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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.