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The Castles of Wales Part 1

Updated on March 26, 2013

Amazing Structures

Southern Castles

In the past and over the centuries Wales had 400 Castles defending it's borders and coastlines, today there are about 100 still standing, some though are ruins, others have been restored some what. The other 300 have sadly more or less disappeared, and been given back to nature, the only evidence of their existence being ditches or mounds, and the odd underground pattern as to where they once stood. The one important thing that they all have in common is the commanding positions where they are situated, to defend all its borders from the ensuing intruders.

Starting off in the South of Wales at Bridgend, Candleston Castle, a 14th century fortified manor house, though in ruins since the nineteenth century many of its fortified walls are visible today in great detail. The first tenants or custodians were the very feudal Norman family of Cantilupe, as all their feuding and fighting took its toll on the Castle, though fortified it sustained considerable damage. In 1470 the settlement and Castle at Kenfig next door to Candleston, were abandoned, as the encroaching sand engulfed everything. Up to this day there is no evidence of Kenfig its settlement and Castle as it has been completely submerged by the sand and sea. Rising sea levels, encroaching and eroding sands, played a vital role in land mass acquisition and destruction during mid to late medieval times. Even back then climate change was playing its part, just as it is today, with huge storms, double the rainfall, compared to the previous decades, with rising seas creating abnormal and extremely high tides in most cases.

Caerphilly Castle is a fine example of a medieval fortification Castle, and built by Gilbert DeClare in the 13th Century, Caerphilly Castle is the second largest, not in Wales, but, the whole of the UK. It is also well known for its concentric defences, for its huge gatehouses,yet, experiencing extensive battles between the Welsh Natives and their rulers, and Gilbert and his descendants. Due to this it is surrounded by the most elaborate water defences in the UK, occupying 30 acres in a commanding prominent position, being in use today, open to the public, it has been partially restored, however it is still considered a ruin.

Cardiff Castle is a medieval Castle, also a Victorian Gothic Revival Mansion the original motte and bailey Castle was built in the late 11th Century, situated in Castle Quarter of Cardiff. Constructed by Norman invaders, it was built right on top of a Roman fort, which dates back to the 3rd Century. Initially commissioned by Robert Fitzhamon or William the conqueror, forming what is believed to be the medieval town of Cardiff's heart, this being the Marcher Lord Territory of Glamorgan. Further improvements were carried out over the centuries, 12th century Robert of Gloucester started a rebuild, so did Richard de Clare in the late 13th Century. During the 12th century the Castle had come under attack on more than several occasions, specifically in battles between the Welsh and Anglo-Normans, and during the Owain Glyndwr rebellion. In the following centuries Cardiff Castle was occupied by a number of different dignitaries, military personnel, even civilians being sheltered during the second World War. This shows just how versatile Castles or similar buildings have been, and can be over the centuries.

Survived for Centuries

Carmarthen Castle situated in Carmarthen Town, which itself lays claim to be the oldest town in Wales, is by today a borough with a population of around 17,000 residents. The Castle has somewhat disappeared by today, what remains is a ruin with just vague glimpse's of what was here all those centuries ago. However, a Castle that remains visible is "Dinefwr Castle" in a position overlooking the River Tywi, situated nearby the town of Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire. Standing several hundred feet above the river, it has a prominent position being built on the ridge with good visibility. Owned these days by the "Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales" and it is managed by Cadw. Lying inside "Dinefwr Park" visitors can visit the Castle for free, however due to the fact that the park is owned by the "National Trust" you might have to pay for parking. Dinefwr Castle is thought to have been built around 10th century only to be virtually destroyed in 1140. History claims that Rhys ap Gruffydd rebuilt the Castle when he was ruler of "Deheubarth" between 1155 to 1197, just as with Cardiff Castle, through the centuries Dinefwr Castle changed ownership, got restored extended even rebuilt, and it still stands to this day. Today entrance to the Castle is through the massive door, this is protected though by a length of battlement, with much still standing it is well worth visiting, staircases lead to the main battlements and the towers. A spiral staircase takes you up to the high tower where you can enjoy the full view of Tywi Valley and the river, and as admission is free it is extremely good value.

