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In the town of Conwy, Aberconwy & Colwyn, north Wales
Map link for Conwy Castle
All photographs copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Above: Conwy Castle viewed from the town wall (tower #13).
Below: Conwy's northern towers viewed from the town.
ords cannot do justice to Conwy Castle. The best, simple description is found in the guidebook published by CADW, the Welsh Historic Trust, which states: "Conwy is by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe." Conwy along with Harlech is probably the most impressive of all the Welsh castles. Both were designed by Edward I's master castle builder James of St. George, and while Harlech has a more storied past, Conwy's eight massive towers and high curtain wall are more impressive than those at Harlech.
Unlike Harlech however, Conwy Castle and town are surrounded by a well-preserved wall lending an additional sense of strength to the site. A similar town wall exists at Caernarfon Castle, but is far less complete and gets lost in the modern town. By contrast, Conwy's well-preserved wall helps the town maintain a medieval character lost by other Welsh castle-towns over the years. Construction of Conwy began in 1283. The castle was an important part of King Edward I's plan of surrounding Wales in "an iron ring of castles" to subdue the rebellious population. The highly defensible wall Edward built around the town was intended to protect the English colony planted at Conwy. The native Welsh population were violently opposed to English occupation of their homeland.
Today, Conwy is approached from the east via the A55 through North Wales. The beauty of this section of the country rivals anything in Britain. Approaching Conwy, the castle seems to suddenly rise out of the hills. The majestic old suspension bridge connecting the castle with the main peninsula, depicted in many representations of the castle over the years, still guards the main approach to the castle.
The castle dominates the entrance to Conwy, immediately conveying its sense of strength and compactness to the observer. The eight great towers and connecting walls are all intact, forming a rectangle as opposed to the concentric layouts of Edward's other castles in Wales. Almost all of the castle is accessible and well preserved. Journeying to the top of any of the towers offers the visitor spectacular views of the town, surrounding coastline and countryside. Sailboats and other pleasure-craft dot the picturesque harbor and quay next to the castle, while flocks of sheep roam the nearby hills.
We arrived in Conwy late Saturday afternoon following a quick visit to Rhuddlan Castle. We drove through the town several times trying to find our hotel, without success. We finally stopped and asked a local man if he knew of the hotel, and were promptly given friendly, accurate directions to our destination. We checked in to the Park Hall Hotel, which is about a half mile outside town, changed and rested a bit following our long drive from York. We then returned to town and immediately assaulted the castle. In quoting from the castle guidebook:"Anyone looking at Conwy Castle for the first time will be impressed first and foremost by the unity and compactness of so great a mass of building, with its eight almost identical towers, four on the north and four on the south, pinning it to the rock on which it stands. Especially striking is the long northern front, where the tower's equidistant spacing divides the wall surface into three exactly similar sections, each pierced by a similar pair of arrowloops, and each rising to a common battlement line."Like Edward's other well-preserved castles, Conwy gives visitors the opportunity to walk top portions of the curtain wall, and ascend higher to the tops of the towers. From these vantage points you can begin to appreciate the layout of the castle interior - the Inner Ward, Great Hall and Cellars, King's Hall, and other associated buildings. To quote further:"The Inner Ward is the heart of the castle, containing, as it does, the suite of apartments which Master James of St. George contracted to build for King Edward and Queen Eleanor in 1283. In each range of buildings the principal rooms were on the first floor, with heated but somewhat dark basements below them. All the floors are now missing."
Although the interior of the castle is not nearly as complete as Caernarfon, the rectangular shaped interior is unique among Edward's castles. The different sections rise to three distinct heights in a terraced fashion, reminding one a little of the Inner Ward structure at Chepstow Castle in southeast Wales. After our assault on the castle was complete, we decided to explore the town. Conwy is a small town with narrow one way streets. In the town square stands a statue of Llywelyn ap Iowerth, or Llywelyn the Great (d.1240) the founder of Conwy and one of Wales' most heroic and popular medieval leaders. The statue is painted according to Llywelyn's supposed heraldic colors, and forms part of a small fountain that serves as the centerpiece for the town square.
Conwy is a town that time has simply chosen to pass by. Despite a few modern shops, Conwy still looks very similar to the town Edward envisioned some 700 years ago. The ancient town walls, castle and simple streets offer very little to remind the visitor of the modern world. Conwy is something of a paradox. Originally a symbol of English domination of Wales, in time the Welsh managed to reclaim the town, replacing English oppression with its own medieval character. Only at Conwy and St. Davids did we get the feeling of being transported back to ancient Wales.
After having dinner at a local fish & chips shop we decided to take on the town walls. The walls are remarkable for their state of preservation, forming almost a complete circuit around the town. Only a small section near the quay is inaccessible, and even here, the ruins of the wall have been incorporated into the existing buildings. The walls are 1400 yards in length and are flanked by twenty-one towers and three double tower gateways, a constant reminder of the mighty castle looming in the distance. Conwy Castle dominates the skyline from literally all points along the wall. The spur wall projecting 60 yards from the end of the quay offer some of the best views of the castle, including incredible floodlit nighttime views.
Our last night in Conwy was special for a couple of reasons. After spending the day visiting Beaumaris and Caernarfon castles, we decided to try some local Welsh cuisine back in Conwy. We chose the Erskin Hotel, where we dined on grilled lamb steak, potatoes and vegetables. Finishing dinner at 10:30, we made our way back to the town wall to view floodlit Conwy Castle at night, and were rewarded with a spectacular sight. I had seen photographs of the floodlit castle, although they failed to prepare me for the real thing. All eight of the castle's towers were individually lit with spotlights, along with sections of the curtain wall and the old suspension bridge. During our vacation there were several locations at which we could have easily lingered for hours; stately Raby Castle, the Pembrokeshire coast at St. Davids, the parks at Raglan and Carew castles, Hadrian's Wall, and perhaps most of all, the town walls at Conwy. Standing on the wall viewing the castle, I felt as though I finally understood Conwy's meaning and place in medieval Welsh history. Llywelyn the Great, King Edward and his castle builder, James of St. George, and all the Welshmen who died fighting against what the castle stood for, still make their presence felt in this ancient medieval town. It had taken almost two days, be we had finally arrived in Wales.
We awoke the following morning, had breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. Conwy was ultimately a powerful reminder of why we came to this marvelous place called Wales. Our two days and nights in Conwy were probably my favorite part of the trip. Visiting Raby and Lincoln stirred Parthene's medieval roots, while Conwy and St. Davids had the same impact on me. Departing the area through the beautiful "Vale of Conwy," we were excited to finally be on our way to St. Davids, but still a little sad that we had only spent two days in the remarkable Welsh town of Conwy.
Conwy is by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe. First impressions are of tremendous military strength, a dominating position and a unity and compactness of design. The eight mighty towers seem to spring from the very rock which dictated the castle's eventual layout. As with Edward I's other great castles in north Wales, the design and building operations were in the hands of James of St. George, who eventually held the title of Master of the Kings Works in Wales. At Conwy, however, he somehow created a building which, more than any other, demonstrates his brilliant understanding of military architecture.
It was during his second campaign in Wales that King Edward gained control of the Conwy valley in March 1283. He began work on the new fortress almost immediately, the natural advantages of the site being so far superior to those of the older castle at Deganwy on the opposite side of the estuary. Moreover, plans were laid for an accompanying garrison town, itself to be defended by a complete circuit of walls and towers. Castle and town walls were all built in a frenzied period of activity between 1283-87, a tremendous achievement in which up to 1,500 craftsmen and labourers were involved during peak periods.
In like most of the king's other new castles in Wales, Conwy was not built to a "concentric" plan. The nature of the rock outcrop dictated a linear outline, with a lower barbican outwork at each end. The interior was sharply divided by a cross wall into two quite separate wards, so that either could hold out independently if the other should fall. When completed, the walls would have been covered with a white plaster rendering, which must have had a stunning effect, quite different from the gray stonework visible today. Traces of this can be seen clinging to the outer walls.
The original entrance to the outer ward was by way of a long stepped ramp up to the west barbican, which was defended by drawbridge and portcullis. Inside the ward, the four towers provided some accommodation for the garrison, and in the base of the Prison Tower is the gloomy dungeon. On the left the foundations mark the site of the kitchens and stables. To the right, the unusual bowed plan of the Great Hall was made necessary by the rocky foundations. Some 125 ft long, it dominates the outer ward, and with its fine windows and original bright decoration it must have appeared a glorious sight during royal feasts.
At the far end of the ward is the castle wall, and beyond this a further drawbridge protected the entrance to the inner ward. This was the heart of the castle, the area occupied by the private apartments of the king and queen. They included a hall and a sumptuous presence chamber, though only the shells of the once magnificent windows remain to give some indication of their former splendor. A beautiful little chapel gives one of the towers its name, and the King's Tower provided further private rooms.
King Edward was actually besieged at Conwy during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1295. Though food ran low, the walls stood firm. Some alterations were carried out under Edward, the Black Prince in the 14th century. (Jeff's note: In 1403 the castle fell by trickery to the forces of Owain Glyndwr, was held by his men and later ransomed back to the English for some much-needed funds.) Conwy saw some action in the Civil War, but afterwards was left to the elements.
No visit to Conwy is complete without a circuit of the town walls. They are one of the finest and most complete sets in Europe, over 3/4 mile in length with 21 towers and three original gateways.
Approaching the castle from the wall walk.
View of the Chapel Tower and the River Conwy from the King's Tower.
View of the modern entrance to the castle leading from the visitor's center.
View of the Mill Gate section of town wall near the castle.
Detailed view of a fireplace from Conwy's Great Hall.
Additional view of the modern entrance to the castle (small gate at bottom right).
Additional view of the Outer Ward.
Learn more about Conwy's town walls
Learn more about the castles of Edward I
Learn more about Edward I's bastide towns in north Wales
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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas