In 1282, English king Edward I invaded Wales for the second time, pushing opponents westward and occupying all northern territories. To strengthen his rule and control over the Welshmen, he ordered in 1283 the construction of the Harlech, one of the seven castles then built in North Wales. The work was supervised by James of Saint George, the main architect of Edward I. He managed 546 workers, 115 stonemasons, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters and 227 masonry, and the project cost almost 240 pounds per month. Most of the castle was completed by the end of 1289 and cost more than 8,000 pounds, or about 10 percent of the amount that Edward spent on the construction of all castles in Wales. The first constable of the castle was John de Bonvillars, and after his death in 1287, his wife Agnes served until 1290. Harlech was garrisoned by 36 people, including 10 crossbowmen, a chaplain, blacksmith, carpenter and stonemason.
In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn began an uprising against English rule, which quickly spread to large areas of Wales. Several English castles and towns, including Harlech, Criccieth and Aberystwyth, have been besieged. However, the shipment sent by sea from Ireland, allowed the defenders to maintain the stronghold and consequently suppress the rebellion. Following the revolt, additional fortifications were built on the outer bailey, around the track from the castle to the sea. Subsequent works on the castle were made between 1323 and 1324, after the war of rebellious barons with king Edward II. He ordered his sheriff, Gruffuld Llywd, to further strengthen the defense of the castle’s gate.
In 1400, another Welsh rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr broke out. Until 1403 only a handful of castles, including Harlech, resisted the attackers. The castle, however, was poorly equipped, the garrison had only three shields, eight helmets, six spears, ten pairs of gloves and four firearms. Harlech was besieged and in 1404, after a long siege, fell into the hands of the Welsh. It became the headquarter of Owain Glyndŵr, who used it as his base for operations until 1409. In 1408, the English forces under the command of future king Henry V besieged Harlech and his commander, Edmund Mortimer. The bombardment of the guns probably destroyed the southern and eastern parts of the outer walls, but the fall was only due to the lack of supplies and exhaustion of the defenders, who surrendered in February 1409.
In the fifteenth century, the castle was used during the War of the Roses, which broke out between the rival factions of the Lancaster and York families. In the years 1455-1468 it was staffed by Lancaster supporters under the command of Dafydd ap Ieuan. Thanks to the naturally defensive position and the chance of supply by sea, Harlech persisted, and with the fall of other fortresses, it eventually became the last main stronghold under the control of the Lancasters. Edward IV ordered Wilhelm Herbert to mobilize an army, possibly up to 10,000 people, to finally win the castle. After a month’s siege, a small garrison of Harlech surrendered to the forces of the Yorks.
The castle was probably not repaired after the siege of 1468 and it became completely neglected. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, between royalist supporters of Charles I and supporters of the Parliament, Harlech was occupied by the royal army under the command of William Owen, who ordered the repair of the fortifications. In June 1646, a long siege began, lasting until March 1647. Eventually, the garrison of 44 soldiers surrendered to the forces of the Parliament, commanded by Thomas Mytton. The castle was the last royal continental stronghold that surrendered during the war, and the date of its capture marked the end of the first phase of the war. The castle was no longer needed, and in order to prevent it from being used by royalists, Parliament ordered its destruction. Fortunately, this command was only partially carried out, thanks to which most of the castle survived.
The castle was built on a 61 meters high rock spur with sharp and inaccessible edges on the north and west sides. Harlech is a concentric and symmetrical structure, consisting of two lines of defensive walls on a square plan, erected from gray-green sandstone. The softer yellow sandstone was used in finishing and decorative elements.
The inner defensive wall was reinforced with four corner towers, crowned like walls with battlement and little higher. They had different names: in 1343, clockwise from the north-east were called: Le Prisontour, Turris Ultra Gardinium, Le Wedercoktour and Le Chapeltour, but in 1564 were renamed to the Deptors, Mortimer, Bronwen and Armourers Tower. The outer defensive wall repeated the inner outline, but it was much lower. The main entrance to the castle was from the east. It required crossing the drawbridge, over the dry moat carved into the rock and two gatehouses. The outer one consisted of only two, small half-towers, flanking the passage, while the inner gate was a set of two huge towers shaped in the form of an elongated horseshoe. They defended access to three portcullises and at least two doors. The back of the gatehouse was formed by two communication turrets, between which there were two floors with spacious chambers, lit with six large windows and warmed by fireplaces. The gate towers also had small rooms, probably bedrooms, among which a chapel was placed. In the fourteenth century, the entrance to the castle was additionally reinforced with two four-sided gatehouses located in front of the outer wall.
The corner north-eastern and south-eastern towers, that were built a bit earlier, had three floors. The upper polygonal rooms had fireplaces and access to nearby latrines. The round ground floor rooms probably served as warehouses or prisons. Corner western towers were built a bit later, in the years 1288-1289, at the end of the main construction phase. They were crowned with additional cylindrical towers with a watch and warning functions.
The west, rectangular range of the castle was attached to the inner face of the defensive wall. There was a kitchen in it, a great hall, a buttery and pantry between them. At the southern end of the great hall there was a wicket gate, enabling access to the zwinger area. At the northern end of the inner ward, there were chapel and bakery buildings. Between them was placed another passage to the zwinger area and further through the gate in the outer defensive wall to the area of the outer bailey, or rather the castle’s rock. This small side door was protected by two flanking half-towers. The southern part of the inner ward was occupied by a granary and a half-timbered building (Ystumgwern Hall).
On the western side of the castle there were a stairs with 127 steps, running at the foot of the cliffs to a small harbour, enabling the fortress to be supplied by sea during the siege. Two gate towers defended it: Upper and Water, and at the end of the 13th century access to the harbour was additionally reinforced with defensive walls from the north.
Today, Harlech is one of the best-preserved and best-known castles in Wales. By adding it to the list of world heritage, UNESCO pointed out that Harlech is one of the “finest examples of military architecture of the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century in Europe”. Elements of the stronghold that did not survive are northern, south and west internal buildings in the ward and two external four-sided gatehouses. The outer defensive wall is lower than originally, the crowning of the the inner circumference of the fortifications, has not been preserved either. The castle’s surroundings have also changed because of the coast line being moved several hundred meters away. Currently, the castle is under the care of the Cadw government agency, which makes the monument available to tourists. Unfortunately, in recent years, the entrance to the castle has been disfigured by a modern metal bridge that replaced the earlier timber one.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Taylor A. J., The Welsh castles of Edward I, London 1986.
Website wikipedia.org, Harlech Castle.