Giants of the North – Conwy Castle, One of King Edward I’s Iron Ring of Castles
The next leg of this journey takes you to the Medieval Castle of Conwy in North Wales or GwyneddrrVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Castles fascinate me! (Not an unusual remark from someone who was born and raised on the North American continent where the closest we can come to castles are Toronto’s Casa Loma or California’s Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley, neither fitting my definition of a castle.) When I was offered the opportunity to see the “Giants of the North” (Conwy Castle, Caernarfon Castle and Harlech Castle) while visiting Wales, needless to say I jumped at the chance.
The castle-town of Conwy was the impressive beginning to our tour of those three of King Edward I’s Iron Ring of Castles. Conwy Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and part of the World Heritage Sites designated as The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd, the Welsh name for North Wales.
The castles of Northern Wales are magnificent stone edifices, giving those who walk through them an impression of their former grandeur. As we began our tour of Conwy Castle, my friends and I all had cameras in hand trying to preserve our memories of the fascinating structure we were exploring. The wooden components have rotted away with time, and the metal was taken away and sold eons ago, so they stand like massive skeletons without the visceral blood and tissue to fully restore them to their former glory. Visiting those castles brought to my mind visions of those who peopled this land long before our time. Their stories are told in history books and movies – but nothing compares to actually clambering through the heart of those fortresses. I gazed up in awe at the massive towers created so many centuries ago. My mind worked overtime as I wandered through those magnificent ruins trying to visualize what they looked like in their glorious prime. The people who lived and breathed in them came quickly to my mind also.
At the conclusion of King Edward I of England’s successful second campaign to conquer the Welsh, he began to build his Iron Ring of Castles. Conwy Castle and the town walls were built during a four-year period between 1283 and 1287. The Welsh people were uprooted, and a new town within the walls was built to house an English colony, the families of the men stationed at the garrison and their suppliers. It took 1500 workers to complete the Conwy project. It replaced an older castle, Deganwy Castle which had been destroyed by the Welsh leader, Llewelyn the Last, in 1263. Built on a rock precipice at the mouth of the Conwy River and overlooking the North Sea, the castle defended both the river and the town’s harbour. This massive fortification shows the lengths to which the English King was willing to go to suppress the Welsh people and impress them with his might.
With water on two sides of the castle, access was strictly limited to those who could be seen from within the towers or through the arrow slits in the walls. The castle was once approached up a stepped ramp. (Today only a small portion of the original ramp exists.) A drawbridge existed to cross the water that once flowed around the base of the castle. The water was diverted in the 19th Century when the North Coast Railway was built on reclaimed land around the castle. Today we walked up a steep, paved incline along the base of the castle wall. Once across the drawbridge, a gateway with a portcullis was the next defense. The pointed iron bars in the portcullis gate could be dropped on invaders. Donna Goodman, our guide, showed us where the portcullis gate once hung, but unfortunately the iron went with the metal, being hocked in exchange for money, many years ago. Recycling took place in ancient times too! Passing that we went into the barbican, then turned left in a planned bottleneck, then through the main gateway. The objective for the design of this elaborate entrance was defensive planning.
The area we now entered was known as the “outer ward”. It was the area that housed the living quarters for the garrison, the kitchens and stables. It also contained the prison tower. The damp, dark dungeon, with all its evil connotations, was located at the base of this tower. The outer ward was protected by four massive towers in the thick outer castle wall, approximately 70′ (21 m.) tall by 30′ (9.1 m.) in diameter. A 15′ (4.6 m.) thick stone wall, with enfilading arrow loops and archer’s turrets, divided this outer ward from the inner ward. Also separating them, in the outer ward, was a deep rock gulley and the castle well. A drawbridge once connected the two wards of the castle. It is obvious that each area could be separately defended if the need arose. The exterior castle wall of the inner ward was also protected by another four of the massive towers; those had additional turrets and arrow slits to allow greater defense of the Royal apartments. As I walked through this imposing structure, I was utterly amazed to think it could have been built so many centuries ago, and the skill it must have taken to design and execute its erection, all within four years.
The inner ward contained the royal apartments. Conwy Castle has the most complete set of medieval royal apartments still existing in Britain today. They were located on the first floor, while the service accommodation was in the basement which was heated and provided the heat for the royal residences above.
The remains of a series of fireplaces could be seen in the basement walls, above which the Great Hall once stood. Now the separating wooden floors no longer exist, and only the holes in the walls were visible where the massive beams rested in the distant past. One can only imagine the once grand external staircase that led to the Great Hall. I really had to stretch my imagination to picture this as being the luxurious residence of King Edward I and his wife, the Queen remembered as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
My friends and I eagerly entered the various towers and climbed up the circular stone steps, some of which led to the royal apartments or other private rooms. We checked out all the openings we found that took us into the various rooms. Sometimes I would enter an opening off the stairway to find a small enclosed space in the wall, with an opening covered by a metal grate which was open to the outside of the castle walls. It would have been a latrine.
In the Chapel Tower, much of its original carved decoration can still be seen in the little Royal Chapel. The tower’s winding stone stairs also led up onto the castle’s wall walk and even further up to the tops of the towers. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a soldier, with a metal helmet and breast plate, patrolling the castle wall. Instead, I kept finding my friends, with cameras in hand, taking pictures of the marvelous view of the interior of the castle, the town and the harbour. From these vantage points I too kept my camera busy, especially as I looked out on the impressive bridges fanning across the River Conwy.
At the rear of the fortress a second barbican guarded entrance allowed entrance from the Conwy River. This was particularly valuable, allowing royalty private access or emergency exit by water, without having to go through what might have been hostile Welsh settlements. Today, the watergate is now gone. It was removed in 1826 when the castellated suspension bridge was built, carrying the London to Holyhead road across the River Conwy. In the same century the railway bridge was built with stone battlements to blend in with the medieval stone castle. Then in 1978 a modern bridge was built, making a triumvirate of bridges dominating the river crossing just outside the castle walls. The combination of the bridges with the castle make an impressive sight!
As I roamed the castle with camera in hand, my mind kept trying to envision the grandeur of the castle at the height of its glory, but instead kept coming back to the fact that this castle had been built to symbolize domination of the Welsh people over 700 years ago, and I understand that the Welsh people have never accepted that domination. Traveling here has made me realize how well the Welsh people have maintained their separate identity, keeping their language, their customs, their pride, their music and especially their flag with the red dragon flying, through the many generations since that time.
Conwy Castle and Walls are under the care of Cadw which is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’ or ‘to protect.’
Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Last Updated December 27, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster