Did you know that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe? There are 600 castles throughout Wales – and the following ten are the jewels of the North…
Beaumaris has been deemed as the most technically perfect castle in Britain. Featuring classic proportions and perfect symmetry, Beaumaris was built according to Edward I’s ingenious ‘walls within walls’ plan on the Isle of Anglesey. Work began in the summer of 1295, overseen by Master James of St George, but was never officially finished due to lack of funds. Work finally came to a halt in 1330 – with the castle still not built to its intended height – by when a whopping £15,000 had been spent.
Bodelwyddan Castle is situated close to Glan Clwyd Hospital near Rhyl. Originally built around 1460 by the Humphreys family of Anglesey as a manor house, Bodelwyddan’s most important association was with the Williams-Wynn family, which extended for around 200 years from 1690. It is now a Grade II* Listed Building and is open to the public as a historic house museum with some very impressive gardens. And if you can’t fit everything in in one day, you can always stay at the castle hotel, which has recently undergone a £6 million renovation.
Caernarfon is another of Edward I’s Welsh fortresses and, like the location of all of his defences, the site of Caernarfon castle was shrewdly picked. The former site of a Norman motte and bailey castle and, before that, a Roman fort, Caernarfon is one of the most impressive castles of its time. The original design includes polygonal towers, with Eagle Tower being the most impressive of these, as opposed to the more traditional round towers. Edward’s son, the first English Prince of Wales, was born in Caernarfon castle in 1284 – and just under 700 years later, in 1969, the investiture of the current Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles, took place here.
Chirk Castle was built on the Welsh-English border in order to keep the Welsh under English rule. Again the location of Chirk Castle was chosen extremely carefully in order to make the most of its defensive abilities. Construction began in 1295 on a rocky escarpment at the head of the Ceiriog valley, and contained some impressive feats of engineering. Chirk Castle had the most up-to-date defences for the time, with round ‘drum’ towers that allowed archers a wide firing field creating a ‘killing zone’ where the fields of fire overlapped. However, despite the courtyard well being is 28.5 metres deep, it only held 300mm of water in the bottom and therefore could probably only support a garrison of 20 to 30 men. Good job then that slyly hidden murder holes enabled what few men there were to drop missiles down on invaders…
Another fortress built for Edward I by Master James of St George, Conwy castle is one of the finest medieval fortifications standing in the UK today. An estimated £15,000 was spent building the castle, which was the largest sum Edward spent in such a short time on any of his Welsh castles between 1277 and 1307. Edward’s trademark ‘walls within walls’ weren’t needed at Conwy, as the rock it sits on provided enough security itself, but you will find two barbicans, eight towers and a large bow-shaped hall all located within its unusual elongated shape. But, even if castles aren’t really your thing, it would be a shame to miss out on a visit to Conwy and the amazing views that are provided from its battlements.
Llywelyn the Great began building Criccieth castle in the 1230s. It is believed that the Welsh prince may have taken design inspiration from a range of English castles, hence its English style of gatehouse. Despite its pure Welsh start however, Edward I’s forces took the castle around 50 years later, and undertook their own improvements. These included remodelling a tower for stone-throwing engines. The gatehouse had another storey added at this point, and several towers were reinforced. An outer barbican was also added to the curtain wall. Unusually, Criccieth Castle may have given its name to the town, rather than the other way round. Its suggested origins are ‘crug caeth’ – ‘crug’ (hill in Welsh), ‘caith’ (captives) – the name given to the jail on the hill, a function once held by the castle.
With around half a mile of town walls, Denbigh Castle is another typical stronghold of Edward I’s. From 1282, the English king’s 13th-century campaign in the area was strengthened by the conception of an English borough. By building over this Welsh stronghold, Edward ensured that all signs of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the previous occupier, were removed for ever. Henry de Lacy, one of the king’s commanders, was given the job of building the new castle along with master mason, James of St George. A Welsh rebellion, led by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, captured the partly-built castle but Edward’s reign and building programme were soon restored. You can see still see the two phases of building work today – the post-rebellion work is marked by different colour stone, thicker curtain walls and a hint of Caernarfon-style angular towers.
A relative latecomer to the North Wales castle scene, Gwrych Castle was built between 1812 and 1822 by Lloyd Bamford-Hesketh as a memorial to his mother’s ancestors, the Lloyds of Gwrych. Upon the original site was an Elizabethan house named ‘Y Fron (rounded hill) which, by 1810, had become derelict. The main building that we know today was completed by 1825 when Bamford-Hesketh got married. When he died, the castle passed onto Robert Bamford-Hesketh and his wife, Ellen Jones-Bateman, who planted much of the present gardens with their enormous monkey puzzles and yew trees. Their daughter, Winifred, was the only surviving child of Robert Bamford-Hesketh and so became an immensely wealthy heiress upon her father’s death. Winifred was an extraordinary woman for her times; she single-handedly managed her landed estates which totalled several thousand acres – a rare circumstance for a Victorian woman. She lived at Gwrych until her death in 1924 and since then the castle has changed hands numerous times and fallen into disrepair. A trust has now been formed that hopes to reinstate the castle to its former glory. While Gwrych isn’t permanently open to the public, large-scale open days are organised for visitors several times a year to view the restoration works and for guided tours of the historic buildings and gardens.
Yet another one of Edward I’s masterpieces, Harlech Castle cost £8,190 to build, making it one of his cheaper investments. It was also constructed in record pace between 1283 and 1295 by an army of nearly a thousand skilled craftsmen and labourers. The castle, again overseen by James of St George, boasts two rings of walls and towers, with an incredibly strong east gatehouse making it impenetrable from every direction. In addition, a 200-foot long stairway joined the castle to the cliff base, meaning that supplies were easy to access. When Harlech castle was first built, a channel would have connected the castle and the sea, meaning that a boat could sail up to the moat. Seven hundred years later, the sea has receded and the castle appears almost stranded. Today, the recently installed ‘floating’ bridge makes access to the castle accessible for everyone.
Penrhyn Castle was built between 1820 and 1833, by the well-known architect Thomas Hopper, for George Hay Dawkins Pennant. Known for his unconventional style, Hopper chose not to follow the current fashion for Gothic architecture, plumping instead for a neo-Norman design. Hopper also supervised local craftsmen while they designed and built the castle’s furniture. Before he died in 1840 Pennant had charged his son-in-law (Edward Gordon Douglas) with developing the castle’s collection of paintings. Douglas did this extremely well, amassing an exceptional collection of Spanish, Venetian and Dutch paintings. The collection gave Penrhyn its reputation of being ‘the Gallery of North Wales’ at that time. In 1949, after the death of the fourth Lord Penrhyn, the land and title separated. The title went to Frank Douglas Pennant, who became fifth Lord Penrhyn, and the land went to the fourth Lord’s niece, Lady Janet Harper. Only two years later Penrhyn Castle came into the care of the National Trust.