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The Age of the Castle

Above: a section of the Bayeux Tapestry detailing the Norman invasion of England.

Cadw 1990; Lynch 1995

The Norman Barons responsible for the conquest of Wales were a small group of men, rarely exceeding twenty in number, who, in the immediate aftermath of Hastings, were far too busy with problems of security and control in England and Normandy itself to give much attention to Wales. However, the defense of a frontier soon turned to aggressive expansion. As a contemporary historian recorded, the Normans were "a war-like race...moved by fierce ambition to lord it over others." Having practiced the techniques in England and elsewhere, they well understood that the first rule of successful appropriation was to make sure of the territories overrun. To this end, the Normans had developed the castle.

Castles had not yet existed anywhere in Wales before the Norman Conquest. Yet over the following two centuries many hundreds were to be established. It is, therefore, essentially with the Normans and their successors that we associate the castle in Britain. And this popular notion has much historical justification. The Normans were organizers and militarists of genius. They did not invent armored cavalry; nor did they invent fortified bases; and they certainly did not invent the basic concept of feudalism, which was the holding of land from a superior lord in exchange for knight-service. But they were the first to combine all three and regulate the resulting system in a thoroughly businesslike manner.

The largest group of castles were those built by the Anglo-Norman lords of the March (from the French word marche meaning frontier). The Marcher lordships eventually swung in a great arc from Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south, and then west to Pembroke. The grandest and most powerful of these strongholds were those built by the lords themselves: Caerphilly, Cardiff, Chepstow, Kidwelly, and the rest. But there were smaller examples too, such as Bronllys and Tretower, built by followers and lieutenants of the major barons.

King William gave his trusted comrade-in-arms from Normandy, William Fitz-Osbern, wide powers along the southernmost portions of the Welsh Marches. From here, Fitz-Osbern built a formidable force of fighting men, including close relatives and powerful magnets, with Hereford as his focal point. He established castles and garrisons at Monmouth, Clifford and Wigmore, but his greatest work was the magnificent castle at Chepstow (shown above right) on the mouth of the river Wye. Chepstow became a springboard for westward Norman expeditions and the focal point of Norman settlement in Wales.

In north Wales, Hugh of Avranches, earl of Chester, and his cousin, Robert of Rhuddlan, were well established east of the river Clwyd by 1086. In the following four years they captured the Welsh ruler, Gruffydd ap Cynan, and founded castles at Deganwy, Bangor, Caernarfon and Aberllen on Angelsey. These were of traditional Norman type: an earthen mound (motte) topped by a wooden keep, the main defensive unit, with less significant buildings below, defended by a bank and ditch (bailey). They were usually built within the Welsh maerdrefi, the administrative centers of the native Welsh rulers.

After their initial success, Norman control in north Wales was short-lived. In 1094 Gruffydd ap Cynan regained his freedom and, with the help of his mother's Irish relations, drove out the Norman earls. The next seventy years, the reigns of Gruffydd (1094-1137) and his son, Owain Gwynedd (1137-70), mark the most peaceful period of Welsh independence, when the native princes absorbed many of the current European reforming ideas and adapted the more effective structures of both church and state to their own society.

Monastic foundations were encouraged, diocesan boundaries defined, and many stone churches built. Motte-and-bailey earthwork castles identical to those built earlier by the Norman invaders were now erected by the princes as the centers of many of their personal estates. These estates were widely distributed because medieval rulers were continually on the move; they had to see and be seen in every part of their kingdom if they were to remain effective. They and their courtiers also needed the food which these estates produced. In theory there were two important features in each commote: a meardref with the llys or court at the center, where unfree laborers worked arable land, and a tract of upland grazing or ffridd. In practice their distribution may not have been as regular as the law tracts suggest.

After the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170, southern Wales, under Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys) in Dyfed, became dominant, but at the end of the century Gwynedd once again had a powerful prince. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (shown left) emerged as ruler in 1200, after a fierce family struggle. At his death in 1240 he was the undisputed ruler of all pura Wallia, corresponded on equal terms with Phillip Augustus of France, and had hanged one of the most powerful Marcher lords for undue familiarity with his wife, the daughter of King John of England.

Llywelyn's reign saw the construction of the first sophisticated stone castles in Wales built by her native rulers. Sited at strategic points peripheral to Snowdonia, often on his summer grazing lands, they guarded the store-cupboard of his kingdom. Simple towers like that in Dinas Emrys may belong to this program, but his best castles are much more sophisticated, and incorporate details of construction and advanced design being used by some of his friends - and enemies - among the Marcher lords. Dolwyddelan (below right) Dolbadarn, Criccieth, and Castell y Bere in south Meirionnydd still stand as witness to the energy and resources put into the defence of his kingdom after the disastrous attack which it suffered from his father-in-law, King John, in 1211. These castles were probably built between 1220 and 1230. The plans vary: towers are round, square or D-shaped, a ground plan especially characteristic of this series. The well-sited castle at Criccieth is undoubtedly the best design, but it might have been surpassed by Degannwy had this crucial site not been destroyed by his son Daffydd as part of a scorched earth policy.

Despite creating castles like Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan, the Welsh did not really adopt the Norman practice of building castles. Out of over 400 which still survive within the modern borders of Wales, less than 10% can be shown to have been built by Welshmen (although the original total must have been somewhat larger). The earliest reference to a Welsh lord planning to build a castle is found in an entry in the Brut y Tywysogyon, the Chronicle of the Princes. It records that, in 1111, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was slain at Welshpool where he had 'thought to stay and to make a castle'. Five years later, we have the first recorded mention of a castle which has survived to the present day: the mound or motte at Cymer, near Dolgellau, was put up by Uchdryd ab Edwin in 1116.

During the rest of the 12th century there are further very occasional references to the Welsh building castles. Where these can be identified today, they are of earthwork form, usually either a motte standing on its own or with an associated bailey. As such, they are indistinguishable from their English counterparts.

The scarcity of Welsh castles in the 12th century has rendered impossible any attempt at establishing an overall pattern to their distribution. They were not linked to any particular military campaign, nor do they appear to form part of a broader pattern of land control. Neither, as far as we can see, were such strongholds replacing the role of the llys or court as the centre of the Welsh administrative area, the commote. Rather, each appears to have fulfilled it's own specific role, generally that of controlling routeways. It was not until the 13th century that the Welsh began to build stone castles of a quality comparable to those raised by the English Marcher lords.

Building a castle was an expensive enterprise and a major drain on the finances of the princes. Construction would not have begun without a clear purpose in mind. One thing is immediately apparent. Like their 12th century predecessors, these castles were not being built at the commotal llys. The only exception was at Degannwy, on the eastern side of the Conwy estuary, a site of considerable importance dating back to the post -Roman period.

The court of Gwynedd was itinerant, moving from one centre to another, and we know that castles came to feature in there itineraries. Their locations suggest that these castles were primarily to serve a strategic function, as well as fulfilling a symbolic and political role. The princes were making it clear to the English Marcher lords, to other Welsh lords (many of whom owed allegiance to them), as well as to their own subjects, that they were true masters of all they ruled. Neither can it be a coincidence that Welsh castles were sometimes used to house important political prisoners.

At Llywelyn the Great's death the kingdom and Gwynedd's pre-eminence were again threatened by a disputed inheritance and renewed interest from England. Only when his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, overcame family rivals in 1255 could the political legacy of Llywelyn the Great begin to be rebuilt by a combination of raids and alliances. Llywelyn's position as effective ruler of all Wales as far south as Caerphilly was eventually recognized by Henry III, in the Treaty of Montgomery (1267). This acknowledged the title "Prince of Wales," and the concept of Wales as a unified state, never explicitly recognized before. The Prince of Wales was a vassal of the king of England but was, in effect, an independent political power. His grandfather's castles still provided the main defence of the kingdom; Llywelyn reinforced and enlarged them, but founded only one new castle at Dolforwyn near Welshpool, far outside his patrimony, begun in 1273 when clouds were already gathering on the horizon.

At various times the frontiers of Gwynedd extended right up to the English border. The castle built by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd at Ewloe lay close to the river Dee, and the one he began at Dolforwyn in 1273 lay almost within sight of the royal castle at Montgomery. Further west, Degannwy overlooked the coastal crossing of the Conwy, whilst castles at Carndochan and Castell y Bere guarded the southern border.

In 1271 Henry III was succeeded by his much more effective son Edward I, and Llywelyn's brothers and uncertain allies began to make trouble for him with the new king. Llywelyn added to his own difficulties by refusing homage, and war was declared in 1276. The first campaign centered upon the Severn and Dee valleys, and Llywelyn was forced to retreat to the river Conwy, Edward consolidating his conquests by the construction of great new castles at Flint and Rhuddlan. At the Peace of Aberconway, concluded in 1277, Llywelyn lost all that he had gained 10 years before.

The peace did not last long. Llywelyn's brother, Dafydd, provoked Edward by an attack on Hawarden in March 1282, and war reopened. Llywelyn was killed in a skirmish near Builth Wells and Dafydd had to continue the fight alone. Edward swept down the Conwy valley from Rhuddlan, capturing Dolwyddelan in January 1283, breaking the defensive ring; the other castles fell in rapid succession, and Dafydd was captured and executed in the early summer.

This marked the effective end of Welsh resistance, but Edward intended to consolidate his victory. He planned one of the most ambitious and expensive campaigns of castle and borough building that Europe had ever seen. Over 12 years he spent L60,000 (about L33 million in today's terms), more than 10 times his annual income, on building castles and walled towns at Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and the refurbishment of Llywelyn's castle at Criccieth. This integrated program - each borough defended by its castle, and each castle accessible by sea - has left Wales with a legacy of medieval military architecture of truly international importance.

The program, financed by Tuscan bankers and executed by a chief architect from Savoy, was international from the start. The castles, each tailored precisely to its site, were designed within a matter of months by one man, Master James of St. George, working under conditions of war. They reflected all the latest thinking in military science. The single, strong keep was no longer judged sufficient; defence lay in tactically designed walls - often two circuits - with optimum coverage and line of fire. The most perfect is the concentric castle at Beaumaris, an unencumbered site, but the others such as Conwy, with tandem arrangements of wards, are equally effective. The castle designs, with their imposing gatehouses, reflect highly intelligent and informed attention to detail, as do all the incidentals, barbicans, portcullises, machicolation, arrowslits and hoard settings.

Edward was unable to extend English governmental administration to north Wales as the semi-independent Marcher lordships lay between. The regime set up, therefore, was a quasi-colonial one: the Welsh could keep their own law of inheritance, but criminal law was to conform to that of England, and taxes were to be in money rather than kind. Extortionate taxation was one of the issues that led to a short-lived revolt in 1294.

In the early 1400s a serious revolt was led by Owain Glyndwr. At first, it was viewed as a protest of the poor; as the revolt grew in momentum from 1402 onwards, Glyndwr attracted to his banner some of the best minds and most experienced ecclesiastics in Wales, and the nature of his program for an independent principality, with a parliament, two universities and an independent archiepiscopal province, developed an attractive maturity and a certain modernity. For six years Glyndwr was successful. He established a court and a chancellery in the castle at Aberystwyth, but in 1409 he was besieged in Harlech Castle (shown left) and his family was captured. He and his chief advisors escaped to the hills and maintained a guerrilla war until 1413.

In the 15th century great estates were built up in Wales by the gentry, through the new freedom to buy and sell land. Despite intermittent warfare (the War of the Roses), this century was a period of economic and cultural revival. Contemporary poetry tells of aristocratic hospitality in newly built houses. Several of these hall-houses survive to this day. With their great cultural halls rising the full height of the building, they were admirably suited to such entertainment and hospitality but provided little privacy; few survive unchanged by the fashions of later centuries.

After the Glyndwr revolt the apparent need for castles quickly diminished. Unlike the impressive chain of new castles Henry VIII built in the south of England, there was no new castle construction in Wales during the reign of the Tudors. A tudor castle in Wales was typically a modified Norman castle. Existing castles were modified or refitted with Tudor-style refinements, transforming strongholds which had been primarily built for defensive purposes into elegant showplaces for their lords, ladies and guests. Handsome Carew Castle ( below right) in south Wales is an excellent example of this type of castle. The transition from military stronghold to comfortable residence was in many cases already underway, a change reflected in the fortified manor house at Weobley, for instance. The last castle built in Wales was stately Raglan, begun about 1435 some 74 years before Henry ascended the throne.

Despite the peaceful advances of the Tudor era, the castle as a military strongpoint was to have yet one last lease on life. When the Civil War broke out between the king and Parliament in 1642 Wales was almost wholly royalist, and a number of castles were garrisoned in Charles I's cause. Conwy was renovated and refortified during 1642-43 by John Williams, archbishop of York, and was held for the king throughout the first Civil War. Caernarfon and Ruthin both withstood Parliamentarian sieges and raids during the first war, and only finally surrendered in 1646. Denbigh, too, was held for the king until the garrison was forced to abandon a hopeless struggle after a very long siege lasting from the end of 1645 through until October 1646. In the south-east, the staunch royalist marquess of Worcester held out at Raglan in the spring and summer of 1646, in one of the most hotly-contested sieges of the war. The marquess finally surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax on 19 August, long after the submission of the king and the collapse of his cause. Various other castles featured to a greater or lesser degree in these wars. Surprising as it may seem, though, cannon bombardment was not the principal cause for their destruction at the time. So powerfully constructed were the medieval stone defences that gunpowder was only partly the reason for their destruction. It was the subsequent "slighting" ordered by Parliament, which caused the real damage.

As the Middle Ages drew to a close many of Wales' great castles were already in a state of ruinous decay and disuse, due largely to their purposeful destruction during the Civil War. Beginning in the late 18th century, however, these ruined monuments, long thought of simply as eyesores of a forgotten age, enjoyed something of a revival due in part to a series of romantic paintings by various artists, among them J.M.W. Turner. These paintings of stately ivy-clad ruins helped the public see castles in a somewhat different light. Rather than viewing castles as ugly piles of ready-made quarry materials, some began to appreciate the cultural heritage these monuments represented, ideas later embraced by the Victorians. The paintings then, can be seen as an important link in a chain of events that became a movement to save and restore Britain's historic treasures - including, of course, her castles. Although Turner and others were not always accurate in their depictions of castles and their situations, their works, nevertheless, were and are an important part of Wales' cultural heritage.


Overview of Welsh Castle Types

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas