The Castles of Edward I in North Wales
By Alan Smyth
Quaestio: UCLA undergraduate history journal (2006)
Introduction: Castles are the ultimate symbol of the Middle Ages. They dominated the landscape at the time and to this day still inspire awe, even in a ruined state. During the reign of Edward I of England the castle was at the height of its dominance. The experience of centuries of building fortified homes had raised the science of castle building to such a technologically advanced stage that they had become almost impervious to contemporary siege tactics, bar the lengthy process of starvation. This dominance would only become undone by the development of gunpowder and cannon, which was still some years off. Surprisingly, it is not to London, the south of England or even continental Europe that has the distinction of claiming the most perfect examples of the period, but Wales. While during Edward’s reign he did build and modernise some castles elsewhere, such as Rushen castle on the Isle of Man, Kidwelly castle in Carmerthenshire, and the additions to the Tower of London, it was in the remotest parts of the small Principality of Wales that he would initiate the building of the finest examples of castles of the period anywhere in Europe. Edward I was responsible for initiating the building of eight castles in Wales, but it is the most famous and impressive four, Harlech, Conway, Caernarvon and Beaumaris, that shall be focused on in this paper. In dealing with these castles, the reasoning behind their building, their function in north Wales, their designers and builders, their cost, and their subsequent contribution to history all need to be dealt with, as well as describing the details of the castles themselves.
The first question that is raised is why these huge fortresses were built in the quite strategically unimportant north of Wales. Edward I is most famous for his war with France, going on crusade to the holy land, and his exploits in subduing the Scottish rebels, under their charismatic leader William Wallace. Yet, following his accession to the throne in 1272, his first major crisis came in the form of a revolt by the native Welsh in the north of the country, led by the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, who had refused to pay homage to Edward on several occasions since he was crowned king of England. Wales, particularly in the north, Llywelyn’s stronghold, had always been problematic for England, as shown by the many Norman fortresses dotted around the Marches in the south, the only part of the country they had convincingly controlled.