World Heritage Castles in North Wales
Published: Friday 9th May 2014
Written by: The Wales Cottage Holidays Team
The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd gained World Heritage status in 1986. The four castles of Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris and the fortified towns at Caernarfon and Conwy are the finest examples of medieval military architecture in Europe. Designed as part of Edward’s campaign to conquer and rule the medieval principality of Gwynedd, they are now one of the major references of medieval history.
The town of Harlech is dominated by the Castle; begun in 1283, it took 7 years to complete, its complex design and cliff top location making it one of the most difficult of these castles to be constructed. It was built next to the sea but changes to the coastline means that the castle now lies about half a mile inland. A fortified stairway was built to run almost 200 feet down to the foot of the cliffs which was used to supply the castle when it was besieged.
Captured and held by Owain Glyndwr from 1404 to 1409, it served as the defacto capital of an independent Wales. In the Wars of the Roses it was held as a Lancastrian stronghold and became the last major stronghold under their control, surrendering in 1468 having withstood a seven-year siege - the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles which inspired the famous Men of Harlech song.
Conwy Castle was built between 1283 and 1289 during Edward’s second North Wales campaign; it is one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval military architecture with eight massive towers. In 1295 Edward was besieged at Conwy during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn.
Welsh forces captured the castle, which was later ransomed back to Henry IV. Conwy was taken by the Earl of Pembroke in 1461 during the War of the Roses under orders from Edward IV. It was then unused until the outbreak of the English Civil War when it was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1646 and slighted and left empty.
Conwy Town Walls, over 0.75 mile long, are one of the finest and most complete sets in Europe, with twenty-one towers and three gateways. Caernarfon Castle is one of the most impressive in Wales with a couple of unique features - the stonework in the walls creates bands of colour and the main towers are polygonal.
But despite a great deal of expenditure, many of the ambitious plans for interior buildings were never completed. Until the start of the Tudor reign in 1485 when hostilities eased, Caernarfon Castle changed hands several times but then fell into disrepair.
In 1911 Caernarfon was used for the first time for the investiture of the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII and again in 1969 with that of Charles, Prince of Wales. Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey was begun in 1295 and positioned to face the royal llys on the opposite shore of the Menai Strait.
Together with Conwy and Caernarfon Castles at the other end of the Straight, it was intended to overshadow the Welsh royal home and centre of resistance to English forces. Large scale work ceased in 1298 as funds were needed for the Scottish campaign and the Castle was never finished although work continued for some 35 years.
Unlike many other castles, Beaumaris did not suffer damage during the Civil War and the extant castle is very well-preserved and makes a very impressive sight.