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THE CASTLES OF NORTH WALES
IT seems a far cry from Carnarvon to Constantinople, from the castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in the County of Tripoli, to Harlech, on the cliffs of Wales. Yet it is to the Orient that one must go for the inspiration of the concentric type of fortress, which is seen at its best in the castles built by Edward I to subdue the Welsh. For Constantinople faithfully preserved the traditions of the Roman Empire. The Crusaders brought back to Europe from the East much that the West had forgotten during five centuries; and as the Byzantine Empire was not a dead limb of corruption (pace Gibbon), they brought back these military ideas improved and refined by a people which had fought continually to reconquer its lost territories. The Crusaders were astonished to find at Constantinople a triple wall three miles in extent with a hundred flanking towers; and the outer walls were lower than the inner so that the soldiers of the triple line of defence could shoot simultaneously at the enemy. The walls at Constantinople were of the same lineage as those at Pevensey, but of a later generation. To imitate the simile contained in a well-known poem, it might be said that the builders of Carnarvon went to Pevensey by way of the Golden Horn.
At the sieges of Acre and Antioch the Crusaders found that they had to capture the flanking towers — veritable fortresses in themselves — before they could carry the walls commanded by them. The Franks in Syria built many notable fortifications in which advantage was taken of their experience in the new tactical plan. Even the ruins of such strongholds as Kerak in the desert beyond Jordan, and Krak des Chevaliers, rival in dignity the walls of Carnarvon and Conway.
The new ideas spread very gradually through Europe, from the time when Richard I, acting on first-hand knowledge, erected his Château Gaillard, which was, however, built to oppose successive lines of defence to the enemy rather than as a network of fortifications in which each section assisted another. The ideal castle would be capable of defence by the smallest possible garrison in proportion to the size of the army of attack; it would allow a party from the garrison to make a sortie from one point in order to attack an enemy force that was engaged elsewhere in an assault; it would therefore oblige the besieger to weaken his forces by dividing them so as to cover all the defences, and it would be so situated by sea or river as to allow a relieving party to reach the castle without passing through the besieger’s lines. In the ideal castle of the type, siege engines could not be brought up to walls enfiladed by flanking towers, and these towers with the gatehouses could hold out by themselves for a time as isolated citadels if every other part of the defences were captured by the attackers. The fruition of these ideas is still to be seen in the famous defences of Carcassonne in France, which were erected after the Albigensian Crusade at a time contemporary with the building of Caerphilly.
The Welsh castles were not, like most of the English castles, adapted for successive military needs. It is possible to trace the evolutionary growth of the Tower of London, of Dover, and even of the border-line castles at Chepstow and Ludlow. Because few castles were built on new sites in England after the reign of Henry II, the English castles were for the most part makeshift in the best sense of the word. Lessons learnt abroad and at home had to be applied to existing castles. Ingenious barbicans and flanking towers were added to the Norman walls, and a compromise had to be hammered out between the military and the domestic aspects; but the English castles were none the less strong for that, and the early splendour of their domestic buildings reflects the rise of a capable monarchy.
But it was otherwise in Wales. There, until the middle of the fourteenth century, castles were built for immediate military purposes. The chains of castles extending to Pembroke and northward up the river valleys; from Shrewsbury into the mountains; and from Chester to Criccieth, were block-houses to hold each new conquest. They were built rapidly in most cases, but always to a design carefully suited to the nature of the site. The military element was predominant; there was little room for the more refined comforts of English baronial life. And the royal castles, in North Wales in particular, proved almost by their existence that they were no longer needed. That the King could build Conway or Beaumaris was an indication that he had conquered, that there was the less need for such castles. Possibly Wales might still have been lost without them, but by the time of the Wars of the Roses they stood for no more and no less than any of the royal castles in England. They stood for the struggle between Lancastrian and Yorkist, not for the English against the Welsh. And because they were built at a late period with scientific care, they remain without alterations and improvements at the hands of later generations as examples of the highest level to which the art of castellation rose in these islands during the Middle Ages.
There is a strange story that in the reign of Henry I a Syrian named Lalys was settled in Glamorgan by Richard de Glanville. He lived at Lalestown, assisted in the first buildings at Neath Abbey, and presumably left his mark upon the castles in the neighbourhood; but he made no impression upon the general history of military architecture. In 1277 when Edward I, upon the submission of Llewelyn, immediately began the erection of Rhuddlan, he employed as his architect a man with the high-sounding name of Master James de St. George, whom we find engaged at a later period on Conway, Harlech, and Beaumaris. It has been suggested that the architect of Harlech must have been responsible also for Caerphilly, but little is certainly known of Master James de St. George, except that he was the magister operacionum regis in Wallia, drawing at one period a salary of three shillings a day in the money of the time, and later a yearly retaining fee of one hundred marks.
