Wales is famous for its castles. They do, after all, number greater than 600. And nowhere in the country are they as commanding, or imposing, as in Wales’s rugged northern heart.
Interestingly, these castles now considered icons of Wales were once symbols of the country’s oppression. In the late 13th century, Welsh princes were raising hell for the English in a bid for sovereignty. King Edward I had to assert himself, and he backed his claim to rule by embarking on a series of building campaigns to enforce his military might. The castles scattered across North Wales were actually intended as fortresses used by the English to dominate the native Welsh population. The result was a number of intimidating strongholds that comprise what is now known as King Edward I’s “Iron Ring“. Four of these castles, Beaumaris, Conwy, Caernarfon, and Harlech, are now UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites. And it was the latter that I had the opportunity to explore on my latest trip to Wales.
Harlech Castle is renowned in song (“Men of Harlech” was reputed to be a call to arms for the Welsh when the castle was besieged during the Wars of the Roses). Constructed at breakneck pace under the eye of architect Master James of Saint George (it took just seven years for its completion), Harlech was made to withstand attack.
The first of these was in 1294, when Madog ap Lleywelyn led a Welsh revolt, and in 1404 Owain Glyndŵr captured Harlech from the English and proceeded to use it as his base out of which to run his campaigns. Harlech castle was again besieged in 1408, and in 1461-1468 it became involved in the Wars of the Roses. Margaret of Anjou (Lancastrian queen and wife to King Henry VI) sought refuge at Harlech Castle after a string of Lancastrian losses. The castle then suffered Yorkist attacks for the next seven years at the hands of Edward IV’s forces. It never fell, but the garrison eventually did surrender in the face of the massive army sent by William Herbert to subdue Harlech once and for all.
Harlech Castle has survived a battering of sieges and the harsh North Walian winters. Today, it is a testament to the genius of its architect and the strength of its defences. Its “walls-within-walls” design, each line of defence enclosed by another, provides formidable protection, and its strategic location atop the rock of Harlech Dome affords nearly 360-degree views of the Irish Sea.
From the moment you enter the castle, you can understand what exactly besieging forces were up against. A series of portcullises, complete with murder holes (openings in the walls and ceiling from which defenders could throw stones and pour boiling oil on attackers), guards Harlech’s entrance; to make it in would have been a feat in itself.
Visitors can also walk atop its walls to take in the view and appreciate just how daunting a task it would have been to try to attack Harlech Castle by sea, perched as it is on the cliffs with an amazing vantage point. It would have been impossible to conduct a stealthy attack from the water.
Another castle of North Wales with awe-inspiring views in a dramatic setting? Dolbadarn Castle in Llanberis. Built by the Welsh prince Llewelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) in the early 13th century, Dolbadarn was strategically placed to keep watch over Snowdonia’s Llanberis mountain pass, an important route inland and the same one the motorway follows
Like so many other North Walian castles, Dolbadarn played a role in the conflict between the Welsh and King Edward I in the late 1200s. Once captured by the king’s forces in 1284, Dolbadarn Castle was partially deconstructed and its timbers sent to Caernarfon for construction of the new castle there. Dolbadarn Castle’s significance declined after that; in the 14th century it was incorporated into a manor house, although it again fell into ruin several centuries later.
Ruined as it is, Dolbadarn Castle is still well-preserved enough that visitors can climb its well-recognised feature, the round stone tower. This keep is thought to be a defining feature of native-built castles from this time1. From there, you can take in views of the waters of Llyn Padarn and the town of Llanberis below; it’s not hard to understand why the builders selected Dolbadarn’s location. That the castle once defended the ancient Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd lends its ruins yet another dimension of spine-tingling mystique, but the sweeping views of Snowdonia’s mountains and waters really are enough.