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‘Under the Tower of the Bold Conqueror’
Massive Caernarfon, Chepstow with its great tower and Caerphilly with its leaning one, the ruins of Dolbardarn—dotted like sheep throughout the peaceful green hills and dramatic mountains of Wales are castles, hundreds and hundreds of them. But castle building wasn’t an ancient custom of the Welsh.
It was the Norman conquerors, arriving on the Welsh borders in the late 11th century, who first brought castles to Wales. Protecting their foothold in the country and letting the Welsh know they were now subject to domination was their prime directive.
Although the Norman castles started out as mostly earth and timber constructions, they soon were translated into stone. Chepstow is, perhaps, the earliest stone-built castle in Britain. Raised around 1067 and set high on a cliff above the Wye River, it guarded one of the main river crossings from southern England into Wales.
In the late 12th century, Welsh princes took a cue from the Normans and castles soon sprung up throughout their lands. The wild and lonely Dolbadarn commanded the Llanberis Pass, its round tower still dominating the landscape. Dolwyydelan’s square tower stood guard over another mountain pass amidst the scenic grandeur of Snowdonia.
Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ab Iorwerth—1173-1240), a Welsh prince who built a strong power base among his people, constructed many of the castles. The English Marcher (frontier) lords replied by fortifying and strengthening their own castles. Great curtain walls and towers became the order of the day. Caerphilly Castle saw its birth at this time. Marcher lord, Gilbert de Clare, began building in 1268, but it took more than 20 years to complete the castle—the largest in Wales—which spans 30 acres (ha). Surrounded by a moat, an inner moat and fortified with two gatehouses, it is the stunning leaning tower that catches the eye today.
Llywelyn the Great’s grandson, Llywelyn the Last (Llywelyn ap Gruffudd), brought the ire of the English down upon the Welsh. Defying King Edward I by breaking treaties, strengthening castles and building new ones, he managed to antagonize the English and escalate matters into a major war. He lost. Edward made sure his authority over Wales would never again be questioned. He began a program of castle building, lasting 25 years. Ten of the castles were royal fortresses. Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech are part of this group.
Caernarfon, a magnificent fortress on the edge of the town of the same name, is known as the birthplace of the first English Prince of Wales and the scene of the Investiture of all the Princes of Wales from 1911 to the present. Angled towers, a powerful curtain wall and two great gatehouses marked it as the centre of government, but it was never to fulfill its promised role.
Conwy Castle dominates its position on a rock. Its eight towers and two separate wards withheld a siege and can still intimidate the visitor. The town’s walls are one of the most complete in Europe with 21 towers and three gateways.
Harlech Castle, on a bluff near the sea, is a majestic building, perhaps best known because of the song, “Men of Harlech”. This concentric castle took six years to complete. Well protected by its location and defensive structures, nevertheless, it was captured during a national uprising by Owain Glyndwr in 1404 and recaptured by the English four years later. However, it was the siege during the Wars of the Roses that gave rise to the famous song.
Wherever you go in Wales, ruins and remainders of castles, scattered throughout the land, are a poignant reminder of the turbulent political times this country has sustained.
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