Unifinshed Perfection - Beaumaris Castle in Wales: The Historical Context
In 1282, King Edward I was done with rebellious Welsh princes and Welsh risings which had plagued his predecessors ever sind William the Conquerer put a foot west of the Dee and Severn (1). He staged a massive invasion that led to the conquest of northern Wales, in particular the Principality of Gwynedd. Part of King Edward's domination was to build a ring of castles in northern Wales: Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris on Anglesey.
Beaumaris was built on the plain with no geological restrictions upon its layout and therefore follows the 13th century pattern of a Norman castle to perfection. But it was never finished due to financial problems. What we can see today is more or less what the castle looked like since 1396, minus some timber structures and roofs.
Beaumaris Castle, the moat and outer curtain wall
The history of Llywellyn ap Gruffudd's rise in Wales, and King Edward I's conquest deserve a longer post. But to put the construction of Edward's Welsh castles in context, here is a short summary of the events. (With lots of photos - Beaumaris was presenting itself at its best in the summer sunshine.)
(left: Portcullis openings in the southern gate passeage)
Llywellyn ap Gruffud of House Aberffraw
(1223-1282; there are several Welsh rulers of that name) had used Henry III's problems with Simon de Montfort and other barons to extend his power in Wales and bring several Welsh rules under his hegemony, among them Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys. From 1258 on Llywellyn styled himself Prince of Wales, a title that was ackonwledged by King Henry III in the Treaty of Montgomery 1267. Llywellyn was granted the rule over Wales for the pay of an annual tribute of 3,000 marks gold.
But not all Welsh nobles were happy with that sort of overlordship, and in good Welsh tradtion Llywellyn's brother Davydd quarreled about the heritage (2) and eventually went into exile at the English court. Things changed with the death of Henry in 1272. His successor Edward I was a different sort of man. Ask the Scots. (The Welsh, too, but somehow Edward's Scottish conquest got more popular in the media.)
By 1167 Llywellyn had increasing problems with the Marcher Lords, among them Roger Mortimer with whom he was related (3); moreover King Edward had kidnapped his bride Eleaonor of Montfort, daughter of Simon of Montfort, and his brother Davydd made an alliance with Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys. So when Edward demanded Llywellyn to come to Chester and do homage for Gwynedd, Llywellyn decided it would be safer to stay at home. That of course, was an offense according to feudal law, and Edward went to Wales with an army to put the rebellious prince on the potty.
Edward invaded Gwynedd from the north-east (via Rhuddlan) with an army of some 15,000 men. Most of Llywellyn's Welsh vassals fell over their feet to make peace with Edward. Bereft of support, Llywellyn surrendered and agreed to the Treaty of Aberconwy. He kept the western part of Gwynedd and the tiltle Pince of Wales, while the eastern part was split between King Edward and Llywellyn's brother Davydd, and the vassalty of Powys and other noble houses was transfered to the crown. Lylwellyn was allowed to marry Eleanor, though.
At that time, King Edward already built or refortified some castles at the borders to Gwynedd, among them Rhuddlan, Flint, Builth, and Aberystwyth.
The sea gate with former drawbridge
But Davydd was not happy with what he thought a tiny bit of land. Also, King Edward had a talent to run roughshod over the people's feelings like personal dignity and national pride and angered Llywellyn and Davydd more than once. In 1282, Davydd started another rebellion which was soon joined by other Welsh rulers. Aberystwyth Castle was captured, Rhuddlan besieged, the Earl of Gloucester defeated in battle, as was a royal force crossing over from Anglesey.
Llywellyn initially wanted no part in the rebellion which he thought ill prepared and bound to fail, but he had no other option than support his brother if he did not want to lose everything. The archbishop of Canterbury, who mediated between King Edward and Llywellyn, offered him a large estate in England in exchange for the surrender of Wales, but Llywellyn refused. The offer well demonstrates the inability of the English king to understand the Welsh.
Beaumaris Castle, moat with corner tower
This was a much bigger affair than the troubles of 1277. Edward hired archer mercenaries form Gascony, gathered as big as a host as he could manage, including levies from southern Wales, and ordered the Cinque port fleet to supply and support the three armies. He marched from Rhuddlan again, Roger Mortimer of Chirk (4) from Mid-Wales, and the Earl of Pembroke (5) from the south.
(right: A room in the northeastern tower)
It is not entirely clear what happened in December 1282. We know that Llywellyn marched south where he was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge, facing the army of the Mortimers and his old enemy Gruffyd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys. It is said that Edmund Mortimer, who was related to Llywellyn, offered negotiatons and lured him into an ambush, but there is no proof. Llywellyn got separted from his army, though, and was killed when surrounded by but a few retainers. His head was taken to London and displayed on a stake.
Davydd succeeded his brother as Prince of Wales, but his support was melting like snow in summer. Edward stroke right into the heart of Gwynedd and took Dolwyddelan Castle, the main seat of the Princes of Gwynedd in the 13th century. The rebellion ended when Davydd and his family who had taken to the mountains, were betrayed and captured in June 1283. Davydd was executed as traitor in September, his sons imprisoned and his daughters sent to nunneries (6). The Principality of Gwynedd ceased to exist (7).
Llywellyn's surving brother Rhodri had sold his Welsh possessions long ago and lied low on his estates in England. Rhodri's grandson Owain Lawgoch, Owain of the Red Hand, became a famous mercenary leader in France and would eventually claim the title, supported by exiled Welsh nobles and King Charles V of France. The threat of a French invasion in Wales - right in the middle of the Hundred Years War - was important enough for King Edward III of England (8) to have Owain assassinated in 1378.
King Edward stripped Gwynedd of all royal insignia and reorganised the land into counties and shires administered by English magistrates according to English law. In the Statute of Rhuddlan (1284) three new shires were created: Caernarfon, Merioneth and Anglesey; castles were built at Harlech, Caernarfon, and Conwy - the latter two including walled towns. They would be the administrative centres of the new shires and populated by English settlers. Plans were also made for a castle and settlement on Anglesey near the town of Llanfaes, but there was not enough money, so the plan was postponed. Edward's sheriff of Anglesey, Roger de Pulesdon, took his seat in the manor of Llanfaes.
The outer ward, with the inner curtain wall towers to the left
But there was still a rebellious spark in the subdued Welsh. In 1294, Madoc ap Llywellyn, member of a junior branch of House Aberffraw and fifth cousin of Llywellyn, used the growing discontent with the English administrators who often abused their power, and English taxes, to ally several Welsh nobles in an uprising that included southern lords from Glamorgan. The rebellion had been well planned and totally surprised Edward. Caernarfon and several other castles were taken, the castles of Harlech and Criccieth
besieged, towns burned, Caerphilly partly destroyed; the unpopular sheriff of Anglesey, Roger de Pulesdon, was killed.
King Edward led an army into north Wales in December 1294. He reached Conwy Castle, having lost his baggage train in an ambush, and got stuck in the besieged castle for several months until his fleet could relieve him. But the Welsh could not withstand Edward's army in the field. They lost the battle of Maes Moydog in March 1295; Madoc ap Llywellyn escaped with nothing but his life and lived as fugitive until he was betrayed and captured. He obviously spent the rest of his life in prison in the Tower (9).
The failed rebellion only resulted in further suppressions and restrictions for the Welsh people.
The inner bailey (it would have been filled with buildings along the walls)
Well, financial troubles or not, a castle was now to be built on Anglesey. The Welsh population of Llanfaes was moved 12 miles to the south-west because Edward wanted an English town to go with his castle (albeit other than Caernarfon and Conwy, the town was never walled in). Sure, the site was the same distance from Caernarfon and Conwy and thus strategically sound, but Llanfaes had been a busy trading town due to its location and would never prosper on the new site. Another thorn in the Welsh side.
The castle was called after the place name Beau Mareys, 'fair march'. The work was overseen by Master James of St.George
who had the responsibilty for all of Edward's castles in Wales. In 1295, he concentrated on the repair of Caernarfon and the building of Beaumaris. His work here is well documented; I'll get to that in the next post.
Another view of the outer ward
Edward truly wanted that castle like yesterday. In February 1296, the inner curtain wall stood to 6-8 metres, work on four of the inner towers had been begun, as well as on ten of the towers of the outer curtain wall. The south gate was already fitted with portcullises, and construction of the harbour that would allow to supply the castle garrison by sea, was well under way. An average of 2,000 labourers worked on the site, plus 400 stonemasons, 200 quarrymen and an unspecified number of carpenters and smiths. The place must have looked like an anthill. The transport of material involved 30 boats, 60 waggons and 100 carts moving to and fro.
The fun cost £ 270 a week in wages, not to mention the costs for material. The following year only a third of that sum would be spent and work progressed much slower. Edward's increasing involvment in Scotland led to a shortage of money and in 1298, work on the castle almost ceased.
There was a second period of builiding going on since 1306 because Edward feared that the Scots and Welsh might ally and attack England from two sides. The south barbican was built during that time, the outer curtain wall and the moat finished, as well as the north gate which had simply been walled up in 1298. Work on Beaumaris finally ended in 1330. The considerable sum of £ 15,000 had been spent until then.
The south gate from the outside
Albeit unfinished, the castle was strong enough to serve as defense and was garrisoned. It was taken by the Welsh during the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1403 and recaptured by royal forces in 1405 (10). It thus played only a small part in the rebellion, but since I have covered several Welsh raisings in this post already, it's a good place to present a short version of Owain's rebellion as well.
(left: A wall passage - unusually high to fit Edward I Longshanks - those in Pembroke are much lower)
Owain Glyn Dŵr was a descendant of both the princes of Powys and Deheubarth, and thus could claim the title Prince of Wales with some right after the princes of Gwynedd had died out. He got into trouble with Baron Grey de Ruthyn over some land and, as usual, the court decided in favour of the English lord. Grey then 'forgot' to tell Owain about a call of the levies, branding Owain as traitor at court. Owain, together with his son, brothers-in-law, the bishop of St.Asaph and other digruntled noblemen, launched an attack on Lord Grey's lands. The revolt soon spread to northern and central Wales which went over to Owain. King Henry IV's military invention in 1401 remained unsuccessful.
The following year, Owain captured Baron Grey. King Henry paid a heavy ransom for him. But when Owain captured Sir Edmund Mortimer at the battle of Bryn Glas, the king was not willing to pay the ransom (since Mortimer had a claim to the English throne). Mortimer negotiated an alliance with Owain instead, and later the Tripartite Indenture between Owain, Mortimer and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. The three basically wanted to divide England and Wales among them.
With the Hundred Years War still being in full swing, Owain could also draw on French support, and the Scots never liked the English, either. Scottish and French privateers operated round Wales and a French army invaded Herefordshire. Several companies of English archers - probably of Welsh descent - went over to Owain. 1404 was his year. Owain called the first Parliament of all Wales at Machynlleth where he was crowned as Prince of Wales. Wales was to be an independent state with its own laws again (which had been replaced by English laws and courts since Edward I) and its own church.
But it would not last. In 1405, the king of France wanted peace with England and withdrew his support, while the young prince Henry (the latter Henry V; 11) adopted a strategy of economic blockade instead of punitive expeditions which often failed - he had led some of them himself, but the Welsh used guerilla strategies which were difficult to deal with. Some nobles began to look for reconciliation with the English, and many commoners went back to their fields and tools.
The southern gatehouse seen from the inner bailey
In autumn 1407, Owain had lost the castles of Aberystwyth and Harlech to the English; his wife and daughters were captured, his ally Edmund Mortimer died in battle. Owain remained free and still launched raiding parties, even managed to capture and ransom one of King Henry's supporters in 1412, but the rebellion more or less petered out. But contrary to his predecessors Davydd ap Gruffudd and Madoc ap Llywellyn, he was never betrayed, despite the handsome reward put on his head.
Wen Henry V became King in 1413, he decided for a more reconciliatory course and offered pardons to the leaders of the revolt. Owain refused and vanished into obscurity and legend. Even the date of his death is not known, it may have been 1415. Owain's legacy is his legend as Owain Glyn Dŵr and a bunch of statues in Wales.
The inner facade of the north gate
Beaumaris castle fell into disrepair, lacking roofs, with timber structures rotten away, until the Civil War when it was repaired and held for the king by Thomas Viscount Bulkeley since 1642 (he spent some £ 3,000 on those repairs); the commander of the garrison was Colonel Richard Bulkeley. . The castle was situated at a strategically important site on the route to the king's bases in Irleand. It surrendered to a Parliament army 1646 and was garrisoned by Parliament forces. It was briefly recaptured by royalists two years later, but eventually fell to the Parliament again. Contrary to other conquered castles, Beaumaris was not slighted since Cromwell feared an invasion from Scotland. It was instead garrisoned under Colonel John Johnes, a relative by marriage of Cromwell.
Charles II restored the Bulkeley family as constables of Beaumaris when he returned to the throne in 1660. But the castle was soon stripped of its valuable lead roofs and abandoned for good. It says something about those big Norman walls that so much of it survives until today.
(The next post will cover the architecture of Beaumaris Castle.)
Another view of the moat and the outer curtain wall
1) Actually, William's invading Wales was a response to Welsh border raids. He had his hands full with England already and probably would have left the conquest of Wales to the next generations.
2) There were more brothers and half-brothers involved, but Davydd was the most important.
3) Roger's mother was Gwladys Dhu, a daughter of Llywellyn the Great who also was Llywellyn ap Gruffudd's grandfather.
4) Edmund Mortimer and Roger Mortimer of Chirk took over from their father who died in October 1281, bereaving King Edward of one of his most able commanders.
5) William de Valence of Pembroke had replaced the inept Earl of Gloucester.
6) As was Llywellyn's daughter. All children died in captivity.
7) The Principality of Powys-Wenwynwyn was changed into a Marcher lordship; its rulers took the surname de la Pole.
9) At the time of Owain's death, the underage Richard II was king of England, but the assassination was likely set into motion by Edward III. The assassin, one John Lamb, needed time to gain Owain's confidence. He got £ 20 for his job.
9) We know he was not executed since that would have been mentioned in the sources, but there is not really any further information about Madoc.
10) Owain's main problem was the lack of artillery which was needed to conquer castles, and the lack of a fleet (though he would later get some help from the French and Scots there). He mostly took to guerilla strategies instead.
11) Henry IV's health failed since 1405, and his son, who had fought at his side in the Battle at Shrewsbury 1403, took up more responsibilies, often in conflict with his father.
R.R. Davies: The Age of Conquest. Wales 1063-1415, Oxford 1987, repr. 2000
Arnold Taylor: Beaumaris Castle - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2004