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Great Castles of Britain

Conwy Castle

CONWY, NORTHWEST WALES

(NINTH IN A SERIES)

This updated article first appeared in NOVEMBER, 2007.                           MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2015.

        The classic castle, like great art, is difficult to define. Ask anyone to describe his or her idealized castle and you may get the same answer you commonly hear for great art: "I know what I like, and I’ll know it when I see it."
        We love castles — of all shapes and sizes and all states of repair. We have our favorites, too, just like we have our favorite music and painters. In this series we present castles we have enjoyed and hope our enthusiasm compels the reader to make their own pilgrimage to these great shrines of history and monuments to imagination.

 

   KING EDWARD I  &  THE    
  SUBJUGATION OF WALES  

          The time is the last quarter of the 13th cen-tury. The place is the island of Britain. King Edward I, Plantagenet King of England, was back on English soil after years away fighting the 8th and 9th Crusades, and back from holding court for two years in England’s territories in France. The king was back home with his army, and, because peace and order were well established in France, Edward I turned his attention for the first time

Conwy Castle entrance is under the arch, center right. Photo © Home At First.
Conwy Castle entrance is under the arch, center right.
Photo © Home At First

in years to unrest in Britain.

          Two hundred years earlier Edward’s Norman ancestors had conquered England with a great victory over King Harold at Hastings. But William the Conqueror did not immediately conquer Wales or Scotland, which were a warren of Celtic tribal principalities independent of England. King Edward I decided the time was right to finish the Norman Conquest of Britain. He would start by subjugating Wales to his rule.

 

           First, he followed his grandfather’s (King

Thomas Telford's castellated road suspension bridge of 1826 crosses the River Conwy at the castle. Photo © Home At First.
Thomas Telford's 1826 suspension bridge crosses
the River Conwy at the castle. Formerly carrying
the main road into Conwy town, the castellated
bridge now carries a toll footbridge managed
by Britain's National Trust.

 
Photo © Home At First

John’s) strategy of motivating Norman-English nobles holding the “Marcher” lands along the England-Wales border to put down local rebellious Welsh chieftains and annexing their Welsh lands. Then Edward would demand the absolute fealty of the Marcher lords, and would step on any Marcher lords who showed any impulse to act independent of the English Crown. This strategy had the dual benefits of securing the English-Welsh borderlands and reeling in several Marcher lords who had been suffering delusions of independent grandeur during King Edward’s long absence in the Holy Land and France. But if Edward’s strategy served to consolidate his power by bringing wayward nobles back under his control, it also

 

consolidated the several rebellious Welsh

tribes into a single “national” force under a

 

charismatic and talented leader, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Wales.

          For eight years (1276-1284) Edward’s army campaigned in Wales to establish English dominance. The initial plan would be to divide and conquer by vanquishing Llywelyn and dividing his territory between the prince’s two brothers in exchange for their pledge of homage to the English king. But, when the Welsh leaders were left disappointed by the unexpectedly small share of land and power the king was prepared to give them, they reunited and rebelled anew. King Edward was no one to trifle with, however. He trapped (many Welsh say “ambushed”) Llywelen’s forces at Irfon Bridge (near Builth Wells in Mid-Wales), killing the Prince of Wales and capturing his brother Dafydd, who was put on trial and condemned to death for treason — the first Briton so executed in over 200 years. Dafydd was also the first recorded victim of execution by being hanged, drawn,

Walls extending out from Conwy Castle once guarded the approach to the castle. Today they connect the parking lot and the town with the castle. Photo © Home At First.
Walls extending out once guarded the
town and approaches to the castle.
Today the connect the parking lot
and Conwy town to the castle.

Photo © Home At First

and quartered in October 1283 in the English border city of Shrewsbury.

 

 

Approach to Conwy Castle via Thomas Telford's 1826 suspension bridge. The turreted gatehouse had been the tollhouse for the bridge. Photo © Home At First.
The Approach to Conwy Castle via
 Telford's 1826 suspension bridge.
The turreted gatehouse had been
the tollhouse for the bridge.

Photo © Home At First

  EDWARD BUILDS HIS PERIMETER DEFENSES  

          With the princes of Wales now dead, King Edward’s army controlled Wales. But its convoluted interior of numerous mountain ranges and river valleys made Wales a likely place for rebellion against an occupying army. King Edward I decided to remove his army to the perimeter of Wales, and fortify the perimeter. With the English-Wales border already heavily defended, the king needed only to secure the northern and northwestern coasts to effectively hem in the Welsh. And Edward, a powerful central ruler with a large treasury, threw big money at the task. He set about building a network of fortress castles to ring the north and west of Wales at several strategic points places where rebel forces could not challenge the might of the English, and places where vital import/export commerce could be controlled by the English with relatively small entrenched garrisons. The great, and expensive, castle building program was launched in 1283.

 

          Edward’s army had built notable fortresses at

Flint (1277-1286), Aberystwyth (1277-1289),

 

Rhuddlan (1277-1282), and Builth (1277-1282) during the campaigns against the princes. It had also taken and upgraded various Welsh castles, including the landmark Criccieth Castle on south coast of the Llyn Peninsula. To complete the impregnable circle the king had his master builder, James of St. George, create four outstanding fortress castles at key gaps along the western and northern coasts of Wales: Harlech (1283-1290), Caernarfon (1283), Beaumaris (1295; never completed), and at Conwy (1283-87). With these new, state-of-the-art castles, the mountainous interior of Snowdonia,

Caernarfon Castle, about 25 miles southwest of Conwy. Another of King Edward's great Welsh castles, Caernarfon is the traditional site of the investitures of Princes of Wales. Photo © Home At First.
Caernarfon Castle, about 25 miles southwest 
of Conwy. Another of King Edward's great 
Welsh castles, Caernarfon is the traditional
site of the investitures of Princes of Wales.

Photo © Home At First

northwest Wales, was rimmed. For any

 

potential rebels, there was now no way out. That didn’t prevent the Welsh from rebelling again, which they did in 1287, and again in1294-5. But the new castles held (even though Criccieth and Aberystwyth did not), doing their job as imagined. The English-loyal residents of the castle towns simply retreated into safety behind the castle walls  until the rebels went home or gave up. Sieges didn’t work – the castles

 

had water access and could not be cut off

The wide estuary of the River Conwy flows from Conwy Castle north to Conwy Bay and the Irish Sea. Photo © Home At First.
The wide estuary of the River Conwy flows
from Conwy Castle north to Conwy Bay
and the Irish Sea
.
Photo © Home At First

from re-supply. Edward had paid dearly to create his successful castlewall around the Welsh nationalists. But he gained control of Wales, effectively completing the ambitions of his predecessor William the Conqueror more than 200 years after the Battle of Hastings.
          For Edward the job wasn’t finished. Scotland remained wildly independent and hostile, and a constant threat of invasion into northern England. Castles also played a key role in Edward I’s subjugation of Scotland, helping him earn his nickname, Hammer of the Scots. But that’s a story for another day.

 

 

  CONWY CASTLE AFTER KING EDWARD I  

          For Conwy Castle, its more than 600 years of history have been remarkably peaceful. After a failed siege in 1295, Welsh rebels largely avoided it, despite its strategic importance guarding the mouth of the River Conwy where it opens into Conwy Bay and the Irish Sea. Perhaps its lofty perch atop a rock outcropping above the harbor was too daunting. Maybe the castle’s thick-walls-inside-of-thicker-walls design which featured eight 70-foot-tall stone towers capped with turrets for archers,

Conwy Castle still looks imposing today. However, neglect and the "slighting" of its interior during the English Civil War have left it a shell of what it was when built in the 13th century. Photo © Home At First.
Conwy Castle still looks imposing today. However,
 neglect and the "slighting" of its interior during
the English Civil War have left it a shell of
what it was when built in the 13th century.

Photo © Home At First

discouraged would be attackers. Only

 

the great Welsh independence fighter Owain Glyndwr managed to take Conwy

 

Castle from the English, using a trick to gain control of

A few narrow gates permit entry into Conwy through its nearly complete town walls. Photo © Home At First.
Three narrow gates permit entry
into Conwy town through its
 nearly complete town walls.

Photo © Home At First

the castle in the early 15th century. He held the castle just long enough to ransom it back to King Henry IV, and then used the money to help him and his supporters to win back control of most of Wales, and declare (a short-lived) independence from England. Welsh independence was to many if not most Welshmen rendered moot when within two generations Welsh nobility took over the throne in the form of King Henry VII (born Henry Tudor in Pembroke Castle, south Wales), who began the powerful Tudor dynasty.
          Conwy Castle, and its extended walls surrounding the town of Conwy, gradually fell into disrepair over successive centuries. They saw their last action when Parliamentarians put Conwy under siege during the 17th century English Civil War. When Oliver Cromwell deposed King Charles I, Parliament ordered the “slighting”, or stripping of usable materials from most of the Welsh castles, including Conwy.

 


Map © Home At First.
 

 

  CONWY CASTLE TODAY 

          Cromwell’s slighting left Conwy Castle a shell, albeit an impressive one with most of its walls, towers, and turrets intact. In the 300+ plus years since the end of the English Civil War, Conwy Castle hasn’t changed much, but significant changes have occurred to the town and the environs. Northwestern Wales has become a vacation destination for the same reasons Conwy Castle was built: the combination of rugged mountains and extensive coastline attract seekers of independence and freedom. The many castles in various conditions lay scattered across northwestern Wales,


Conwy Castle, between the hills of Snowdonia and the
River Conwy estuary. Note the walls of the town
of Conwy still nearly reaching the fortress.

Photo © VisitBritain - Britain on View

adding to the region’s attractiveness to

 

 

visitors. Arguably the most imposing of these is

Thomas Telford's wonderful castellated suspension bridge is preserved as a footbridge by Britain's National Trust. Photo © VisitBritain - Britain on View.
Thomas Telford's wonderful castellated
 suspension bridge is preserved as a
footbridge by Britain's National Trust.

Photo © VisitBritain - Britain on View

Conwy Castle. Lording over the town and the Conwy estuary from its rocky perch, the walls and towers of the castle appear little affected by time. When the railroad was built along the north Wales coast, its two-track right-of-way was set to pass south of and adjacent to the castle, crossing the river in Robert Stephenson’s famous wrought iron tubular bridge with castellated gates.

          The modern main road into Conwy town crosses the river and passes the castle just north of the walls. In between the rail and road bridges is a spectacular suspension bridge, built in 1826 by Thomas Telford, the great Scottish engineer. At each end of Telford’s bridge stone castellated towers that mirror the towers of Conwy Castle serve as anchorages. The toll bridge was once the main road into Conwy, but now is a footbridge open to the public in the care of Britain’s National Trust (Open: Apr-Oct 11AM-5PM daily; Admission: £1/adult, 50P/child, £2.50/family; pay at the tollbooth).

          The castle is open to the public, too, and is

 

maintained by Cadw, the Welsh government’s

historic environmental service (Open daily year round:

 

Mar–Oct from 9:30AM to 5PM or 7PM, and Nov–Feb from 10AM to 4PM Mo-Sa, 11AM-4PM Su; Admission: £6.75/adult, £5.10/seniors/students/children, £20.25/family). Visitors can explore the castle grounds, climb up and around walls and towers, and walk the walls leading to the parking lot and the town. There is a castle exhibition, a tourist information centre, a gift shop, and other services at the castle.
          The walled town of Conwy is one of the most complete medieval walled towns in Britain, with more than three-quarters of a mile of walls with 21 towers and 3 entry gates almost fully enclosing the town. Inside the walls Conwy town is a collection of narrow medieval streets with minimum auto traffic, lots of shops, tea shops, restaurants, gift shops, and, predictably, tourist traps. The old place has some real charm, especially during bad weather weekdays, or away from the high season. But on a fine summer bank holiday weekend, Conwy is not the place to be. The developed tourist industry that brings thousands and thousands of Brits to North Wales coastal resorts in July and August ensures that Conwy and its castle are busy places most of the summer.

Tucked tidily into a corner of Conwy by a tower in the town wall is The Smallest House in Great Britain. This particular tourist trap is staffed by very pleasant ladies in traditional Welsh dress. Irresistible! Photo © Home At First.
Tucked tidily into a corner of Conwy
by a tower in the town wall is The Smallest House in Great Britain.
This particular tourist trap is
staffed by very pleasant ladies in
traditional Welsh dress. Irresistible!

Photo © Home At First

 

The castle brings you to Conwy, but the town's entrepreneurs hope you'll find time to stroll the town, have lunch, buy some souvenirs, and, of course, visit Teapot World. Photo © Home At First.
The castle brings you to Conwy, but
the town's entrepreneurs hope you'll
find time to stroll the town, have
 lunch, buy some souvenirs, and,
of course, visit Teapot World.

Photo © Home At First

  WORLD HERITAGE STATUS: 

          In 1986 UNESCO recognized Conwy Castle and the Conwy Town Walls as part of its World Heritage Site called “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd”. The complete site includes three other major castles built on Edward’s command in 1283 or later: Harlech, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris, citing the foursome as “extremely well-preserved monuments (exemplar) of the colonization and defense works carried out throughout the reign of Edward I (1272–1307) and the military architecture of the time.”
          Conwy’s World Heritage Site status only confirms what your eyes will tell you when you first arrive at Conwy:
 

           Here is a medieval fortress castle that really looks like a castle should, and the world is fortunate such an example still stands, even as a shell.

 


 

  IF YOU GO:

  Getting There:
     By Car: From Home At First’s nearest Northwest
          Wales
lodgings, Conwy Castle is reachable in about
        30 minutes by car. They
are about ten miles south of
        the castle along the Conwy River inside the mountainous
        confines of Snowdonia National Park near the town of
        Betws-y-coed. Guests can take either the A470 main
        road (east bank of the river) or the secondary B5106
        (west bank of the river), both of which follow the Conwy
        River north to Conwy. There are public parking lots (fee
        charged) at the castle. Park (pay & display timed parking
        rates charged) at the castle and walk into town, as there
        is no parking (or driving) inside Conwy’s medieval walls.

     By Train: From Home At First’s nearest Northwest
         Wales
lodgings, Conwy Castle is reachable in about
        60 minutes by rail.
Take the train from Betws-y-coed,
        Llanrwst, or Llanrwst North to Llandudno Junction, one
        mile east of Conwy Castle. Walk or taxi Conwy Road
        (the A547) west from Llandudno Junction station across
        the River Conwy bridge to Conwy Castle.
        OR: if you have a close connection to a train from
        Llandudno Junction station west (direction Bangor) to
        Conwy station (only 100m from the castle), you might
       
change trains at Llandudno Junction and ride all the way
        to Conwy Castle.
                  Trains run infrequently, so passengers should
        carefully plan their scheduled excursion. Journey time
        requires just over an hour. Current round-trip fares
        begin at about £5/adult.

  Opening Times & Admission:
     Conwy Castle is Open: July-August 9:30AM-7PM daily;
        Mar-Jun & Sep–Oct 9:30AM-5PM daily;
        Nov–Feb 10AM-4PM Mo-Sa, 11AM-4PM Su;
        Closed Dec. 24-26 & Jan. 1.
     Admission: £6.75/adult, £5.10/seniors/students/children,
        £20.25/family (2 adults + all children under 16).
     Guidebook available at the castle information desk.

In Northwest Wales, you can easily visit Conwy as a day trip
from any Home At First lodging location.

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