Updated: Jun 17, 2022
The castles Edward I built in Wales constitute his most enduring legacy. The castles were constructed at immense cost & occupied thousands of craftsmen & labourers for many years. No fewer than 17 castles were built or rebuilt between 1276 & 1295, by the English Kings & major landholders. The castles were built as a way of preventing fresh outbreaks of Welsh independence.
After 1277, & increasingly after 1283, Edward embarked on a full-scale project of English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth & Rhuddlan. Their new residents were English migrants, with the local Welsh banned from living inside them, & many were protected by extensive walls.
An extensive project of castle-building was also initiated, under the direction of Master James of Saint George, a prestigious architect whom Edward had met in Savoy on his return from the ninth crusade. These included the Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy & Harlech Castles, intended to act both as fortresses & royal palaces for the King. His programme of castle building in Wales heralded the introduction of the widespread use of arrowslits in castle walls across Europe, drawing on Eastern influences. Also a product of the Crusades was the introduction of the concentric castle, & four of the eight castles Edward founded in Wales followed this design. The castles made a clear, imperial statement about Edward's intentions to rule North Wales permanently, & drew on imagery associated with the Byzantine Roman Empire & King Arthur in an attempt to build legitimacy for his new regime.
In 1284, King Edward had his son Edward (later Edward II) born at Caernarfon Castle, probably to make a deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. David Powel, a 16th-century clergyman, suggested that the baby was offered to the Welsh as a prince "that was borne in Wales & could speake never a word of English", but there is no evidence to support this account. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of Prince of Wales, when the King granted him the Earldom of Chester & lands across North Wales. The King seems to have hoped that this would help in the pacification of the region, & that it would give his son more financial independence.
This blog series will focus on some of Edward's castles built in North Wales, that I have visited, beginning with Harlech & Conwy castles.
Who was King Edward I ?
Edward I (born. 17/18 June 1239 – died. 7 July 1307), also known as Edward Longshanks & the Hammer of the Scots was King of England from 1272 to 1307. He was the fifth king of the House of Plantagenet.
Before his accession to the throne, he was commonly referred to as 'Lord Edward'. Edward was the first son of Henry III & his wife Eleanor of Provence. Edward was involved from an early age in the political intrigues of his father's reign, which included an outright rebellion by the English barons. In 1259, he briefly sided with a baronial reform movement, supporting the Provisions of Oxford. After reconciliation with his father, however, he remained loyal throughout the subsequent armed conflict, known as the Second Barons' War (1264–1267)
. After the Battle of Lewes, Edward was held hostage by the rebellious barons, but he escaped after a few months & defeated the baronial leader Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Within two years the rebellion was extinguished &, with England at peace, he joined the Ninth Crusade to the Holy Land.
Lord Edward's crusade, also called the Ninth Crusade, was a military expedition to the Holy Land under the command of the Lord Edward, the future King Edward I of England, in 1271–1272. It was an extension of the Eighth Crusade & was the last of the Crusades to reach the Holy Land before the fall of Acre in 1291 brought an end to the permanent crusader presence there.
The Ninth Crusade saw several impressive victories for Edward over Baibars. Ultimately the Crusaders were forced to withdraw, since Edward had pressing concerns at home & felt unable to resolve the internal conflicts within the remnant Outremer territories. It is arguable that the Crusading spirit was nearly "extinct" by this period as well. It also foreshadowed the imminent collapse of the last remaining crusader strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
He was on his way home in 1272 when he was informed that his father Henry III had died. He reached England in 1274 & was crowned at Westminster Abbey. The fifth Plantagenet king of England spent much of his reign reforming royal administration & common law. However, Edward's attention was drawn towards military affairs. After suppressing a rebellion in Wales in 1276–77, Edward responded to a second rebellion in 1282–83 with a full-scale war of conquest. After a successful campaign, he subjected Wales to English rule, built a series of castles & towns in the countryside & settled them with English people.
Next, his efforts were directed towards the Kingdom of Scotland. Initially invited to arbitrate a succession dispute, Edward claimed feudal suzerainty over Scotland. The war that followed continued after Edward's death, even though the English seemed victorious at several points. Edward also found himself at war with France (a Scottish ally) after King Philip IV of France had confiscated the Duchy of Gascony, which until then had been held in personal union with the Kingdom of England. Although Edward recovered his duchy, this conflict relieved English military pressure against Scotland. At the same time there were problems at home. In the mid-1290s, extensive military campaigns required high levels of taxation, & Edward met with both lay & ecclesiastical opposition. These crises were initially averted, but issues remained unsettled. When the King died in 1307, he left to his son Edward II an ongoing war with Scotland & many financial & political problems.
Edward I was a tall man (6'2") for his era, hence the nickname "Longshanks". He was temperamental, & this, along with his height, made him an intimidating man, & he often instilled fear in his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he held the respect of his subjects for the way he embodied the medieval ideal of kingship, as a soldier, an administrator & a man of faith.
(pictured above) Early fourteenth-century manuscript initial showing Edward & his wife Eleanor. The artist has perhaps tried to depict Edward's blepharoptosis, a trait he inherited from his father.
By his first wife Eleanor of Castile (b.1241 – d.28 November 1290), married in 1254, Edward had at least fourteen children, perhaps as many as sixteen. Five daughters survived into adulthood, but only one son outlived his father, King Edward II (1307–1327).
Edward's children with Eleanor were:
Daughter (May 1255 – 29 May 1255), stillborn or died shortly after birth.
Katherine (before 17 June 1264 – 5 September 1264).
Joanna (Summer or January 1265 – before 7 September 1265).
John (13 July 1266 – 3 August 1271), predeceased his father & died at Wallingford while in the custody of his granduncle Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
Henry (6 May 1268 – 14 October 1274)
Eleanor (c. 18 June 1269 – 19 August 1298), in 1293 she married Henry III, Count of Bar.
Juliana (after May 1271 – 5 September 1271), born & died while Edward & Eleanor were in Acre during the ninth crusade.
Joan of Acre (1272 – 23 April 1307), married (1) in 1290 Gilbert de Clare, 6th Earl of Hertford, who died in 1295, & (2) in 1297 Ralph de Monthermer.
Alphonso, Earl of Chester (24 November 1273 – 19 August 1284).
Margaret (c.15 March 1275 – after 11 March 1333), married John II of Brabant in 1290
Berengaria (May 1276 – between 7 June 1277 & 1278)
Daughter (December 1277 – January 1278)
Mary of Woodstock (11 March 1278 – before 8 July 1332), a Benedictine nun in Amesbury, Wiltshire, where she was probably buried.
Son (1280/81 – 1280/81), predeceased his father; little evidence exists for this child.
Elizabeth of Rhuddlan (c. 7 August 1282 – 5 May 1316), married (1) in 1297 John I, Count of Holland, (2) in 1302 Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford.
Edward II (25 April 1284 – 21 September 1327), succeeded his father as king of England. In 1308 he married Isabella of France.
Second marriage - by Margaret of France (b.1279-d.1318), married in 1299, Edward had two sons, both of whom lived to become adults, & a daughter who died as a child.
His progeny by Margaret of France were:
Thomas of Brotherton, 1st Earl of Norfolk (1 June 1300 – 4 August 1338), buried in Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Married (1) Alice Hales; (2) Mary Brewes.
Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent (5 August 1301 – 19 March 1330), married Margaret Wake, 3rd Baroness Wake of Liddell.
Eleanor (6 May 1306 – 1310).
Edward I is credited with many accomplishments during his reign, including restoring royal authority after the reign of Henry III, establishing Parliament as a permanent institution & thereby also a functional system for raising taxes, & reforming the law through statutes. At the same time, he is also often criticised for other actions, such as his brutal conduct towards the Welsh & Scots, & issuing the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, by which the Jews were expelled from England. The Edict remained in effect for the rest of the Middle Ages, & it was over 350 years until it was formally overturned under Oliver Cromwell in 1657.
Harlech Castle (Welsh: Castell Harlech), located in Harlech, Gwynedd, Wales, is a medieval fortification, constructed atop a spur of rock close to the Irish Sea. It was built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales between 1282 & 1289 at the relatively modest cost of £8,190.
The infamous Gate passages
The gate passage (pictured above), given its potential vulnerability, the entrance through the gatehouse was protected by a succession of devices, positioned within a covered passage measuring 16 metres (52 feet) from front to back. At the front of the passage was a pair of heavy timber gates, opening outwards & secured from inside by a wooden drawbar. Behind this lay a portcullis, rising & falling in thin channels in the side walls. If a medieval attacker got past these initial defences, he would find himself in a dangerous position. He would be prevented from advancing further by a second portcullis & a second set of gates, he would now find himself vulnerable to projectiles being dropped through two 'murder holes' in the ceiling & crossbow bolts through the narrow loops in both side walls. Beyond these deadly obstacles, the main body of the passage was again protected by murder holes from three stone arches above.
The sea originally came much closer to Harlech than in modern times, & a water-gate & a long flight of steps leads down from the castle to the former shore, which allowed the castle to be resupplied by sea during sieges.
The view looking down of the South east tower & Harlech town centre
Over the next few centuries, the castle played an important part in several wars, withstanding the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn between 1294–95, but falling to Owain Glyndŵr in 1404. It then became Glyndŵr's residence & military headquarters for the remainder of the uprising until being recaptured by English forces in 1409.
During the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Harlech was held by the Lancastrians for seven years, before Yorkist troops forced its surrender in 1468, a siege memorialised in the song Men of Harlech. Following the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the castle was held by forces loyal to Charles I, holding out until 1647 when it became the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentary armies. In the 21st century the ruined castle is managed by Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service, as a tourist attraction.
UNESCO considers Harlech to be one of "the finest examples of late 13th century & early 14th century military architecture in Europe", & it is classed as a World Heritage site. The fortification is built of local stone & concentric in design, featuring a massive gatehouse that probably once provided high-status accommodation for the castle constable & visiting dignitaries. The sea originally came much closer to Harlech than in modern times, & a water-gate & a long flight of steps leads down from the castle to the former shore, which allowed the castle to be resupplied by sea during sieges. In keeping with Edward's other castles in North Wales, the architecture of Harlech has close to links to that found in the County of Savoy during the same period, an influence probably derived from the Savoy origins of the main architect, James of Saint George.
Reconstruction of the castle in the early 14th century, seen from the sea.
For further information visit CADW
Also if you are a member of English Heritage entry to any of CADW sites is half price.
Visit English Heritage
Conwy Castle (Welsh: Castell Conwy) is a fortification in Conwy, located in North Wales. It was built by Edward I, during his conquest of Wales, between 1283 & 1289.
Constructed as part of a wider project to create the walled town of Conwy, the combined defences cost around £15,000, a huge sum for the period.
Over the next few centuries, the castle played an important part in several wars. It withstood the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn in the winter of 1294–95, acted as a temporary haven for Richard II in 1399 & was held for several months by forces loyal to Owain Glyndŵr in 1401.
Following the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the castle was held by forces loyal to Charles I, holding out until 1646 when it surrendered to the Parliamentary armies. In the aftermath, the castle was partially slighted by Parliament to prevent it being used in any further revolt, & was finally completely ruined in 1665 when its remaining iron & lead was stripped & sold off
Conwy Castle became an attractive destination for painters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Visitor numbers grew and initial restoration work was carried out in the second half of the 19th century. In the 21st century, the ruined castle is managed by Cadw as a tourist attraction.
UNESCO considers Conwy to be one of "the finest examples of late 13th century & early 14th century military architecture in Europe", & it is classed as a World Heritage site. The rectangular castle is built from local & imported stone & occupies a coastal ridge, originally overlooking an important crossing point over the River Conwy. Divided into an Inner & an Outer Ward, it is defended by eight large towers & two barbicans, with a postern gate leading down to the river, allowing the castle to be resupplied from the sea.
An arrowslit is a narrow vertical aperture in a fortification through which an archer can launch arrows or a crossbowman can launch bolts.
It retains the earliest surviving stone machicolations in Britain & what historian Jeremy Ashbee has described as the "best preserved suite of medieval private royal chambers in England & Wales". In keeping with other Edwardian castles in North Wales, the architecture of Conwy has close links to that found in the Kingdom of Savoy during the same period, an influence probably derived from the Savoy origins of the main architect, James of Saint George.
In the photo above, in view are the Chapel Tower (left), the King's Tower (to the right). The king's Tower was a four storey tower & probably housed important officers of the king's household. Below is the inner ward, that contained royal apartments.
For further information visit CADW
Also if you are a member of English Heritage entry to any of CADW sites is half price.
Visit English Heritage
Thank you for reading