Forgotten Ruins? The castles of the Welsh Princes
By Euryn Rhys Roberts
Y Cylchgrawn Hanes Digital History Magazine, Vol.8 (2014)
Introduction: Of all the ancient monuments that survive from the Middle Ages, none, perhaps, fire our imagination as much as the castles of that era. Unlike the dusty, abstruse documents that have survived from the period, we will all almost certainly have seen if not visited a castle at some time or another. In the British Isles, and particularly in Wales, the landscape is dotted with castles of all shapes and sizes, some made of stone, others of earthwork. And in view of the fact that over 400 castles were built in Wales between the arrival of the Normans in 1066 and the ‘Acts of Union’ of Henry VIII (1536–43), it is easy to see why Wales was often referred to as ‘the land of castles’. According to the results of a survey published in 2011 by Visit Britain, the tourism agency of the Westminster government, a tour of the castles of Wales was more popular among foreign tourists than watching a football match at Old Trafford, shopping at Harrods, and even a visit to Buckingham Palace. So what is the attraction? As we marvel at magnificent castles such as Caernarfon, Caerphilly and Pembroke, we find ourselves transported back to a world of romance and of raw power, to a world of people under siege and of attackers subjected to a shower of arrows and boiling oil. These buildings have done so much to embed popular ideas about the period, and are responsible to some extent for the tendency to portray the Middle Ages (perhaps unfairly) as an uncivilized and cruel age. As someone who used to travel to school along a road affording magnificent views of Rhuddlan castle, I must admit that I hardly took any notice of the castle, despite the fact that it stands head and shoulders above most of the modern buildings in the area. I later came to realize that the castle has a very rich history, as do the remains of Wales’ other castles.
In the case of Rhuddlan castle, it was one link in a chain of fortified stone castles built from Aberystwyth in the west to Flint in the north-east by Edward I (d. 1307), king of England and conqueror of Wales, during the last decades of the thirteenth century. Edward invested heavily in establishing castles on his new lands, spending over £9,500 on fortifications at Rhuddlan alone, not to mention a further estimated £60,000 on castles at Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech. In view of the sums paid for some footballers today, a few tens of thousands of pounds may not seem like a vast amount of money, but we must not forget that this expenditure must be multiplied many times over in order to arrive at an estimate of the actual cost (£1 today would be closer to £500 in 1280!). Fortunately, many of the accounts detailing the costs of the castles have survived, and, if studied carefully, historians are able to use them to form an outline of the building work undertaken and the background of the builders.
The ruins of the castles of Edward I, and the records kept by the English exchequer, are a reminder of the costly efforts to keep the Welsh under the control of the Crown in the Middle Ages. There is therefore a strange tension relating to the royal and Anglo-Norman castles built in Wales. Guto’r Glyn (d. c.1493), one of the most prominent of the medieval Welsh poets, considered Caernarfon castle to be one of ‘[c]aerau Edwart Gwncwerwr’ (‘the forts of Edward the Conqueror’). And later, the antiquary Thomas Pennant (d. 1798) described Caernarfon castle bluntly as ‘the most magnificent badge of our subjection’. The magnificent castles of Edward I were therefore symbols of oppression to some, and one can well imagine that creating this feeling of intimidation was one of the primary reasons for building them in the first place. But we must not forget that it is their dignity, rather than their sense of terror, that accounts for the castles of Edward I being designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1986, as well as the fact that they attract so many tourists and visitors in the twenty first century.