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An Argument for the Lesser-Known

Castles of Wales

Text and photograph copyright by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: Tomen-y-Faerdre Castle in Denbighshire

It is beyond dispute that some of the world's best surviving medieval castles are found in Wales. Indeed, the well-known castles of Conwy, Beaumaris, Harlech, and Caernarfon today deservedly enjoy their status of "designated World Heritage Sites" for both their remarkable design and state of preservation.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that these well-known, impressive survivals alone tell the story of the development of the castle in medieval Wales, or that the most impressive surviving castles were the most historically significant. The Welsh landscape is literally strewn with the remains of hundreds of lesser-known, less impressive castles that demand our attention as well.

Most guidebooks and/or general surveys of the Welsh landscape tend to mention the same 40 to 60 castles, and it's tempting to accept these numbers as final, especially since they include castles that represent some the world's finest surviving examples of medieval military architecture. However, when we count the lesser-known castles that once inhabited the landscape, quite a different picture emerges as the numbers quickly climb towards 400 known castles and castle sites. Yes, Wales truly is a "land of castles" though many don't realize the actual numbers behind this statement.

Unfortunately, many historically significant Welsh castles disappeared centuries ago, leaving little or no trace. Timber castles, once a prominent feature of the Welsh landscape, have long since vanished due to the nature of their building materials. Hen Domen in Montgomeryshire, once an important Norman outpost on the hostile Welsh frontier vanished, centuries ago, leaving little more than its original motte to distinguish it today. (See Higham & Barker's landmark publication Timber Castles Stackpole Books, London for information on this topic). Building in stone did not always guarantee survival either. Purposeful destruction, neglect and the simple ravages of time have all conspired to reduce many a once-important stone-built castle to piles of rubble, or worse, removed them from the landscape altogether.

Below: Aberedw Castle

There are many examples of historically significant "vanished castles" throughout Wales; The aforementioned Hen Domen in Montgomeryshire, Aberedw in Breconshire (shown at right), Deganwy and Old Rhuddlan (Twthill) in north Wales, Sycharth and Painscastle in Powys, Nevern in Pembrokeshire, Tomen y Mur in Gwynedd, and the original castles at Cardigan and Aberystwyth, were all historically significant, yet today provide us with few clues as to their former grandeur.

The question is, "how should we view and treat these lesser-known sites that seem to possess little in the way of tourist appeal"? The answer is, with awareness and respect. The truth is that many of these long-neglected, historically significant sites are actually in greater need of our attention and conservation efforts than more famous ruins. A lone tower standing high on a hill in Breconshire, or a stretch of curtain wall in a farmer's field in Radnorshire, are usually in greater danger of disappearing from the landscape than more substantial survivals. Fortunately, through the efforts of dedicated individuals, some of these sites have been re-discovered, documented, and in some instances, important conservation efforts have already been initiated.

But there is another group of often-overlooked castles that deserves our attention as well. Native Welsh castles, so-called because they were built by the native rulers of Wales, are not as well known or structurally impressive as their Norman counterparts, however, a castle site should never be judged solely upon its surviving remains. Those who have visited the dramatically-sited castles of Carreg Cennen, Dinas Bran, Castell y Bere, Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn, and others, will readily testify to the historic significance and special atmosphere some of these sites seem to possess. Exploring a native Welsh castle is a different type of experience, but not necessarily a less-rewarding one. The mighty walls of Conwy are matched by the stunning panoramas of the valley below from the summit of Castell Dinas Bran; the majesty of Harlech is countered by the dramatic landscapes of Cader Idris in southern Snowdonia as seen from Castell y Bere, and the perfection and beauty of Beaumaris is challenged by the haunting landscapes found at Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn.

Below: Dolbadarn Castle in north Wales framed by the Snowdonia Mountains.

Those who don't bother to seek out these important medieval strongholds of the native rulers of Wales are only getting half of the story, the Norman half. Many would argue that the Welsh side of the story is both more compelling and more important. Visiting these stunning native gems and some of the other lesser-known sites mentioned above (both Norman and Welsh) is important because it also helps one to gain a better understanding of the Welsh landscape and how it relates to both the social and military history of Wales. Have you really seen the castles of Wales if you've only managed to visit the Edwardian giants of the north and the Norman masterpieces of the south? Many would answer that question with a resounding "no."

Fortunately, conservation organizations within Wales and Britain, (Cadw in particular), have made great strides towards preserving some of these sites for future generations through education and on-site conservation projects. Other dedicated individuals, many of whom are members of Britain's Castle Studies Group, are contributing their efforts as well, by taking part in and later publishing the results of important field studies. It is fervently hoped that the Castles of Wales web site will give people pause to consider some of these lesser-known, but often historically significant and dramatically sited monuments. The cause is noble, the needs are great, and the rewards are inestimable.

Jeffrey L. Thomas

 

Learn more about the Vanished Castles of Wales and the Marches
Learn more about native Welsh castles

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas