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Beaumaris Castle

Map link for Beaumaris Castle

in the town of Beaumaris, Anglesey, north Wales.
SH 607 763

Photographs copyright 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above & below: the outer curtain wall and moat at Beaumaris.

Beaumaris, begun in 1295, was the last and largest of the castles to be built by King Edward I in Wales. Raised on an entirely new site, without earlier buildings to fetter its designer's creative genius, it is possibly the most sophisticated example of medieval military architecture in Britain.

This is undoubtedly the ultimate "concentric" castle, built with an almost geometric symmetry. Conceived as an integral whole, a high inner ring of defenses is surrounded by a lower outer circuit of walls, combining an almost unprecedented level of strength and firepower. Before the age of cannon, the attacker would surely have been faced with an impregnable fortress. Yet, ironically, the work of construction was never fully completed, and the castle saw little action apart from the Civil War in the 17th century.

A castle was almost certainly planned when King Edward visited Anglesey in 1283 and designated the Welsh town of Llanfaes to be its seat of government. At the time, resources were already stretched and any such scheme was postponed. Then, in 1294-95, the Welsh rose in revolt under Madog ap Llywelyn. The rebels were crushed after an arduous winter campaign, and the decision was taken to proceed with a new castle in April 1295. The extent of English power is demonstrated by the fact that the entire native population of Llanfaes was forced to move to a newly established settlement, named Newborough. The castle itself was begun on the "fair marsh," and was given the Norman-French name Beau Mareys. Building progressed at an astonishing speed, with some 2,600 men engaged in the work during the first year.

Below (2): views of the Gate next to Sea, the modern entrance to the castle.

 

 

In sole charge of the operation was Master James of St. George, already with many years of experience in castle-building, both in Wales and on the Continent. Even after 700 years it is not difficult to appreciate the tremendous sophistication in his elaborate design at Beaumaris. The first line of defense was provided by a water-filled moat, some 18ft wide. At the southern end was a tidal dock for shipping, where vessels of 40 tons laden weight could sail right up to the main gate. The dock was protected by the shooting deck on Gunner's Walk.

Across the moat is the low curtain wall of the outer ward, its circuit punctuated by 16 towers and two gates. On the northern side, the Llanfaes gate was probably never completed. The gate next to the sea, on the other hand, preserves evidence of its stout wooden doors and gruesome "murder holes" above. Once through, an attacker would still have to face 11 further obstacles before entering the heart of the castle. These included the barbican, further "murder holes," three portcullises and several sets of doors. If the daunting prospect of the gate-passage proved too much, the would-be attacker caught hesitating between the inner and outer walls could not have survived for long. A rain of heavy crossfire would have poured down from all directions.

Below (2): view of the rear of the North Gatehouse from the Inner Ward &view of the Chapel Tower from the castle wall walk.

 

 

The striking thing about the inner ward is its great size. Covering about 3/4 of an acre, it was surrounded by a further six towers and the two great gatehouses. Within, it is clear that there was an intention to provide lavish suites of accommodation. Both gatehouses were planned to have grand arrangements of state rooms at their rear, much as those completed at Harlech. The north gate, on the far side, was only raised as far as its hall level and the projected second storey was never built. Even as it now stands, with its five great window openings, it dominates the courtyard. Another block, of equal size, was planned for the south gate, but this was never to rise further than its footings. Around the edges of the ward further buildings were planned and must have included a hall, kitchens, stables and perhaps a granary. Although there is some evidence of their existence in the face of the curtain wall, it is not certain they were ever completed.

Visitors should not miss the little chapel situated in the tower of that name. It's vaulted ceiling and pointed windows make it one of the highlights of the castle. Also in this tower there is a fascinating exhibition on the "Castles of Edward I in Wales, and this provides much background to the building of Beaumaris itself.

The visitor may well be left wondering why all the lavish accommodation was contemplated. In short, it was to provide the necessary apartments for the king and, if he should marry again, his queen. Moreover, his son, the Prince of Wales was fast approaching marriageable age. Considering the size of both households, plus the need to accommodate royal officers, the constable, and even the sheriff of Anglesey, the scale of these domestic arrangements is put into perspective.

Despite being planned on such a grand scale, by 1298 the funds for building Beaumaris had dried up. The king was increasingly involved with works in Gascony and Scotland. Although there were minor building works in later times, the castle is in many ways a blueprint which was never fully realized.

Jeff Thomas 1995

Because the description above does a good job of explaining the historical significance of Beaumaris, I will try to describe instead my own impressions of the castle from our visits in 1994/95.

Baumaris is a special castle. Some feel it's the most beautiful in all of Wales, while others appreciate the almost perfect symmetry Beaumaris possesses. The image most people associate with the castle is one of swans swimming peacefully in the castle moat, framed by Beaumaris' handsome checkered-stone exterior towers. This is the first striking aspect of the castle: its exterior beauty.

Although never completed to their planned height, Beaumaris' large exterior towers are impressive, their formidability enhanced by handsome patterns of stone in shades of dark gray to white, adorning the exterior walls and towers. Most of the castle is surrounded by a moat, framed by a beautiful green park complete with picnic tables. Families of ducks and swans add to the attractive setting as does the castle's handsome gatehouse and wooden bridge, the main entrance to the castle. So, much of Beaumaris' beauty can actually be appreciated before setting foot inside the castle!

If the castle's exterior towers can be called large, then Beaumaris' six interior towers can only be described as huge. Only William Marshall's great tower at Pembroke Castle and William ap Thomas' tower at Raglan Castle rival the six huge inner towers at Beaumaris. Once inside the gatehouse the dimensions of these towers become clear, if not a bit confusing. Confusing, because the concentric design of the castle means that one set of walls and towers looks exactly like the others as you make your way around the ward. Only differences in the front and rear gatehouses gives clues to your exact location in the outer ward!

The third thing I like about Beaumaris (and my favorite thing) are the fascinating interior passageways found inside the walls of the inner ward. Beaumaris and Caernarfon are practically the only two Welsh castles that afford visitors an opportunity to explore significant sections of inner wall passageways. Caernarfon's are more extensive, but chances are Beaumaris' passages won't be packed with tourists! In other words, Beaumaris gives visitors the opportunity to explore this feature in a more intimate environment. Don't miss seeing the lovely little chapel as part of your passageway walk, a peaceful place to stop and reflect on your surroundings.

The final thing I find remarkable about Beaumaris are the wonderful views afforded across the Menai Straight to the Snowdonia Mountains beyond - breathtaking scenery that can be enjoyed from within or outside the castle. Although Beaumaris lacks the spectacular siting of some of Edward's other north Wales castles, the beauty of the castle and surrounding countryside is undeniable. Beaumaris Castle has been designated a "World Heritage Site" because it represents a significant accomplishment in the art of medieval castle-building. The fact that it is also one of the prettier sites in Wales is a bonus that makes this castle well worth a visit. So, in your haste to see popular, touristy Caernarfon Castle, consider making the short drive from Caernarfon to Beaumaris for a totally unique castle experience!

Additional photographs of Beaumaris Castle

Frequent visitors to Beaumaris will know that the castle wall walks have been closed to the public for many years. Therefore, my wife and I were pleasantly surprised when we revisited the castle in May of 2006 and the wall walks had finally been reopened. The wall walks at Beaumaris represent a fascinating aspect of the castle not seen for many years, and affords visitors perspectives of the castle and surrounding countryside that are both interesting and beautiful. Therefore it is my pleasure to present below the Internet's first photographs of the recently-opened castle wall walk at Beaumaris Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional photos of Beaumaris Castle
Follow this link to read a letter from 1296 concerning the building of Beaumaris.

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas