of Britain's turbulent and war-torn past than Harlech Castle, or a signifier of Wales' formal union with England. It was the focus of at least three revolts and sieges from the 13th century onwards, and was also in dispute during the Wars of the Roses and 17th century Civil War waged between Parliament and the Crown.


But the fortress at Harlech was primarily developed in 1283 to oppress the Welsh and see Wales become a part of a united kingdom. Merciless and ruthless King Edward I built this castle along with many others to ensure that Wales' rebellions and insurrections were readily stamped out and easy to control.



With gothic-style, impregnable defences in mostly the concentric style, castles in the mould of Harlech were meant to withstand all kinds of siege warfare, and keep marauding armies at bay with just a bare minimum of troops or guardsmen.


Built over the course of 7 years, with an army of around 950 masons, quarrymen and labourers, under the supervision of Master James of St George, the castle was estimated to have cost over 6,000 to build - which would be equivalent to around 13 million today. In fact Edward supposedly spent a collosal 80,000 on all of his 22 castles in North Wales, that he either built from scratch, or refurbished from existing stock, in a bid to compel the Welsh to become a part of a greater Britain.


Harlech Today


In the 21st century, however, the castle betrays nothing of its deeply turbulent past, and it stands impressively, perched on a huge rocky crag, overlooking Tremadog Bay.


From the castle car park, it seems surprisingly compact and its bright stony walls typically glisten in the sunlight. And as said before, it did in fact survive a plentiful number of sieges and battles right up until the Civil War, when the Parliamentarians reduced it to much of its present ruinous state.


Up the narrow wooden staircase (which would previously have been removable), any would-be maurauders would have met with at least 7 other defences after this, including 3 portcullises, several doors and murder holes and so forth, to ensure that any invasions would have been difficult to bring to a successful triumph.


What makes the concentric castle design so interesting is that it allowed a castle to be almost developed within a castle. Harlech, for example, had a line of defensive walls that ran around its perimeter, as it still does today.



However there was a higher, thicker inner wall, which surrounded the keep and inner courtyard and main hall in addition to separate buildings for the bakery and store house and so on. Enemies could easily be seen attacking the outer walls from the higher inner vantage point. There was also an additional level of defence to overcome,beyond the moat, before the castle's inner core or heart could effectively be breached.


The large round towers that Harlech still contains, replete with narrow windows (or loopholes) for firing arrows, were said to have been copied from Saracen fortresses in the Holy Land, which Edward I become well acquainted with during his adventures in the 8th crusade.


The round tower design also made them more difficult to undermine, and the slit-type windows ensured that any enemies were constantly under a stream of fire when they tried to launch an attack or make a bid to take control of the castle for themselves.


When visiting Harlech today, once inside the main part of the castle, people can now walk around on the high-level walkways, on what would have been major ramparts and defensive positions. The windows in the inner sanctum are also much larger, because they were less likely to be compromised or exposed in the event of an attack.


Excellent views of the sea can also be seen from the southern walls. In its glory days, the sea would have lapped at these outer limits. This was meant to have been one of Harlech's major strengths and strategic siege breakers; and there is still a 200 ft long stairway reaching down to the beach. (This was one of the main access routes that allowed the castle to be readily supplied by sea from either Ireland or Bristol, if and when would-be insurgents or invaders came out to fight - as in the case of the other iron ring castles at Caernarfon, Conwy and Beaumaris).


In fact 21st century-style Harlech, with the high cliff faces interspersed with rows of pretty cottages and compact and bijou houses, is a far cry from the days when the town was in its military prime.


The narrow winding streets, now house attractive and appealing gift shops, antique boutiques, tantalising tea rooms and a public house or two. But in times past, the landscape would have looked quite different.


The town's central square would have been a major assembly point for English troops and the main thoroughfare was likely to have been regularly filled with marching infantry or columns of cavalrymen. Most of Edward's castles were specifically located to be within a day's march of each other.


Solidiers would have guarded access in and out of the town, and free movement would have been restricted and virtually impossible.


Harlech was in fact meant to be a fortified town, that contained English settlers; and the Welsh would have been allowed to visit during daylight hours, but could not sell their own wares, but only buy those on offer from the English.


To all intents and purposes, the town was designed to keep unwanted rebels and invaders out; and more often not was surrounded by the said rebels and invaders wanting to get in.


When under siege, which was a fairly common occurence, it's likely that any number of medieval weapons would have been lined up taking aim at the castle.


These would have included trebuchets (or large catapults) that would fire huge boulders at the castle in a bid to breach its walls. Battering rams, ladders, siege towers, archers and so forth, would all have been key in trying to get the castle to fall to its oppressors.


Meanwhile, from its sturdy walls, it's likely that any number of missiles from hot sand, hot water or Roman fire (petroleum mix that ignited upon contact with the air) would have been pouring down from the ramparts and on to the invaders below.


Archers would have been stationed in the loopholes and have kept a steady stream of fire going in a bid to keep perpetrators firmly cowed and at bay, while at the same time shooting high in to the air with longbows in a bid to catch attackers within a 250 yard range. (But it has to be said that by far the most effective siege weapon was cutting off all supplies into the castle so that its occupants would be forced to surrender or starve).



Indeed Harlech's ramparts and battlements were severely put to the test during Welsh nationlist leader Owain Glyndwrs Revolt from 1400 to 1409. He managed to besiege Harlech Castle and take control of it in 1404 to hold his court there; however, the English in turn besieged him for eight months with a force of around 1000 men, and retook it in 1409.


The decisive battle winner was said to be the arrival of the cannon, which saw the much of the outer curtain walls along the east and south sides destroyed, and the future Henry V became victorious and retook the castle for England once again. The near starvation of Glyndwr's wife and relatives, within the besieged castle, also ensured that an English victory was imminent.


Harlech was also home to the longest siege ever staged in Britain it was said during the War of the Roses, 1461-1470, when the Lancastrian Forces (under Welsh constable Dafydd ap Ieuan) kept the Yorkists and forces of Edward IV at bay for a mere 7 years.


How Harlech came into being


However, during Edward I's reign, Harlech only ever came into being because of his vehement desire to crush any political enemies or opponents, whatever that might happen to cost.


He had tried to gain the unconditional loyalty and fealty from Welsh prince, Llewelyn ap Gruffyd, or Llewelyn the Last, since he ascended to the English throne in 1274.


He had expected Llewelyn to pay him 3000 for the privelege of being recognised as Prince of Wales, and made stringent demands to be accepted as Wales' supreme overlord.


Llewelyn, however, was aghast at these kingly conditions and calls for hefty annual payments. He had during his the said king's father's reign, Henry III, signed the treaty of Montgomery (in 1267), which had secured what he thought was his irrevocable right to hold the position of Prince of all Wales.


Henry, much to Llewelyn's delight, had been a much weaker king than Edward turned out to be. He had been beset by problems and power struggles with the leading barons in the country, chief among them had been one Simon de Montfort.


Llewelyn had been able to take advantage of the political turmoil, and pursue his own expansive ambitions within Wales and make de Montfort his political ally.


De Montfort had actually captured the future Edward I in 1264 (at the Battle of Lewes during a baronial induced civil war), and this very fact, may have made Edward less inclined to show any mercy to any of his future combatants or adversaries. This seemed to have led him to take root immediately in any lands he wished to conquer by building a series of solid and virtually impregnable castles - as he did so successfully in Wales.


During the 13th century civil war, Edward eventually managed to escape from the de Montfort's clutches and slaughtered him at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. When he took to the throne officially in 1274, he proved he was determined to brook no opposition to his authority, and, in almost all cases, stamped down hard on any rebellion or insurrection.


However, because Llewelyn had in fact managed to see off most English incursions in to Wales during Henry III's turbulent reign, he perhaps believed he would be able to repeat his success with the newly crowned king.


He refused to pay homage to him between 1274-1277, or even attend his coronation in 1274. He was supposed to have said the rights of Wales were entirely separate from the rights of England. He also abhorred the fact that Edward had also covertly been supporting his own brother Dafydd's plot to assassinate him, and carve up his Welsh lands for himself.



This increasingly tempestuous stand-off led to Edward I's incursions into Wales, and the building of his iron ring of Castles, of which Harlech was among the most promiment. Edward wanted to defeat Llewelyn as 'a rebel and disturber' of the peace.


First Welsh Invasion


Edward begain the war by commanding a number of Marcher lords to advance into Wales and surround Gwynedd in preparation for his major war maneouvres from Chester in the summer of 1277.


He also had back-up reinforcements stationed in Montgomery and Carmarthen in a bid to overwhelm Llewelyn's outer defences.


On 15 July, Edward left Chester with 1800 axeman clearning a route through the forests and valleys of North Wales. He had a massive army of 15,600 foot soldier and 800 horsemen and 26 ships on standby to supply provisions to the army.


To show he meant business,when Edward had advanced as far as the River Conwy by August 20,.he then immediately began the building of what was to become Rhuddlan Castle. He sent his war leader de Vescey to Anglesey to ensure Llewelyn had no easy escape from his mountain fortresses in Snowdonia. And his brother, Edmund was circling Llewleyn in the south. Faced with such overwhelming odds, Llewleyn decided it was better to surrender, which he did on November 1 of that year.


Under the Treaty of Aberconwy, Llewleyn was reduced to a mere prince of Gwynedd; he was however, allowed to marry his intended, Simon de Montfort's daughter, Eleanor, who had been captured by Edward in a bid to punish Llewleyn further.


Further invasions

This major defeat still rankled, however, and while many of the Welsh had been unhappy with Llewelyn's rule, they found Edward's and his appointed overlords even more unbearable and untrustworthy.


Dafydd, Llewelyn's brother, surprisingly enough, launched his own secondary rebellion in 1282 when he took the castle at Hawarden completely by surprise. Llewleyn joined his brother in this revolt, which ultimately proved fatal for them both.


Llewelyn was ambushed and beheaded near Builth Wells in central Wales. His severed head was left to rot on a spike on the gates of the Tower of London. It was crowned for day with a wreath of ivy, to mock him as the Prince of Outlaws, and not the Y Mab Dagoran, or prophecised Welsh Ruler who would one day take to the English throne (this was said to in fact been Pembroke-born Henry VII). Llewleyn's brother fared little better; he was captured and hung, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury soon afterwards. His head was then sent to join his brother's at the Tower.


Harlech is built

This second invasion, saw Edward extend his castle building programme, which had initially included Rhuddlan, flint, Builth Wells and Aberystwyth, to include the new super-fortresses of Harlech, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Conwy. Other castles were also upgraded or repaired.


Edward did not want to see any further rebellions, so under the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, Wales became a part of England, or what could be said to be the beginnings of the United Kingdom. His eldest son, Edward was invested as Edward of Caernarfon and as Prince of Wales in 1301, and since that time, there has been no other prince of Welsh blood holding that title, save for Owain Glwyndwr who crowned himself as such at Harlech in the early 1400s.


Like all Welsh attempts at independence, Glyndwr's was effectively crushed by Henry IV, and his vision of a separate Wales, incorporating much of Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire never came into being.


His initial rebellion had sprung out of land disputes with his neighbouring land-owner Reginald Grey (3rd Baron Grey de Ruthyn) in Ruthin. Surprisingly, many Welsh people flocked to his cause in a bid to oust the English from Wales once and for all. Scholars at Oxford were said to have left the university to fight as did Welshmen working on the land in Shropshire, Cheshire and Herefordshire. But, Glyndwr's near 15 year revolt eventually came to nought and England's superior manpower and weapons brought about his defeat.


It is said, that he was never actually captured, despite the offer of a royal pardon by Henry V, but instead it was said that he spent the remainder of his days in disguise as a friar on the estate of daughter Alys in rural Herefordshire. And some of his direct descendants to this day will not betray this alleged family secret.


Today, however, all the past tensions between Wales and England are largely forgotten, and a tour around Harlech and its grounds make for an excellent day out for family or friends staying at Glyn-yr-aur.


Re-enactors regularly stage mock battles or one-to-one medieval-style tournaments and combat. Most are more than willing to talk in detail about their weapons and knightly regalia, such as the Knights of Ardudwy, who will actually be putting on displays at Harlech on 29-30 August at Harlech. Another local re-enactment group, the Harlech Society, will also be putting on pageants at Criccieth Castle on 1 August and Caernarfon on 31 August of 2009. Please see our Events section for more details.


And finally, Edward I's iron ring of castles were in recent years made World Heritage Sites, including Harlech, to pay tribute to them as being among the planet's most outstanding historical monuments, and as such they are well worth the journey to see them.