Conwy Castle, Gwynedd
4 miles South of
A55 & B5106
Conwy Castle is by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe. First impressions are of tremendous military strength, a dominating position with a compactness of design. The eight mighty towers seem to spring out of the very rock which dictated the castle's eventual layout.
Unlike most of Edward I's other castles in Wales, Conway was not built to a 'concentric' plan (walls within walls) due to the size and shape of the rocky outcrop upon which the castle was built. However, to overcome this potential defensive weakness, the interior of the castle was divided by thick walls into separate wards, so that either could hold out independently if the other should fail. When complete the walls (up to 15 feet thick in places) would have been covered with a white plaster rendering, which must have had an even more imposing effect to the local population, quite different from the grey stonework visible today. The town walls connecting the castle are among the finest and most complete in Europe, over 3/4 mile in length with 21 towers and 3 gateways.
Conwy Castle is probably the most impressive of King Edward I's castle in Wales, with its impressive towers huddled tightly together, impregnable upon the rock which they are built upon. Do make sure you take the roof-top battlement walk around Conwy town down to the harbour to get a full appreciation of the magnificence of one of the best castle in all of Europe.
~ History ~
1283 - The capture of the Welsh stronghold of Dolwyddelan castle gives the English command of the Conway valley. King Edward I moves his army up to Conway and Rhuddlan and within days sets about securing labour for new fortifications. The siting and design of the new castle is to be placed in the hands of Edward's military architect Master James of St George.
1285 - During the height of construction work during the summer months 1,500 craftsmen and labourers from every corner of England are working on the site.
1287 - The castle is completed at a huge cost of £15,000.
1294 - A Welsh rebellion led by Prince Madog ap Llywelyn sees King Edward I march north to Wales to suppress the rebellion, setting up his headquarters at Conway. However, as soon as he arrives inside the castle, the river floods, trapping Edward and his men inside. They are stranded for several days, and supplies of food and fresh water become dangerously low before the waters recede and they are able to escape.
1321 - Despite the genius of its design and stonework, Conway like most castle, starts to suffer from rotting timber due to insufficient maintenance, and that 'the king understands they are ruinous and not fit for him to dwell in if he should go there'.
1346 - Following a further detailed survey being carried out for the Black Prince in 1343, major reconstruction work is carried out.
1399 - King Richard II vists Conway and receives Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Henry Bolinbroke's ambassador. He accepts his false promise of safe conduct to meet Bolinbroke, which results in an ambush on the road, imprisonment for the king, his abdication and subsequent death and sees Henry Bolinbroke take the throne as King Henry IV.
1401 ~ English oppression and widespread starvation ignites Welsh rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr. Two of his cousins and most loyal supporters Rhys and Gwily ap Tudur ap Goronwy, after hearing their brother been tortured on the orders of the English King Henry IV, join forces with Glyndwr. With a company of just forty men, dressed as workmen mixing in with other country people journeying to the towns market, trick their way into the walled town of Conway. There they wait until Good Friday knowing the small garrison would be at prayer.
Glyndwr's men disguise their weapons in toolboxes and beneath their work gear and approach the castle gate. The two unsuspecting guards at the gate are overcome and strangled, with signal given to the rest of the armed party to enter the castle. They quickly overcome the remaining guards and capture the castle. The English Constable races back from the parish church, as the town and castle is set ablaze.
Henry Percy at nearby Chester is furious on hearing the news and gallops to Conway with 120 men at arms and 300 archers. He immediately places the castles constable under hosue arrest, and deprives him of all his lands and position. The Welsh hold out against siege engines that are then brought against the castle walls. Henry Hotspur suffers heavy casualties in direct assults and so decides instead to starve the Welsh out. As the cousins hold on the castle turns into weeks, open rebellion across all of Wales starts to break out. Pardon's are hurredly issued to all those who rise up against the English, except for the rebels in Conway Castle.
Following months of lack of support and money from the King in Henry Percy's efforts against the Welsh rebels, he decides to treat with the Welsh leaders, pardoning many of the ringleaders, with just 9 rebels to be executed as part of the treaty to surrender the castle. King Henry is furious with this. Henry Percy decides to resign his post in Wales and returns to Northumberland with his army. He later joins Glyndwr 's rebellion against King Henry.
1403 ~ Owain Glyndwr's Welsh forces lay siege to Conway Castle and town. Its constable Henry of Scarisbrooke writes to King Henry 'I durst lay my head that 200 men in Conway and 200 in Caernarvon would be sufficient to protect the two counties with ease and the inhabitants, with the exception of 4 or 5 gentlemen and a few vagabonds would gladly pay dues to the English for protection that suffer from the rebels'.
1404 ~ The welsh siege on the castle is strengthened when their French allies arrive with canon to pound its walls.
1609 - Conway is described as 'utterlie decayed'.
1627 - Years of neglect prompt a survey to report that the whole building is in decline and dangerous to enter, 'the leads being decayed and broken down above and almost all the floores fallen downe'. King Charles I sells Conway for £100.
1646 - Conway falls to besieging Parliamentary forces. For the next 5 years the roundheads keep the castle on a war footing.
1655 - The Council of State order the fortifications in Conway and Caernarfon to be slighted and so the castle is rendered untenable. At the Restoration of the monarchy the castle is returned to the third Lord Conway. By now the castle is beyond a state of repair and so anything that is saleable is sold and the ruins are abandoned.