The many strongholds which this architect may have planned were intended to blockade Snowdonia. Some of these were Welsh fortresses originally, reconstructed by the victorious English. It is curious that the Welsh ever took to castle-building. The mountains were sufficient defences in themselves when the plains had been surrendered. Edward’s military problem might be compared with the siege of a Norman castle. Snowdonia was an impregnable keep with Anglesey and the coastal strip an enclosure or granary at its foot. If the Welsh were to build castles anywhere they should have built them in the flat lands. But such castles as Criccieth, Harlech, Bere, and Dolwyddelan, in various states of disrepair, are the eagles’ nests of the defeated Welsh, occupied by the victors; while in the lowlands we find Conway, Carnarvon, Beaumaris, and Rhuddlan among those built on new sites by the English invaders.
Harlech stands boldly upon a rock 200 feet in height, with a sandy plain at its foot separating it from the sea. It belongs to the orthodox concentric type, for its lines of defence lie one within another; but it is not built on a geometric plan like Beaumaris, for the walls follow the contour of the rock, and are built to command a frontage on the sea whence relief could arrive during a siege. The outer ward, irregular in shape, made a large enclosure to the north of the main fortifications, taking in the slopes of the hill down to the sea. On the west side was the water-gate, defended by a pit and a drawbridge. Thence a steep path, the way from the marsh, led upward, commanded at all points from the walls of the enclosure, to an upper gate in the wall, defended in the same manner. A survey taken in the reign of Henry VIII describes how this cleverly-protected “Weye from the Marshe,” with a drawbridge at the lower level “to issew forthe horsemen or footemen, is forced upon the side of the rocke, having a strong wall towards the sea, being in length to another drawbridge c yerdes.”
The square-set buildings of the castle itself stand at the south-east corner of this enclosure at the summit of the rock, surrounded at a slightly lower level by the walls of the middle ward with bastions at three of the angles and a barbican in front of the great gatehouse on the landward side. The walls of the outer enclosure joined the curtain of the middle ward in the southern and eastern sides, so at that point there were only two lines of defence. To remedy the defect a deep fosse was cut in the solid rock. The inner ward, roughly square, with round towers projecting at the angles, was very well protected from attack on three sides by the declivity of the hill, out of which the walls rose to a height of 40 feet.
At Harlech there was only one gatehouse, not two as at Beaumaris and elsewhere. This was a square building astride the wall projecting from the curtain towards the town in two rounded towers, its rear forming a rectangular block in the inner ward with round towers at the angles. The only feasible approach to the castle, then, was by ditch and barbican, and through the passage of the gatehouse, 54 feet in length, obstructed by three gates and three portcullises with a meurtrière opening at each end. Still the most perfectly preserved portion of Harlech castle, the gatehouse has three floors containing the private dwelling rooms of the Constable, with two private oratories, and guardrooms. Around the other walls of the ward were the quarters of the garrison, now largely destroyed; but they included a hall, kitchens, and a chapel.
The rebuilding of Harlech was probably begun in 1283, immediately after the death of Llewelyn and the capture of David, and there is probably no part of the castle later than the reigns of Edward I or his son. It maintained a garrison of no more than thirty men, which was yet large enough to defend the castle for three months in 1293. In the rising of Owen Glen dower the castle was manned by only five Englishmen and fifteen Welshmen; but even after the capture of the Constable “the remnent of the sowdiers kept the Castel welynough “until it was shamefully delivered up “for a certain sum of gold.” Harlech was the last castle surrendered to the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, and the last to hold out for Charles I in the Civil Wars. On the first occasion the Constable Dafydd ab Jevan ab Einion, called upon to surrender to Edward IV, proudly replied that “he had kept a castle so long in France as to make all the old women in Wales talk of him, and he would keep this castle so long as to make all the old women in France talk of him.” In 1604 it was reported that Harlech was “as yet kept in somme better reparacioun than anye of his Majesty’s Castles in North Wales,” so that it was well prepared to give Major-General Mytton a stout resistance, though it was held by only forty-five men, and surrendered in 1647.
Neither Conway nor Carnarvon are orthodox, concentric castles, inasmuch as in each case the two wards are adjacent on a narrow site, but all the other principles of the concentric type are implied in their construction. Conway closed the approach to Snowdonia by land and river. It replaced the Norman fortress of Deganwy higher up the River Conway on the English side, and being on the Welsh bank it acted as a bridgehead for the safe guarding of Edward’s lines. Carnarvon, which was the Roman Segontium, held the end of the road at the mouth of the River Seiont. Although they resemble each other superficially in plan, it is not thought that the same architect was responsible for the two castles. The round towers of Conway with turrets only in the inner ward can never be confused with the gaunt, octagonal towers of banded limestone at Carnarvon, with high turrets rising above them. The Eagle tower at Carnarvon is capped by three turrets, which have been fancifully compared with the three feathers of the Principality; for tradition, if not history, points to the Eagle tower as the birthplace of the first Prince of Wales. Both at Conway and Carnarvon the walls of the tower meet in the castle walls. At Conway the north-western angle of the castle was inside the town, and at Carnarvon the length of the castle took the place of a town wall on the south. Thus the town was an outer bailey to the castle, but the possibility of the defection of the citizen was not unprovided for: this is evident from the concentration of arrow slits on the head of the street leading to Carnarvon castle, and on the ground before the main gate. The towers flanking the gate were thickly set with slits commanding every inch of the entrance — some of them pointing inwards to cover the Welsh in the rear as they battered against successive portcullises.
Conway castle, roughly oblong in plan, was divided into two wards by a thick wall near the middle of its longer sides. At either end were platforms defended by walls and bastions. There was no gatehouse. The approach from the town, led through an outer gate up a steep ascent, over a drawbridge thrown across the ditch separating town from castle, and then through an inner gate to the western platform. A sharp turn to the left led to the well- defended gateway of the outer ward. By this device of a right‑angle turn an enemy could be taken in flank as he approached the gateway. A similar arrangement was in use at Beaumaris. The eastern platform gave access to the water-gate by the sea. A hall and chapel were ranged against the south side of the outer ward, but the hall was a poor one, for it followed the curve of the wall. In the inner ward was a further series of living apartments, including the royal quarters, and in the Queen’s tower a beautiful apsidal oratory in three bays with a lancet window in each.
At Carnarvon the shape is rather that of a figure eight, for the sides are drawn in a little where the cross-wall divided the enclosure into two wards. The division has now entirely disappeared, making it possible to see from end to end of the castle. Where Conway had no gatehouse Carnarvon had two. The King’s Gate, facing the town, is now the only entrance, for the Queen’s Gate on the east is 25 feet from the ground and could only have been approached by a steeply rising bridge across the moat. These two gatehouses with the Eagle tower at the west end (which was virtually the keep or strong tower of the castle) were the pivotal features of the castle. There was also a postern. Apart from these strategic provisions for defence there was a quay by the river-side for ships to discharge cargo, and the long line of wall fronting the river was pierced with three rows of loops served by two mural galleries and the rampart walk. Conway was more economically defended, for attack was inevitably concentrated upon the only exposed point, the gateway, which was so well protected; but at Carnarvon the defensive measures were more thoroughly worked out, and an enemy would have to scatter his forces very widely to safeguard himself from being taken in the flank by a sortie.
The history of Conway was very much the history of Carnarvon. In 1295, when the building of Carnarvon was half finished, a son of Llewelyn roused the people to rebellion when
a large number were in the town for a fair. The castle was taken, the Constable hanged, and Edward hurried into Wales for the last time. He was forced to retreat upon Conway, after losing his baggage train, and there he was perilously besieged, for a high tide prevented the boats containing his supplies from crossing the river. He was able to put down the rising within a year, however, but the rebuilding of Carnarvon was necessary — he ordered the Justices of Chester to find 100 masons for the royal works at Carnarvon — and to safeguard Anglesey he built Beaumaris at the opposite end of the Menai Straits. During Owen Glendower’s rebellion Conway fell into the rebels’ hands for a few days, but Sir John Chandos with twenty men-at-arms and eighty archers, beat off the rebel leader’s attacks at Carnarvon in 1402. In the Civil Wars Conway, defended by Archbishop Andrews of York and Sir John Owen, and Carnarvon, defended by Lord Byron, were both invested and forced to surrender by Major-General Mytton.
Harlech, on a crag by the sea, is at its best in a storm of wind or by a bright moon, but Conway or Carnarvon deserve the sun light. Conway rivals York as an example of a mediæval walled town, and excels York in that the castle is so nearly intact. It commands the town on a promontory of a higher level, as Carnarvon castle overshadows its town by the height of its curtain walls. Carnarvon castle is, however, the better preserved of the two, for its walls are kept free from ivy, and it has more historical associations as the castle of the Prince of Wales. Dr. Johnson was not alone in the appreciation of Carnarvon, which he expressed during his visit in 1774. “I did not think there had been such buildings,” exclaimed this lover of London ways, “it surpassed my ideas.”