Ceredigion County, here is where Aberystwyth is located, a seaside town on the West coast of Wales, an ideal location for a Castle, or in Aberystwyth's case an Edwardian Fortress. Constructed in approximately 1277, an inner-ward of diamond to include the concentric Castle, with this a double D-shaped gatehouse keep and mural towers. An outer-ward was constructed and took the exact same shape as the inner-ward, apart from a rock-cut ditch and a curtain wall for added protection, and mural towers. As with so many Castle's Aberystwyth changed hands on numerous occasions, originally a motte and bailey Castle in c.1110, this was an earth and timber Castle and was reinforced with stone at a later date. In 1221 it was razed by Llywelyn the Great, and a new one built in its place. Another significant date was 1282 as the Welsh captured the unfinished Castle only to burn it to the ground.

Though Ruins They Still Attract

Defending Wales's Northern Coastline

Moving up to North Wales, Conwy another sea side town boasts an excellent example of a medieval fortification Castle, constructed by Edwards 1 between 1283 and 1289 for the princely sum of £15,000. It is now a World Heritage Site and is one of the best examples of 13th century military architecture in Europe as claimed by Unesco. A rectangular Castle built from local stone and sits on the mouth of the Conwy estuary. Due to its position and huge size with the town walls, in the 18th and 19th centuries it attracted huge admiration, and attention with painters and artists of the day. Today it is believed by many experts to have the best suite of medieval private royal chambers in the UK, this in keeping with other Edwardian Castles in the area. Furthermore its design and architecture resembles those in the kingdom of savoy in the same period. Although partly ruined there are an array of rooms visible, the great hall, towers and sleeping chambers to name a few a superb day out all year.

Crossing the border to Denbighshire, the county has few Castle's of note, the most notable one being Bodelwyddan Castle, constructed in 1460 by a family originally from Anglesey, the Humphreys family, as their own personal Manor House. In 1690 it housed the Williams-Wyn family, this being its most notable time being upgraded and extended taking nearly 200 years to complete the upgrades, today it is a listed building being Grade ll*. Bought by Sir William Williams , who at the time was the speaker in the House of Commons, from the Humphreys family, in 1830 reconstruction was carried out, and Sir John Hay Williams carried out even more works in 1852. Joseph Hansom and Edward Welch were commissioned to carry out these works in refurbishing and extending the property. Sir Herbert, the 7th Baronet, who, inherited Bodelwyddan Castle, carried out further works during the 1880's, with further upgrades and extensions spreading the Castle over a vast area, also incorporating the estate wall which circles the entire property. The 1920's saw the Castle becoming a financial burden on the Williams family, and the decision was made to lease Bodelwyddan out to Lowther College-Private School for Girls. From the 1980's onwards Bodelwyddan Castle saw many changes again, from being a Private School to being an art gallery, to a museum, they had formed partneships with the "National Portrait Gallery" and the "Royal Academy of Arts". Later on the "Rank Organisation" leased a large portion of the property, developing it into a luxury Hotel and this still remains to the present day. Bodelwyddan is open to the public, not just as a Hotel, there are gardens to explore, with a variety of attractions available.

Flintshire nearly borders with England and has a varied history, with a selection of five Castles dating back to the 10th century, even one or two dating as far back as the Iron Age, with ancient remains being found by archaeologists. Flintshire does not have a singular Castle of note, or in good condition to which we can then write about, Caergwrle Castle or Queen's Hope as it's known, sits in Caergwrle itself, the last Castle to be built before Wales lost its independence in 1283. Constructed in 1277 with all the attributes of a small to medium sized Castle, today it is a ruin though visible with some walls still standing. Ewloe resting on the English border with its Castle just outside the town, situated deep inside Ewloe forest it was an ideal position for controlling Chester. Construction started at around 1260 to 1265 but, took quite a few years to complete, today it is open to the public and is under the care of Wepre Park and Flintshire County Council.

Defence Yet Glamorous in The Day

Construction At Great Expense

Gwynedd a County on the North Western coast of Wales, a rugged and varied landscape with stunning views and Castle's to match. Gwynedd has 2 or 3 Castles of distinction, Caernarfon being the biggest and most impressive, Penrhyn which is quite spectacular, but, more of a fortified country house or fortified mansion, and Harlech is another impressive Castle.

Let us start with Caernarfon, how do we keep this short and to the point, originally a medieval Castle with traces of an old motte and bailey building from earlier years. In 1283 King Edward 1 began construction of the new Castle, constructed out of local stone and about 47 years to complete at a cost of £20,000 to £25,000. Caernarfon Castle's appearance from the outside seems impressive, with towering walls, the high towers all being intact, however, internally the buildings are no longer there, and most have disappeared. Caernarfon Castle over the years has fallen in and out of disrepair, it was partly dilapidated at the time of the English Civil War, as it was held by Royalists, and besieged three times. Its most notable event in recent years was 1969 with the investiture of Prince Charles (Prince of Wales). Today after state funding to repair it in the 19th century it is well worth visiting, it is impressive, dramatic and you can get the sense of life as it was 900 years ago. Less dramatic than Caernarfon Castle is Penrhyn Castle, a more of a fortified Manor/ Country House, yet resembling a Norman Castle. It was 1438 that Ioan ap Gryffudd found the stone Castle and its origins, through having a licence to crenellate, he then added a tower, in 1780 it was Samuel Wyatt that reconstructed the property, which housed large function rooms, panelled rooms and state rooms. Thomas Hopper was commissioned to design and extend Penrhyn Castle to its present state. Owned at that time by George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, it is regarded by many to be one of the finest mock Castles of the 19th century in the UK. Today open to the public with walled gardens a dolls museum, a railway museum and adventure playground. But, most impressive of all is hanging on the walls, £40m worth of fine art by Rembrandt, Canalleto, Richard Wilson, Carl Haag, Perino del Vaga, and Palma Vecchio, surely well worth a visit for anyone. The opening times are seasonal.

Harlech a town on the West Coast of Wales, just under the Llyn-Peninsula arm that extends out into the Irish Sea. Harlech Castle, a medievel fortification sits on top of a small spur of rock, overlooking the town, quite a feat of engineering considering it was built between 1282 to 1289. Edward 1 constructed the Castle at a cost of £8,200 which at the time was a huge amount of money, Harlech Castle and the town have always been associated with the Princess "Branwen", and her brother the Welsh Giant King "Bendigeidfran", this story was told throughout primary school, as "Bendigeidfran" the Giant, walks across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister from another Prince "Matholwch" who was torturing her. Harlech Castle was built in a concentric design with the land falling away sharply to one side, a drop of 61metres (200 feet). With Harlech being built as part of the invasion of Wales by Edward 1, its importance came evident over the next centuries, being involved in vast number of ways. The most notable being the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn 1294 and then ultimately falling to Owain Glyndwr in 1404, after which it became his full-time residence. Today it is a popular tourist attraction, being cared for by Cadw, since its restoration in 1914 Harlech has many of its features complete, and well worth visiting.

Grandeur And Stunning Locations

Castles on My Doorstep

Isle of Anglesey or (Ynys Mon) in Welsh, my home where I was brought up and still living here to this day, Anglesey has two Castles the biggest and best being Beaumaris Castle, 2 miles North however and you will reach the second one. Aberlleiniog Castle (Castell Aberlleiniog) in Welsh, Aberlleiniog is a 11th century motte and bailey fort, constructed from earth and timber, initially built by the Earl of Chester, to compliment Beaumaris as a civil war stronghold, however, the timber was long gone, and was replaced by a stone structure somewhere between the 13th and 16th century. Today it is being restored slowly, funds permitting, as for being open, it is partially open to the public seasonal.

Beaumaris Castle itself, is a totally different kettle of fish, being much larger, with inner and outer defence walls, granted not built to full height as funding dried up during construction. With a final cost of £15,000 spent when works ceased in 1330, in today's money about £50million, a truly huge amount of money, which Edward 1 could not afford as he was fighting up in Scotland, draining his by now dwindling coffers. Beaumaris Castle has seen many conflicts, probably several, be it sieges, uprisings and invasions, the Welsh and the English even the Scots. In 1404 Owain Glyndwr captured the Castle during his uprising, only then to loose it again a year later in 1405. Then in 1642 Charles 1 took control of the Castle with his military might, and yet again only to loose control four years later in 1646 to Parliamentary Armies, it is this kind of action that has seen the growth and destruction of Beaumaris Castle, and its grounds and lands. Beaumaris has always been regarded as a perfect example of a symmetric concentric Castle, and, not just in Wales or the UK, but, throughout Europe, it is a staggering piece of engineering, even by today's standards. Since the 1950's the Castle has been protected as it was given a Grade 1 listed building, giving it full protection, as it was described as being an exceptional Edwardian Medieval Castle, also, Unesco considers it to be the best example of a 13th and 14th century military architecture fort, some statement for such an aged building. Then, in the 19th century although classed as a ruin it became part of the Bulkeley Family's (Henllys Hall) Stately Home and Park, by today it is managed by Cadw, who these days manages the vast majority of ancient, historical buildings. Today it is open to the public all year, with much to see from the swans in the moat, to a walk along the inner or outer walls, all in all well worth a visit. This is part one of two, so please look out for part two in the coming days

Until Next Time.

Defending Anglesey Through the Ages


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