Before the English conquest, the area of town of Conwy was occupied by Aberconwy Abbey, a Cistercian monastery supported by Welsh princes. Aberconwy also controlled an important crossing over the Conwy River, between the coastal and inland areas of North Wales. English king Edward I captured Aberconwy in 1283 and decided that this place would become a strong, fortified center of the new county, and the abbey will be moved inland. Edward’s plan was also symbolic, an act showing the English power.
The construction of the town walls began in 1283 under the general supervision of master James of Saint George, the chief architect of Edward in North Wales. Every year, a large number of workers from all over England were mobilized, gathered in Chester, and then transported to Wales for the construction season. The first stage of work on the walls included digging ditches and erecting a palisade around the future town to secure the area to allow further works. In the years 1284-1285, Richard, deputy of master James, built the west side of the circuit. It was the most vulnerable direction and was deliberately chosen as a priority. In 1286, John Francis, a Savoy mason master, completed the southern side of the circuit, and in 1287 the remaining section of the walls along the east quay was completed under the supervision of Philip of Darley. The total cost of the town walls together with the castle amounted to a huge sum of about 15,000 pounds.
The newly created fortifications were to provide security to English colonists from nearby Cheshire and Lancashire counties. Although the constable of the Conwy castle was also the mayor of the town, the care of the walls was probably the responsibility of the residents, not the garrison of the castle. At the beginning of the 14th century, the stands for crossbowmen were modernized on the walls to further increase their defenses.
In 1400, the Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr caused an uprising against English rule. Two Owain cousins took control of the castle in 1401, and then, despite the fortifications, also the town. Conwy was occupied for two months and was plundered by Welsh rebels. Residents complained later that there was damage of £ 5,000, including damages to town gates and bridges.
Even in the 20s and 30s of the 16th century, town fortifications were repaired on the initiative of Henry VIII. However, ascension to the throne of the Tudor dynasty, who were of Welsh descent and softened the tensions between the Welshmen and the English, began to change the way Wales was managed and reduce the military importance of the town’s defensive walls. Part of the fortifications began to be robbed of stones, some began to be covered by residential houses, and the moat began to be used for storing garbages. Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, further changes were made in the town walls, so that a new railway line and road could be installed nearby. In 1826, two new gates were opened to facilitate street traffic. The interest in town fortifications increased at the end of the 19th century. Restoration was started and part of the walls for tourists was made available.
The town walls in Conwy were built on a square plan with the western part clearly shorter and south slightly broken. In addition, in the northern corner, a short fragment was built out of the perimeter towards the waterfront, protecting access to the port area of Conwy. The total length of the fortifications was about 1,300 meters and closed the area of almost 10 hectares. They were erected from local sandstone and limestone with the additional use of ryolite in the upper parts. The wall thickness was 1.68 meters, and the height was 9 meters. The wall was crowned with a battlement with numerous arrowslits in merlons and a stone, wide sidewalk of defenders. Each of the merlons had an unusual triple stone crown. The fragment of the southern wall between the 18th tower and the Mill Gate had an interesting system of twelve, evenly and densely arranged protrusions from the outside. Originally, they served as a latrine rather than a defensive one.
The defensive wall was reinforced by 21 evenly spaced towers, most of them semicircular, open from the town side. The exception was the western, cylindrical corner tower, and the south-western, closed tower called Llywelyn’s Hall in the shape of a horseshoe. The twenty-second cylindrical tower was yet at the end of the wall running towards the waterfront. The height of the towers reached 15 meters. Their interiors originally had removable timber bridges to enable the wall fragments to be cut off from the attackers. They were crowned like the town walls, battlements with arrowslits in merlons.
The entrance to the town was made possible by three gates: the southern one called Mill Gate, leading to the royal water mill located on the outskirts of the town, the western one called Upper and eastern Lower Gate, overlooking the seafront. All three gates consisted of two horseshoe towers flanking the passage with a portcullis between them. Only the western tower of the Mill Gate was erected as cylindrical. The Upper Gate, as the main entrance to the town during the Middle Ages, was the only one with a small foregate. On the eastern side of the perimeter, there was also a smaller wicket gate near the castle.
The outer defense zone was a moat, probably extending only from the west and north-west. In the south-eastern corner, the town walls were in contact with the castle, creating a collective defense system.
Today, the defensive walls in Conwy are one of the best-preserved, not rebuilt in later periods, medieval town fortifications, visible at the length of almost the entire perimeter, including gates and 21 towers. In 1986, they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List and were classified as a Class I monument. Large fragments are open to visitors with the possibility of walking along the defensive sidewalk.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlewales.com, Conwy’s town walls.
Website wikipedia.org, Conwy town walls.