To Seal the Conquest - Building Conwy Castle in Wales
The Welsh rebellion against King Edward I had failed. Llywellyn ap Gruffud had died in December 1282, Edward had taken the main seat of the Princes of Gwynedd, Dolwyddelan Castle, in January 1283 and Aberconwy in March. Llywellyn's brother Davydd was still at large in the mountains, but that seems to have been a minor problem for King Edward who considered northern Wales conquered.
Edward liked the site of Aberconwy Abbey, overlooking the river Conwy and the sea; and there was a nice rock promontory as well, the perfect place for a castle.
Conwy Castle seen from the seaside
There had been a castle at the other side of the river: Degannwy, founded by the Normans in the 11th century and destroyed by Llywellyn ap Gruffudd in 1263, after he had starved the English garrison into surrender during his wars with King Henry III. But Edward wasn't interested in rebuilding Degannwy (of which almost nothing remains today).
King Edward had been to Aberconwy before when he concluded the treaty with Llywellyn ap Gruffudd after their first clash in 1277. He now moved the Cistercian abbey, the burial place of the princes of Gwynedd (1), a few miles up the valley, and called for his chief architect, Master James of St.George, who took a look at the rock plateau and got some ideas.
Conwy Castle seen from the town side
Digging of the rock cut ditch around the future castle began a few days after Edward's decision. Try to get any craftsmen or labourers that fast today, lol. And without filling in any forms to boot.
Conwy Castle was planned in connection with an - equally fortified - town, and a stockade surrounding the site is mentioned as early as May 1283. Significant parts of the town fortifications which were soon constructed in stone, remain today (2).
The west barbican with its flanking towers
The work at first concentrated on the castle's outer defenses. Responsibility fell to Master George of St.James and Sir John de Bonvillars. Other men involved in the construction were the master carpenter Henry of Oxford and the engineer Richard of Chester. There are the names of further master masons and engineers in the accounts, some of them hailing form Savoy like George. But the main workforce were labourers from England and Wales
, often conscripted. At the height of the construction work, some 1,500 men were busy there.
By November 1284 the towers and curtain walls were finished and a garrison of 30 men was put into the castle (probably living in tents or huts). £ 5,800 had been spent on the fun so far.
During the next two years the interior buildings, inlcuding the great hall, the chambers for the king and queen, and two chapels, were constructed. The castle was completed in 1287. Unfortunately, the work of these years is less well documented than the phase of 1283-84.
The town walls were also finished about that time. The totals cost of castle and town walls amounted to £ 15,000 (3).
Remains of the great hall in the outer ward
But albeit finished, Conwy Castle shared the fate with Beaumaris
and already showed signs of decline in 1321. The roofs leaked and timbers had rotted, not to mention the garrison was poorly equipped, lacking bowstrings and working crossbows, and the stored grain was rotten. In fact, by the 1330ies, all of the king's northern Welsh castles were in such a bad state that King Edward III could not have been housed properly should he have decided to visit the country.
The combination of timber supports and lead roofs turned out to be a big problem. The chamberlain of the Black Prince who had been given the royal possession in Wales, Sir John of Weston, added eight stone arches in the great hall to support the roof in 1346. One of these still remains.
Remains of the chapel adjacent the great hall
But the castle was neglected again in the later 14th century. Yet there must have been some habitable rooms when King Richard II fled to Conwy in August 1399; and the castle was taken by some cousins of Owin Glyn Dŵr in 1401, though they surrendered it to the English a few months later (4).
Like Beaumaris, Conwy Castle played a small role in the Civil War. Conwy-born John Williams, archbishop of York, held the castle for King Charles. He paid for repairs as well as provisioning the garrison. But he had a falling-out with the governor Sir John Owen and went over to the parlamentarians. Nevertheless, Conwy was one of the last three castles in England and Wales to be taken by the parlamentarians. It was then partly dismantled; the - now repaired - damage of the Bakehouse Tower dates to the 1650ies. A few years later, all the lead was taken down to be reused.
View from the outer ward to the west barbican
We can thank Arnold J. Taylor, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, for the conservation of what remains of Conwy Castle and the town walls today, and that is still an impressive lot. The castle had come to the Ministry of Work's guardianship in 1953. Taylor researched the construction and Mediaeval documents, and it was he who found out about Master George of St.James' connection with Savoy which explains some unusual features of the Edwardian castles in Wales. He was also instrumental in removing some latter additions to the town walls.
Conwy Castle and town walls are part of the Unesco World Heritage since 1986 and are now cared for by Cadw. Let's have a look at the place.
View from the southhwest tower across the outer ward to the inner bailey
The castle is basically rectangular in shape, with an outward bent to the south, following the outline of the rock outcrop. It consists of an outer ward with a great hall, a middle ward with a well, and the inner bailey which houses the lodgings of the king and his family. The curtain walls and the eight towers (about 20 metres high) rise directly out of the cliff, except for the town side where an additional dry ditch protects the castle. To the west (the town side) and the east barbicans offer additional protection.
The stones are mostly local sandstone of a grey variant, and red sandstone from Chester and the Wirral in places where carved details were needed. Originally, the castle walls were whitewashed and maybe decorated with heraldic devices in form of hangings and banners when the king was present. It must have been a stunning view in the sunshine, less austere than the grey walls on a dreary day like on my photos.
The outer ward
Originally, the main gate in the western barbican was reached by a drawbridge across the dry ditch, but today there is a way leading up from the town (after you paid your dime in the Visitor's Centre). The gate would have been further protected by a portcullis. Compared to the line of defenses in Beaumaris Castle, the entrance into Conwy Castle was easier, but only from the town side which was additionally protected by the town walls. The barbican consists of two big towers and a middle part with murder holes or machiolations and merlons for archers. The two-storeyed towers (with additional basements for storage) held rooms with fireplaces and latrines; they were likely used by the garrison or the castle's constable.
The gate leads into the outer ward. On the south side lies the great hall with a chapel. The foundations on the right side belonged to a kitchen with a brewhouse and bakehouse.
The great hall seen from the direction facing the barbican
The great hall and chapel are on courtyard level. The cellars below which had been dug into the bedrock are now open to the view. The hall was lit by windows in the curtain wall and three more elaborate ones facing the yard. The range was partitioned by wooden screens into the chapel, the hall and a smaller room with its own fireplace. The great hall was used for banquets but also official hearings and other state displays. Though the English kings did not stay in Conwy Castle often.
One can still see the projecting stubs of masonry where Henry of Snelston, master mason of the Black Prince, added the stone arches (made from Wirral sandstone) in 1346, to support the roof after the timber supports had rotten away.
View towards the Prison Tower (to the right; the one without a turret)), Kitchen Tower (left), across the middle ward to the royal appartments and towers in the background (right to left: Bakehouse Tower, King's Tower, Chapel Tower, Stockhouse Tower)
There is a direct connection from the great hall to the dungeons in the tower known as Prison Tower. The tower has a room known as 'dettors chambre' in the 16th century, for prisoners who were allowed some measure of comfort like a wooden bed. Below is a true dungeon, an oubliette that goes 12 feet deep into the bedrock and could only be reached by a trap door.
The Kitchen Tower on the opposite side of the outer ward contained store rooms and accomodation for the staff.
Middle Ward with the well
The inner bailey was separated by a curtain wall with a gate, running from Bakehouse Tower to Stockhouse Tower, and a dry ditch in the bedrock that could be crossed by a drawbridge. The bridge still existed in 1520, when one Dafydd ap Tudur Llwyd got paid for "makyng anewe brigge to entre into the ynder warde", but the ditch was filled in in the 1530ies. Nothing remains of the guard house at the gate.
The well is located in front of the ditch. It is 28 metres deep and fed by a spring. It once had been covered by a shingled roof on timber pillars. The well with its clean water was one of the few positive features of Conwy mentioned in a survey prior to the Civil War.
A view of the maze of the royal chambers
Conwy has the best preserved royal chambers in England and Wales. But some odd pathways and stairs that connect the rooms with those in the adjacent towers make it clear that the cahmbers were added after the outer walls and towers had been built, and were not planned thoroughly from the beginning. Master George was just too busy with all those castles, it seems. The royal appartments were like a palace that could be sealed off the rest of the castle and supplied from the eastern gate, which was protected by a second barbican, or the Water Gate beneath the Chapel Tower.
The rooms for the royal family and their immediate staff were at first floor level on both sides of a courtyard. The eastern range consisted of one large room, the southern one was divided into two chambers. The ground level held a kitchen in the south range and a cellar in the east site. Originally, both parts had a separate entrance; the eastern room was known as King's Great Chamber, the southern ones as King's Chamber and Queen's Chamber (5). But during the Tudor times, the rooms could only be reached by the east entrance and were known as great chamber, outer chamber and privy chamber.
Like in the great hall in the outer ward, the timber roof supports in the King's Great Chamber were replaced by stone arches in 1346. The windows facing the yard were unusually large for the time the castle was built; likely a Savoyard feature.
Window with seat in the King's Chamber
The Chapel Tower includes a second chapel for the private use of the royal family. The King's Tower with its four storeys housed the accomodation for the most important officers of the king's household like the treasurer and steward, not the king himself.
The Stockhouse Tower which is not connected to the royal chambers, held another prison (complete with chains at the wall) and probably more storage rooms. With so much place for storage one wonders why the garrison had to share one bowstring among them in 1321, lol. The Bakehouse Tower got its name due to the great oven built into one of its walls.
Each tower has an additional watchtower turret (the feature is missing in the unfinished Beaumaris Castle). Putlog holes in the walls point at the possibility of outward facing battlements, or brattices.
The east barbican
Behind the east range of the royal appartments is another barbican. It seems to have served not only as defense structure but also as garden overlooked by the king's and queen's chamber. There also was a water gate connecting to the Chapel Tower by a winding staircase down the bedrock which allowed to supply the castle by the sea, but that gate no longer exists.
The curtain wall of the barbican has a well preseved set of machiolations, or murder holes which you can see in the photo.
Kitchen Tower (left) and Stockhouse Tower seen from the western barbican
1) Moving the burial site was a humiliation for the Princes of Gwynedd as much as a strategical decision.
2) The town walls will get their own post.
3) The Conwy Guidebook gives the modern equivalent for the money: £ 5,800 would be £ 15-18 million today; £ 15,000 about £ 45 million. Less than the Berlin Airport and with a better result.
4) I'll leave the history of Conwy Castle to another post.
5) Though Queen Eleanor of Castile, Edward's wife, visited Conwy only once prior to the building of the royal appartments.
More about the castle history can be found here.
Jeremy A. Ashbee. Conwy Castle and Town Walls - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2007