The Second War of Wales Independence from 1282-1283 ended with the defeat and occupation of large parts of the northern area by the English. The Welsh abbey and settlement at Aberconwy were conquered in March 1283, and the nearby Deganwy castle defending the Conwy estuary was destroyed. Instead of rebuilding the old stronghold, king Edward I ordered to erect a new fortress and town; a symbol of English power, the administrative capital of the new county, populated with English colonists. The construction of the castle, designed by James of Saint George, the main architect and master of the masonry of the king, began in 1283. From the area of England, a group of workers were taken, who completed the work to an unprecedentedly quick time until 1287. The cost of the castle and the town fortifications amounted to a huge then sum of 15 thousand pounds. The castle’s constable was, by a royal charter of 1284, also the mayor of the new town and supervised a castle garrison of 30 soldiers, including 15 crossbowmen, supported by a carpenter, chaplain, blacksmith, engineer and stonemason.
In 1294, the castle was besieged by Welsh insurgents of Madog ap Llywelyn. The rebels quickly captured the royal strongholds at Caernarfon, Castell y Bere and Harlech, as well as the castles of the king’s vassals at Denbigh, Hawarden and Ruthin. The scale of the revolt made Edward I cancel the planned campaign on the continent and instead lead the army to North Wales. However, he fell into the trap of Madog’s forces and had to flee to the Conwy castle, where he was besieged from December 1294 to February 1295. The strong defense of the castle and the ability to send supplies by the sea, meant that the Welsh were not able to get it, and the defenders received relief. The Madog’s revolt ended in the Battle of Maes Moydog in 1295. Castle Conwy however hosted Edward, Prince of Wales and later king of England, when he arrived in 1301 to receive homage from the Welsh leaders.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the castle was not well managed, the roofs were leaking, and the timber parts were rotting. This situation lasted until 1343, when Edward, the Black Prince, took control of the stronghold. Sir John Weston, his chamberlain, carried out repairs and building, among other things, a new vault for the great hall of the castle. However, after the death of the Black Prince, Conwy fell into neglect again.
In 1400 another Welsh uprising broke out under Owain Glyndŵr. In March 1401, the Welsh captured the castle by trick. Pretending to be carpenters and workers, they killed guards and called for help from hidden comrades. The English responded with the siege of Conwy, who defended for three months before the rebels negotiated a peaceful capitulation. For the remainder of the 15th century, the castle’s significance decreased, although during the Wars of the Roses were again provided and strengthened.
During the reign of Henry VIII in the 20s and 30s of the 16th century, small conservation works were carried out at the castle, the stronghold was then used as a prison, depot and as a potential residence for guests. With the outbreak of the English Civil War, the castle was taken in 1642 by the royalist John Williams, the Archbishop of York and re-adopted for defense. Warfare evaded Conwy until 1646, when the forces of Parliament led by Thomas Mytton besieged and occupied the fortress. In 1655, the State Council appointed by the Parliament ordered that the castle should be demolished or deprived of military significance. In the 60s of the 17th century, the castle’s constable, Earl Edward Conway, decided to get rid of the iron and lead remainder in the castle and sell it. Demolition was carried out, despite opposition from the leading citizens of Conwy and turned the stronghold into ruin. Conservation works began in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the monument became the property of the town. In 1953, it was leased to the Ministry of Labor, which resulted in a wide program of repairs and research on the history of the castle.
The castle was erected on a coastal, rocky ridge from which gray limestone and sandstone were probably taken for construction. For finishing elements and details such as, for example, door and window portals, more colorful sandstone was imported from the Creuddyn peninsula and the English area of Chester. In the Middle Ages, the walls of the castle were probably whitewashed. The stronghold consists of two parts: a smaller one on the east side with a shape similar to a square, closing the inner (upper) ward with a defensive wall and four corner towers, and a larger western one with a shape similar to a pentagon, with defensive walls and six towers surrounding the outer (lower) ward. Two of these towers also form the eastern part, so the castle has eight main towers in total.
The main towers reached a height of 21 meters. Similarly to the defensive walls of the castle, they were crowned with battlement and three stone pillars on each merlon. Unlike the wall, the tower’s merlons also had arrowslits. Below them, square holes have been preserved to this day. There is no certainty as to what they originally served, they could be drainage holes, supports for wooden hoarding or openings for placing decorative shields.
The main entrance to the castle led through the western barbican reinforced with three turrets and a foregate finished with two more turrets. Originally, it was entered by a stone ramp with stairs and then through a drawbridge and portcullis. The west wall of the castle dominated by barbican and had machicolations, one of the earliest in Wales and England. Also, the eastern part of the castle was protected by a barbican, leading to the Water Gate and the small haven. The area closed by a wall and three towers of eastern barbican was larger than the western one, probably there were gardens in it. Below, another defensive wall was built with two half towers and a cylindrical tower facing south.
The lower (outer) ward was protected from the north by the Stockhouse Tower, Kitchen Tower and North – West Tower, and from the south by Bakehouse, Prison and South – West Tower. There were mainly administrative and economic rooms, including stables in it. To the south face of the defensive wall there was a bent building of the great hall and a chapel with basement. From the side of the ward it had large, ogival gothic windows, six slightly smaller illuminated the building from the south. In the Middle Ages it was divided by timber partition walls, three fireplaces indicate that there could be at least three rooms. The central part was occupied by the representative great hall, the place of feasts and the welcome of guests. In the chapel, the altar was located in the window niche on the eastern side. The names of the towers largely reflect their original purpose: thus, there was a kitchen, a bakery with a stove, a pantry and a cellar dungeon intended for prison. In the lower ward there was also a 28 meters deep well.
The inner ward was separated from the outer by defensive wall between the Bakehouse and Stockhouse towers, at which there was a gate with a drawbridge and a portcullis above the ditch carved into the rock. In the upper (inner) ward there were royal chambers and rooms for servants. The royal rooms occupied the first floor: in the south – west part it was the queen ‘s chamber, in the south – eastern part chamber of the king, and in the north – eastern part – the so-called kings’s great chamber. The first floor was accessible thanks to the external stairs and staircase located in the thickness of the eastern wall. The ground floor was in the same order as above: pantry, royal kitchen, corridor leading to eastern barbican and another pantry. In the north-east tower there was a chapel, the south-eastern one was called King’s Tower, and probably there were rooms for servants. Each of the four towers at the upper ward was crowned with an additional smaller guard turret, with a warning function but also to place royal banners.
The architecture of the castle through the appearance of windows and the type of battlements, refers to the constructions of Sabaudia from the end of the 13th century. This may have been caused by the origin of the main architect, James of Saint George, as well as other craftsmen working on finishing the building.
The Conwy Castle is now one of the best-known, best-preserved and most-visited monuments in Great Britain, along with town fortifications. By adding them to the list of world heritage, UNESCO considers Conwy to be one of the “finest examples of military architecture of the late 13th and early 14th century in Europe”. The castle is open to visitors from March 1 to June 30, daily from 9.30 to 17.00. In other dates, opening hours may change, so it is worth checking them on the official website of the castle here.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Taylor A. J., The Welsh castles of Edward I, London 1986.
Website wikipedia.org, Conwy Castle.