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Castles of conquest and oppression

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 16:24 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

When we have visitors come to stay, friends or relatives who have, perhaps, never been to Wales before, one of the first things many of us do is take them out to see some of the majestic ruined castles that still dominate our landscape.

Caerphilly Castle. Photograph by Somira Jain.

This is Wales, we say, these are part of out heritage. And they are - but most of us remain unaware that the majority of these great stone edifices aren't Welsh at all.

They are English and were built with the sole purpose of grinding down the populace, of keeping the Welsh people in subjugation.

That doesn't make them any less magnificent - as pieces of architecture, as weapons of war. But it is good and only right that we should know and pass on their original purpose.

When Dafydd, brother of Llywelyn, the last true Prince of Wales, was captured and executed at Shrewsbury in 1283 it left Edward I of England in total command of Wales. The Statute of Rhuddlan, signed in 1284, set out the principles on which Edward intended to rule his newly acquired territories.

From the beginning it was clear that he intended to rule as an autocrat, a conqueror who had little or no concern for the Welsh people and their traditions.

Boroughs on the English style were created at places such as Aberystwyth and Caernarfon and new Marcher Lordships were brought into existence in border regions like Chirk and Denbigh. A system of courts in the English style or format was also introduced, along with the imposition of English criminal law.

In order to ensure adherence to the new systems Edward built castles, huge stone monsters that were power bases for English Lords and English arms.

In the south several stone-built castles were already in existence. These included fortresses such as Caerphilly, Cardiff and Pembroke. They had been built by the early invaders of Wales, the Norman Barons who originally arrived with William the Conqueror in the years after 1066.

The very earliest Norman (or English) castles in Wales had been earth and timber structures, motte and bailey castles with a wide courtyard (the bailey) and a motte or mound some 30 or 40 feet high - both Cardiff and Pembroke had, originally, been motte and bailey forts.

The first stone-built castle in Wales was Chepstow, built by the Baron William FitzOsbern in approximately 1067. It retained the motte concept of the early earth and timber castles but added rectangular and, eventually, round or circular towers and keeps.

The Welsh chieftains had quickly copied the castle concept and built a few of their own. After Edward's successes in the 13th century these castles, places like Dinefwr and Drystwyn, were taken over and adapted by the victorious English.

It was in the north, however, traditionally the centre of Llywelyn and Dafydd's power, that Edward built his strongest castles. By 1282, before the Statute of Rhuddlan had even been contemplated, the enormous stone portals of Rhuthun, Denbigh and Holt Castles were beginning to take shape.

The following year work began on places such as Harlech and Conwy. Beaumaris - arguably the most perfect concentric castle in the world - began to take shape late in 1295.

Building castles at the rate Edward demanded did not come cheaply. By 1301, when work had been completed on the majority of his planned fortifications, it was estimated that the king had spent over £80,000 on the building programme. This was a truly incredible figure, one that would now translate to a sum in the region of £60 million.

Building materials such as stone, lead and iron had to be transported to Wales from various parts of Britain and Edward, always conscious of the need to make the castles both defensively effective and, at the same time, emotionally dramatic, employed only the very best craftsmen on each project.

James of St George, the Master of the King's Works in Wales, was the man who designed fortifications like Caernarfon and Beaumaris. He created military masterpieces, works of beauty that took the art of castle building to its zenith.

Caernarfon and Beaumaris are concentric castles, complete with two lines of defence, making them almost - almost but not quite - unconquerable. Caernarfon, with its polygonal towers and lines of coloured stone, the low symmetrical lines of Beaumaris - they might be weapons of oppression but, even now, they remain incredible works of art.

The castles of Wales, most of them English, were powerful units of military occupation. They were the physical manifestation of totalitarianism, the symbol of a dictatorial regime. Without them Edward could never have established and maintained his hold over the Welsh people.

We need to celebrate them for the superb pieces of machinery that they are but we should never forget their original intention.

Read about Welsh castles on the Wales History site.

Wales Nature has just published a fantastic gallery of Welsh castle photographs.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's the case that Edward I built his castles throughout Wales with a clear view to subjugating the Welsh but I've always liked the story of his queen, Eleanor, who was confined in Caernarvon castle for the birth of one of her children (I believe it was the Prince of Wales, later Edward II) and that much later his account books record a payment made, in seeming great affection, to "my Welsh nurse, Mary of Caernarvon".


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