Edward I and the Castles of North Wales

Alan Rogers describes how the Welsh fortresses founded by the English King were ‘outlying strongholds thrust into the heart of enemy country.’

The great fortresses of Edward I in North Wales stand for all the world to see, a series of monuments to a great King and military leader. Their massive stone walls, seemingly growing straight out of the rocks on which they were founded, rear high above the surrounding countryside; their gloomy gateways bar entrance as much by their appearance as by their rows of portcullises.

Even those castles, like Beaumaris, which do not physically dominate the neighbouring fields still leave a strong impression of impregnability. Nor is it just the individual fortress that clamours for the attention of the traveller, for castle after castle crowds into the small peninsula of North Wales. There are the great four, Harlech, Caernarvon, Beaumaris and Conway. There are the lesser castles in the far west—Criccieth, Dolwyddelan and Castel-y-Bere.

There are the castles on the approaches into the heart of North Wales—Hawarden, Flint and Rhuddlan on or near the coast, Ruthin and Denbigh farther inland. The whole series leaves one amazed at the skill of the builders—the engineers who planned, the craftsmen who wrought and the quartermasters who organized.

And behind them all stands Edward I himself, the conqueror of Wales. He it was who built them or ordered others to build them. He planned their strategy and chose their designs. And each one, whether they belonged to the King or to great lords, is a grim reminder of the fact of the conquest.

For the conquest was a fact. Piecemeal nibbling at the lands of the Welsh had reduced the area under the various Welsh rulers until there were only two small kingdoms left, Powys and Gwynedd, both in the north of the country. Disputes between the rulers of Gwynedd and the English Kings, who claimed to be overlords of all Wales, came to a head soon after Edward I succeeded to the throne, and in 1276 the new King took advantage of a quarrel between Powys and Gwynedd to invade North Wales.

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