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North Wales Castle Builders

Above: Edward I instructs Master James of St. George

I often get questions from visitors to the site about who actually built the castles of Wales and how. While it is true that we know the names of some of the kings, princes, lords, barons and other nobles who were responsible for the commissioning of certain Welsh castles, the historic record is almost silent regarding the men who were actually responsible for the day to day hands-on design and construction of the castles of Wales. That is, with one notable exception; the Edwardian castles of north Wales.

Fortunately, a substantial written record has survived, shedding light on several of the men who oversaw and participated in the construction of Edward's mighty castles. Many of you know that Edward's principal castle designer/engineer was a man known to history as Master James of St George, but few know anything about the men who worked immediately under this greatest of all castle builders. What these excerpts demonstrate is that James of St George was not the only master castle builder employed by Edward in Wales. On the contrary, it seems that Master James was ably assisted by some of Europe's best and brightest castle-builders and craftsmen.

This page then, is an attempt to provide some interesting and revealing details about several of these principal assistants, engineers, supervisors and craftsmen. The information comes from Dr A.J. Taylor's landmark work, The King's Work in Wales 1277-1330, which is highly recommended but unfortunately currently out of print.

 

Below: Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey in north Wales, the last of the Edwardian castles.

 

Notes on Savoyard and other foreign craftsmen employed by Edward I in Wales

Philip the Carpenter

Philip 'Senta', principal carpenter for the construction of the roof of the Great Tower at Flint in 1286, is presumably identical with the Philip 'of Ewyas' named as the principal carpenter at Caernarvon Castle in June-July 1295; and with the 'Philip the carpenter' who (i) appears as a burgess of Caernarvon in 1298, (ii) was paid for executing the timber work of the 'Beleestre' tower in Caernarvon Castle in 1305, and (iii) was the leader of ten carpenters felling and preparing timber in Nantconway for the hall over the King's Gate at Caernarvon in July 1320. He would not have been the only English carpenter working for the counts of Savoy at about that time.

Below: The Great Tower at Flint Castle

 

Master Bertram

A military engineer of long experience, probably of Gascon origin. Appears as Master Bertrand de Saltu, ingeniator, in 1248; served at the siege of Benauges in 1253; in charge of the construction of the king's engines at the Tower of London from April 1276; present at the siege of Dolforwyn in March-April 1277, and considered as possible supervisor of subsequent repairs to that castle; engaged on Rhuddlan works in 1277-8; received wages for service with the king in war in Wales 1 November 1282 to 29 February 1284 about which time he died and was buried at Caernarvon, the cost of his funeral being allowed to the constable of the castle. Was at Castell-y-Bere on 3 May to 6 June 1283, apparently directing the repair of the castle following its surrender by the Welsh. Though specialising in ingenia and siege operations, his employment in connection with building works is established by the evidence for Dolforwyn, Rhuddlan and Bere, as also by his presence at Caernarvon in 1283-4.

Below: Dolforwyn Castle

 

Stephen the Painter

Stephen was no doubt the same artist as had been engaged by Master James of St George in 1274-5 for the painted chambers of the count and countess of Savoy in Count Philip's new castle of St. Laurent-du-Pont. A year earlier (May-July 1273 - exactly the time when Edward I was Count Philip's guest at St. Georges-d'Esperanche), Stephen had carried out the redecoration of Westminster Hall in preparation for Edward's coronation. If, as is very probable, Stephen was also responsible for the only slightly earlier and still surviving decoration of the camera clericorum at Chillon (castle), we have some idea of a style of wall painting likely to have been used originally in some of the more important chambers in the North Wales castles. Its characteristic motif, an alternating red and white chevron pattern survives in contemporary work in this country only in St. Faith's Chapel in Westminster Abbey, where the correspondence of the original colours with those employed at Chillon is vouched for by Schnebbelie's watercolour of 1790.

 

Master Manasser de Vaucouleurs

From Vaucouleurs in Champagne. It is of note that payment for the task assigned him by Master James on the well at Hope (Caergwrle) was calculated at 6d. the toise; he was paid for 7 toises, i.e. about 60 feet. The toise was the normal unit of measurement for masonry surfaces in the castle works of the counts of Savoy. Master Manasser was employed as master and director of the diggers at Caernarvon, where he became a burgess and where before his death (1293 or earlier) he held office as one of the town bailiffs.

Below: Caergwrle Castle in northeast Wales

 

John Francis

There is reason to believe John Francis came to Wales from Savoy and that he is to be identified with the "Johannes Fransiscus' who is named with other masons and carpenters in the Chillon accounts of 1266. He was probably the builder of the castle of Brignon (canton Valais) in 1261-2. His tower at Saillon still stands to nearly its full height, together with much of the curtain wall and flanking towers and the contemporary town wall and its gateways. In their siting in relation to the terrain, in the texture and appareil of their masonry, and in constructional technique (use of inclined scaffolds), they show a marked affinity with Conway.

 

Albert de Menz

In 1286 Albert de Menz was one of those paid for making a chimney for the chamber of Sir John de Bonvillars in Harlech Castle, and for quarrying and dressing of a variety of freestone details. In 1289 he was paid for further similar work, including the making of window mullions for the castle hall. Is likely to have come from Savoy.

 

Master Giles of St George and Adam Boynard

In the Harlech accounts for 1286 'Gilet', Adam Boynard, John of Paris and Peter of Tours appear with others, named and unnamed, merely as suppliers of horses and carts used to bring heavy materials to the site. Three of the group, Collardus, Gilbertus and Perrotts, are sometimes qualified as clericus, seemingly in the context an unlikely pointer to their real status. The presence amongst them of Robert de Walden suggests that on the contrary they were probably masons. This accords with the further suggestion that 'Gilet' is to be identified with the Giletus de sancto Georgio who built Philip of Savoy's still surviving donjon at Saxon in 1279-80 and who appears as Master Giles of St George at Aberystwyth in 1282; with him at Saxon there worked another leading figure who in Savoy records appears variously as 'Beynard King' and 'Adam King' and who thus seems likely to be none other than his Harlech associate Adam Boynard; he became burgess of Harlech and acted as bailiff in 1291-2. While nothing is certainly known of Peter of Tours or John of Paris, it at least seems probable if this identification is correct that Giles of St George and Adam Boynard may have held key positions under Master James in the earlier stages of the Harlech works.

Below: Harlech Castle

 

Learn more about Master James of St. George
More information about the castles of Edward I

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas