To what extent can it be said the castles of the Welsh princes where inferior to those of Edward I?

Edward I was one of England’s most influential monarchs, his actions shaped the destiny of all the British Isles even after his death. Edward was known for his conquests across Ireland, Scotland and Wales and even obtained the accolade “Hammer of the Scots” for his successful and brutal conquest of Scotland. Edward was extremely efficient at keeping the territories he had conquered; this was often achieved through the construction of castles. There is arguably no better example of his castle building prowess than the ones he constructed after his conquest of Wales. Here, he built a large variety of cutting edge castles to assert his overlordship of Wales. This piece will assess the extent of which it can be said the castles of the Welsh princes where inferior to those of Edward I.

As defensive structures, Edward’s castles were far superior to that of the castles of the Welsh princes due to their sheer size, robust nature and their implementation of a multitude of defensive features. This essay will demonstrate this through its analysis and comparison of a selection of both Edwardian and native Welsh castles. The Edwardian castles used in this comparison will be some of the smaller ones Edward built, in order to be more of a fair comparison against the, by nature, far smaller Welsh Castles. For example, it would not be fair to compare Dolwyddelan against Caernarfon [fig 1] as Dolwyddelan is a far smaller castle made of two large buildings (Avent, 2004) and Caernarfon is a mammoth structure which housed the administrative centre of Wales and an entire town (Taylor, 2004).

Fig 1: Demonstration of the unfair comparison between Caernarfon (Top) and Dolwyddelan (Bottom) (Kenyon, n.d.).

One of the larger and more fortified castles of the Welsh Princes is Castell y Bere. Most castles of the Welsh Prices adopted a semi-triangular plan of their construction and Castell y Bere is no exception [fig 2]. The reason for this semi-triangular plan was often to follow the contours of natural hills and highlands. The castles of the Welsh Princes were often constructed to defend the immediate landscape, protect route ways and deal with small forces of attackers, as their construction is far smaller scale and far less defended that that of a typical Edwardian castle.

Fig 2: The plan of Castell y Bere (Kenyon, n.d.)

Castell y Bere has a barbican that houses a guard room and a drawbridge over a ditch to defend the immediate approach to the castle. Should any attacker make it past this point they would then reach another drawbridge, a portcullis and a large wooden door (Avent, 2004, p.37). This castle entrance is moderately well defended; however, inspecting the curtain wall is where the flaws start to show. The Curtain wall, while following the cliff edge to limit the opportunities of the attackers, is a lot thinner on the West side as the East would be more vulnerable due to the natural landscape (Avent, 2004, p37). Though it makes sense for the East wall to be stronger due to the more likely chance of attack, the West wall is severely weakened due to this which leaves it vulnerable to missile fire from mangonels and trebuchets. In addition to this, a closer look at the main entrance shows that the portcullis may not actually be usable as the passage was too large of the portcullis to actually work effectively (Avent, 2004, p.37). Castell y Bere also has multiple towers which can provide archer support from the arrow loops carved into them, however, all the towers were only two storeys tall which isn’t particularly high for a defensive tower arrangement. The Apsidal (D-shaped) North Tower in particular has a large weakness in that it is entered from the ground floor. The ground floor entrance is protected only by the curtain wall and little else which could be a fatal error in design should the wall be breached as it makes it far harder for a defender in this tower to fend off a foe at ground level, especially when most towers were entered from the first floor which would give the defender a high ground advantage (Avent, 2004, p.39). Castell y Bere is also vulnerable through its postern gate that is secured only by a drawbar when under siege. This is a
severely weak defence strategy as a single draw bar wouldn’t be that hard for an army to break through (Avent, 2004, p.38). When Castell y Bere is compared with one of Edward’s castles, Conwy Castle, the inferiority of the Welsh Princes construction shows even more as Conwy implements some of the same defensive features but executes them with far greater efficiency.

Edward’s castles were often constructed in a square or rectangular plan and had a robust construction, not being limited to straddling the tops of mountains or hills. Conwy Castle is a good example of a rectangular plan castle [fig 3]. Conwy was constructed under the supervision of Sir John de Bonvillars in 1286/7 (Ashbee, 2007, pp.8-9). The castle, like many others, was built in phases due to its large and robust construction, the first being in 1284 where the curtain walls were erected as an immediate priority. The defences and accommodation of the castle were constructed in 1285 and the rest of the construction was completed in 1286/7 amassing a total cost of £15,000 (Ashbee, 2007, p.9). Conwy castle is behemoth construction placed in an advantageous place to oppress the Welsh.The castle is placed against the mountains of Snowdonia, which was the native home of the Welsh Princes standing in opposition to their power.

Fig 3: A plan of Conwy Castle (Kenyon, n.d).

The defences of Conwy castle are leagues beyond that of Castell y Bere, or any other Welsh castle for that matter. The large walls of Conwy Castle have rectangular towers spaced across them at all sides, and the south wall has an extended bow which allows for defenders to drop objects and launch missiles at attackers below. In addition to this four of the towers on the castle have smaller protruding round turrets coming out of them. These overlook the inner ward allowing them to defend the most sensitive part of the castle as well as giving them a place to fly the royal banner should the king be staying there (Ashbee, 2007, p.21). The walls of the Castle also have a rubble fill making them harder to get through and the castle is built on hard resilient rock, preventing attackers from undermining the structure (Lott, 2010, p.115). There is a small square hole at the top of some of the towers, this may have been a drain, but it is hypothesised that it could be used to support a horizontal wooden fighting beam or platform to allow the occupants to fight over the boundaries of the castle walls. In addition to this it has also been argued that it could have been used as a mount for decorations such as shields with Royal symbology on them (Ashbee, 2007, p.23). Conwy also has a very fortified barbican which features machicolations (Murder holes – the earliest surviving example in Britain), arrow loops, a drawbridge and a portcullis and the main entrance was even more defended sporting towers with arrow loops, machicolations, a portcullis and two large wooden doors secured by two drawbars (Ashbee, 2007, p.24). Conwy isn’t without its flaws however, the castle wall features windows, which lead into rooms within the castle to make them lighter and more airy, this may be useful to improve the quality of living inside the castle, but it also makes large weak spots within the stone work which are vulnerable to missile fire and siege engines, in addition to this, the curtain wall has many latrine chutes at many different points in the structure, these would a allow a particularly determined attacker to climb up them and gain entry to the castle (Ashbee, 2007, p.22). Though Conwy has some flaws it is far superior to Castell y Bere. It has more defences, has larger and thicker walls and more fortified entrances.

Like Castell y Bere, another significant castle of the Welsh Princes is Criccieth. Criccieth is comparable to Edward’s castles as it one of the larger and more fortified of the Welsh Castles. Criccieth is also an example of the typical semi- triangular plan of native Welsh Castle [fig 4]. Criccieth’s most impressive asset is its large gatehouse which stands two storeys and offers great defensive capabilities as well as accommodation. The Gate House [fig 5] has two apsidal towers and is defended primarily by arrow loops at ground level. The entrance to the castle is protected by a portcullis, ground floor guard rooms and large doors.

Fig 4: Criccieth Castle plan (Kenyon, n.d.)

A timber first floor was above the entrance and it is thought that pieces of this floor could be removed so that the defenders could fire and throw projectiles down onto the attackers. This is an effective defensive structure and is only weakened by the latrine chutes that line the towers which, as with Conwy castle, could be a way in for an attacker (Avent, et.al, 2011, p.24). The upper rooms of the gate house were probably lit by windows, which would often be considered a weakness but they face inward to the castle and as such aren’t subject to siege weaponry or missile fire. Criccieth has multiple defensive towers. The South-East Tower is similar to the rectangular residential towers built at Castell y Bere; the doors of these towers were secured by drawbars if the castle walls became compromised. The South-East and South-West Towers, as well as the curtain wall all have arrow loops scattered throughout their design (Avent, et.al, 2011, pp.26-30) which give the defenders multiple defensive sightlines to fire at attackers.

Fig 5: Criccieth Castle Gate House (Thomas, 2009).

Criccieth also has a lesser defended outer ward with a very plain main gate, this can also be accessed through the Inner Ward through a postern gate which has a substantially large door frame and strong drawbars securing the door when closed (Avent, et.al, 2011, p.29). The North-Tower can be accessed from the Outer Ward. The North-Tower is an Engine Tower; this would have had some sort of stone-throwing engine atop it, either a trebuchet or a catapult (Avent, et.al, 2011, pp.32-33). This tower would have been very valuable when defending against an attacking force; this would allow the defenders to cause a massive amount of damage to enemy formations and perhaps to rival siege engines. There aren’t many flaws with Criccieth Castle, the Outer Ward could do to be more heavily defended and the castle isn’t built on particularly hard ground meaning undermining would be a very viable tactic of assault. Criccieth, though being a very effective example of a castle, is still inferior to Edwards’s castles. To demonstrate Criccieth’s inferiority against Edward’s castles, it will be compared to a similar castle but built by Edward, Harlech.

Fig 6: A plan of Harlech Castle (carneycastle.com, n.d).

Harlech has been called “The most sublime of all the North Wales Castles” (Taylor, 2002, p.17) for its extraordinary appearance, and its outstanding defensive capabilities. Built in 1289, Harlech is around 200ft above sea level (Taylor, 2002, p.5 & p.17) and as such has the typical hilltop advantage we’d usually expect from a Castle in Wales. It’s is built on rocky promontory made of hard grit and sandstone, not easily undermined by the enemy, forcing the attacker into direct siege with the structure (Lott, 2010, p.116). Harlech Castle only has two sides vulnerable to land based assault, the South and the East. Due to this vulnerability a deep rock cut ditch was set out on a concentric line to the Outer Ward to make it harder for attackers to breach the wall (Taylor, 2002, p.17). Harlech was built to a square plan [fig 6] with concentric thick walls. This created an Inner and Outer Ward both with different functions. The Inner Ward was a robust and highly defeasible position; it supported four large towers and housed the domestic buildings and structures of the castle (Taylor, 2002, p.27). The Outer Ward however wasn’t as easily defended as the walls were smaller and served more as viewing or sentry platforms, this mattered little however as the defences of the Inner Ward overlook that of the Outer (Taylor, 2002, p.31). Harlech also has a sea gate off an extended area of rock which drops down to sea level. Though this may represent a possible weak spot for enemy infiltration Edward built two artillery platforms to overlook the area and defend it (Taylor, 2002, p.18).

Fig 7: Left – A photograph of the Main Passage. Right – Adiagram of its defences (Taylor, 2002, pp.20-21)

The main passage [fig 7] into the Castle is one of the most impressive of any in Wales due to its defensive excellence. Beyond the gate house lay a drawbridge over a dry ditch, should the attacker manage to proceed further than this they would reach the main passage to the castle which was divided into sections by large wooden doors which were themselves secured by drawbars. Furthermore the sections between the doors were separated again by heavy portcullises. These sections between the doors and portcullises would become kill rooms as there were arrow loops and murder holes in the walls and ceiling of each section enabling defenders to fire and throw projectiles at the attackers as they attempt to break through the multiple lines of defence. In addition to the arrow loops there was also a guard room next to the main passage making it easier and faster for the defenders to react to enemy movement and tactics (Taylor, 2002, pp.18-21). The only weakness that stands out at Harlech is that the gate house has two large windows set into its centre. These help provide light to the chapel but are very vulnerable to missile fire and siege engines such as ballista, mangonels and trebuchets (Taylor, 2002, p.18). Though Criccieth was a competent castle with decent defences at its entrance and an engine tower; it is clear to see that Harlech was still superior overall. It was nearly impossible to undermine, the main entrance was very heavily defended and the sea gate would be closed and defended by artillery platforms should it become compromised. Harlech, like Conwy, had similar features to the castles if the Welsh Princes, however they executed them far more efficiently.

The castles of the Welsh Princes, while being competent defensive structures pale in comparison to that of Edward I’s Castles. Their inferiority is plain to see when assessing the above examples and evidence. The Welsh Prince’s castles were far smaller and built for a fraction of what Edward paid for his Castles. The princes’ Castles are also designed for different purposes and to work on a much smaller scale that that of the grandiose vision Edward implemented when constructing his huge structures. When looking at castles such as Harlech and Conwy it is easily noticeable that they were built with defence as their main priority and usage. The hard rock they were built on, the large curtain walls and towers littered with arrow loops and the main entranceways which concealed a multitude of
doors, portcullises, machicolations, loops and drawbridges; contrast this to the plain and stripped back design of the Welsh Princes when constructing castles, they were built on softer earth with plain entrances, stripped back defences and smaller walls and towers. It is clear that the castles of the Welsh Princes were inferior to that of Edward I.

Bibliography:

Ashbee, J. (2007) Conwy castle and town walls. Cardiff: Cadw, Welsh Assembly Government.

Ashbee, J. (2010). The King’s Accommodation at his Castles. In Williams D. & Kenyon J. (Eds.), The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales, Oxford; Oakville.

Avent, R. (2004) Dolwyddelan Castle, Dolbadarn Castle, Castell y Bere. Cardiff: Cadw: Welsh
Historic Monuments.

Avent, R., Suggett, R. and Longley, D. (2011) Criccieth Castle; Penarth Fawr Medieval Hall- House; St Cybi’s Well, New Edition. Cardiff: Cadw.

Butler, L. A. S. & Knight, J. K. (2004) Dolforwyn Castle, Montgomery Castle. Cardiff: Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Carneycastle.com, (n.d), Plan of Harlech Castle, Available Online: http://carneycastle.com/Harlech/plangen.jpg, [Accessed: 10/12/18]

Kenyon, J, (n.d) A plan of Caernarfon Castle, Ancient Medieval Architecture, Available Online: https://medievalheritage.eu/en/main-page/heritage/wales/caernarfon-castle/, [Accessed: 10/12/18]

Kenyon, J, (n.d) A plan of Castell y Bere, Ancient Medieval Architecture, Available Online: https://medievalheritage.eu/en/main-page/heritage/wales/castell-y-bere-castle/, Accessed: 10/12/18]

Kenyon, J, (n.d) A plan of Conwy Castle, Ancient Medieval Architecture, Available Online: https://medievalheritage.eu/en/main-page/heritage/wales/conwy-castle/, Accessed: 10/12/18]

Kenyon, J, (n.d) A plan of Criccieth Castle, Ancient Medieval Architecture, Available Online: https://medievalheritage.eu/en/main-page/heritage/wales/criccieth-castle/, Accessed: 10/12/18]

Kenyon, J, (n.d) A plan of Dolwyddelan Castle, Ancient Medieval Architecture, Available Online: https://medievalheritage.eu/en/main-page/heritage/wales/dolwyddelan-castle/, [Accessed: 10/12/18]

Lott, G. (2010). The Building Stones of the Edwardian Castles. In Williams D. & Kenyon J. (Eds.), The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales.

Taylor, A. J. (2002) Harlech Castle, 4th edition. Cardiff: Cadw.

Taylor, A. J. (2004) Beaumaris Castle, 5th edition. Cardiff: Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Thomas, J. L. (2009), Criccieth Gate House, [Photograph], Available Online: http://www.castlewales.com/criccth.html, [Accessed: 10/12/18]

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