You can’t fail to be impressed by Conwy Castle today, a romantic vision of medieval masonry framed by the racing river Conwy below and the mountains of Snowdonia behind. Remember, though, that in the 13th century it was even more imposing than it is today. Its now grit-grey stonework would have been painted dazzling white, and of course it wasn’t so much of a ruin back then. Its purpose was to dominate and cow the locals, and emphasise the power of the king who built it.
That king was Edward I, the English ruler who led armies into both Wales and Scotland in pursuit of dominance over his neighbours (see Stirling Castle, page 000). In Wales, Edward’s opponent was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Gwynedd. Edward’s father Henry III had recognised Llywelyn as Prince of Wales in 1267, but Llywelyn was not one to bow to English overlordship.
When Edward came to the throne in 1272, the Welshman did not attend his coronation or pay homage. Edward could not let this slight pass unattended, so in 1277 he sent his troops into Wales. The English quickly overwhelmed the Welsh, and Llywelyn was forced to sign a very severe peace settlement.
However, that wasn’t the end of the matter. Llywelyn rose up in revolt in 1282, after his brother Dafydd had provoked the English with a surprise attack. Once more, Edward’s men marched west, and once more they were victorious. Llywelyn was killed at the end of the year, while Dafydd was captured the following summer and afforded a very unpleasant traitor’s execution.
During the revolt, while Dafydd was still at large in Snowdonia, Edward had his campaign headquarters at the strategically important and symbolically vital site of Aberconwy, which commanded the Conwy valley and routes into the mountains, and was home to a Cistercian abbey where Llewelyn’s ancestors were buried.
Even before Dafydd’s capture, Edward started building at Aberconwy, and soon the settlement was overlooked by Conwy Castle and ringed by the great town wall. Construction was rapid; it’s thought that the work was finished by 1287, at which point Edward’s victory was complete. By then, the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 had placed the conquered principality under English rule and English law.
‘When you go to the castle, you see a magnificent building that poets and painters have called sublime and picturesque,’ notes Deborah Youngs. ‘Because we have that romantic view, we tend to forget that the castle was there for the subjugation of a people. It was an integral part of the conquest that spelt the end of an independent native Wales. King Edward was making sure that it was the end of the princely dynasties. English rule would dominate in Wales from then on.’
Conwy was just one of a network of castles erected by Edward to cement his grip in north Wales. Caernarfon was the royal centre, while Harlech and Beaumaris were also notably impressive constructions. Edward’s aim, says Youngs, was to remove any doubt as to who was in charge: ‘You can see how psychologically this was going to have a damaging impact. They were put up very quickly and on a scale never seen here before. It said to the Welsh, “This is a power far superior to you.” They were also placed strategically next to the sea so they could always be supplied and the garrisons fed.’
Conwy’s self-sufficiency was further enhanced by the planted, defended town that was built along with it. The place was designed to be a centre of administration, and the civilians, most of whom were English people brought in from Lancashire and Cheshire, needed security as much as the soldiers. The uniformity and fantastic preservation of both castle and town walls are what make the place such a draw today. You can still walk along most of the length of the town wall, and if you make your way to the Upper Gate, you have a cracking view down towards the castle.
The castle itself sits on a natural rock outcrop right next to the river. Externally, the round towers and ramparts are in good shape, but inside the buildings have lost their roofs, so you can look down into the shell of the great hall from the wall walk. There are eight towers, all of which you can clamber up, so you can be assured of some good exercise here, as well as a series of bracingly good views from the top.
Both exercise and views would have been in short supply for anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves holed up in the prison tower. The basement here, with its doorless, windowless dungeon cut down into the rock below the castle, offers a disturbing glimpse of medieval punishment. Other parts of the castle offered considerably more appealing quarters, befitting its role as a royal residence. The King’s Tower, great chamber and royal chapel give a sense of the former majesty of the place.
Conwy, and the other castles in Edward’s iron chain around Snowdonia, have been designated a World Heritage Site, and rightly receive a lot of visitors. They represent some of the finest survivals of medieval fortifications, and speak of a vital period in Anglo-Welsh relations.
For some today, they remain an unwelcome reminder of English imperialism over Wales, and of course they weren’t much loved by the Welsh when they were built. However, as Youngs points out: ‘Through the 14th century there was accommodation and cooperation. Occupation could still generate tension, but you get a sense of a Welsh acceptance of the status quo.’
Owain Glyndŵr challenged that status quo when he led the Welsh revolt against the English at the start of the 15th century (see Harlech Castle, page 000). Conwy was captured and the medieval town buildings completely burnt down. Despite this, the medieval street layout does survive quite well today, and the half-timbered Aberconwy House deserves a visit as one of the first generation of houses built after Owain’s uprising.
The medieval St Mary’s and All Saints Church in the centre of the town is also worth exploring. This was the former Cistercian abbey that once housed the mortal remains of native Welsh princes. Edward forced the monks to uproot and set up a new abbey 13 km (8 miles) away at Maenan. A master of the symbolic, the English king marked the end of the Gwynedd princely dynasty by depriving them of their burial place and imposing his bright white castle over their sacred ground.
Nominated by Deborah Youngs, lecturer in medieval history, Swansea University
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011