Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


17.7.16
  Sieges, Decline, and Revival - The History of Conwy Castle in Wales

It turned out King Edward I would soon need his new castle at Conwy - the first of his castles in northern Wales that had been completed.

(left: King's Tower)

In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn rebelled and took Edward by surprise. The king's reaction was swift, but while his armies managed to recapture some castles Madog's allies had taken, like Criccieth and Harlech, the king himself and his entourage met with bad weather, lost their baggage train to an ambush, got cut off from the main army by a flood, and just managed to escape to Conwy castle where they stayed under siege from December 1294 to March 1295. They received some supplies from the seaside, but they might have had to do with scarce victuals. Winter storms didn't make the naval routes easier. There is an - unproven - mention in the chronicle of Walter of Guisborough that King Edward shared his private supply, the last remaining barrel of wine, with the garrison, "In hardship everything must be held in common, all of us must have exactly the same." This was likely an anecdote with no foundations in history (1). With the arrival of spring and receeding floods, the rebellion was soon crushed (battle of Maes Moydog, March 5th), though Madog ap Llywelyn escaped for a time, but was captured and imprisoned in August 1295.

Conwy Castle then saw one of its rare moments of splendour when the newly elected archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey, was officially confirmed in his office by King Edward who still stayed at the castle (2). Those official ceremonies were very important in the Middle Ages, and one can imagine the curtain walls and the king's hall decked out with heraldic banners and garlands, the nobles wearing their finest and most colourful clothes, the tables set with an abundance of food, silver plates and gem-inlaid goblets. Less visible, a veritable army of servants must have bustled along the passageways between the halls, kitchens, and storage cellars.

Windows and a fireplace in the geat hall

The second, and last, such festive event was the investiture of King Edward I's son, Edward of Caernarfon, as Prince of Wales in April 1301. His birthplace Caernarfon Castle had been damanged during Madog's rebellion and obviously was not in a sufficient state to house the royal family. The future King Edward II was granted the royal revenues of the king's lands in Wales and received the homage of the Welsh leaders. This was to give the young prince an income of his own and the Welsh a focus of worship and service. During his reign, King Edward II would establish cordial relationships with several Welsh leaders and accepted a number of Welsh nobles in his household.

(Left: Chapel Tower)

We've seen in the first post that Conwy Castle continued to be in various stages of bad repair since the 14th century, but some parts must have been habitable when King Richard II fled there in 1399. But surely, his stay in the castle was not accompagnied by garlands and heralds, and splendid meals with the nobles of the realm, most of whom had shifted their allegiance to Henry of Bolingbroke Duke of Lancaster, the future Henry IV (3).

Richard's reign had always been unruly due to internal stife between some noble houses who used the king's minority to gain influence. When he finally came of age, Richard tried to assert his power but alienated some of the leading families by his harsh course. The relationship with France was more than a bit uneasy, too. When Richard refused to recall the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke after the death of his father - maybe fearing the rival claim of a man assisted by the Lancaster wealth (and with a son and heir, while Richard had no offspring) - it was the straw that broke the camel's back. While Richard launched an expedition to Ireland where the Anglo-Irish lords whom Richard II had forced into submission in 1395 rebelled again, Henry returned from France and soon gathered a large number of followers, among them Henry Percy Duke of Northumberland.

When King Richard II returned, he found most of the nobles allied against him. He sought refuge in Conwy Castle where he met with the Duke of Northumberland who acted as Bolingbroke's emissary on August 12, 1399. Percy swore that no harm would come to the king if he surrendered (4), an act that may have taken place in the chapel. Richard did surrender and was taken to London where he abdicated as king. He was then transfered to Pontefract castle where he died in February 1400, after a rising to restore him failed. Bolingbroke was crowned as King Henry IV in October 1399.

The range of the royal rooms

Conwy Castle remained in the focus of history. Ony a few months after Henry ascended the throne, the Welsh rose for the umptieth time, this time under Owain Glyn Dŵr. Two cousins of Owain, Rhys and Gwilym ap Twdwr, disguised themselves as carpenters and by that ruse gained entrance into the castle (March 1401). They killed the guards, opened the gate for their men and took control of the place. The rebels also managed to capture the walled town. They held out for several months before they negotiated a surrender that included a royal pardon for the leaders by King Henry IV. Yet, their capture of Conwy lent new impetus to Owain's rebellion. The townspeople, mostly of English descent, claimed a totally unrealistic damage repair that was never paid.

The upper floor of the great hall

Little is known about Conwy Castle during the War of the Roses where it never played a significant role. The next time Conwy comes into focus is during the reign of King Henry VIII when the castle and town walls were repaired in the 1520ies. The castle was used a prison and armament store. Moreover, the royal rooms in the inner bailey got an overhaul that pointed at a use as residence for a future prince of Wales. But the political focus had shifted away from the unruly border regions, and with a king of Welsh descent on the throne, big whopping castles like Conwy were no longer needed. The antiquarian William Camden reported in 1586 that the town of Conwy was but thinly inhabited.

(right: Stockhouse Tower)

King Charles I finally had enough of ruins in bad repair and sold Conwy Castle to Edward, 1st Baron of Conway and Secretary of State, in 1627. The purchase sum was £ 100 (5), but I doubt it was a snap, considering all those leaking roofs, broken floorboards, and tumbling support arches. No wonder then that his son got rid of the thing when he had the chance. Said chance came in the person of John Williams, Archbishop of York, Welsh-born and a stout royalist. Williams had parts of the castle repaired, garrisoned and provisioned out of his own pocket, though King Charles promised to refund him. The king also promised that no other officer would be set over Williams until the royal debts were repaid. That didn't work out too well because Sir John Owen, who was appointed governor of Conwy town in January 1645, definitely acted as Williams' superior and even broke into the castle to 'requisition' provisions. Enraged, Williams turned to the parlamentarians and provided them with important information about Conwy. General Thomas Mytton took the town in August 1646, but the castle withstood a siege until November when it fell as well.

Immediately after the castle came into possession of the parlamentarians, it was used as prison and artillery fortress, but the Council of State decided to slight it already in 1655. Fortunately, that was not done with much enthusiasm; the only trace of post Civil War destruction was a - now repaired - large hole in the Bakehouse Tower.

More damage did its next owner, the third Lord Conway, to whom the castle was returned by Charles II. Instead of putting money into its upkeep at a time where castle became less important als military structures and living places, he tried to get as much money out of it as possible and had all the lead roofs and ironworks removed and sold - much to the dismay of the town inhabitants, who opposed Conway's agent, William Milward, as best as they could by subterfuge and attacks, but in vain. By the end of 1660, only the magnificent stoneworks of Conwy Castle remained reasonably intact, though open to the elements.

The way to the main gate

A hundred years later, the ruins began to attract visitors and artists interested in the picturesque. The castle appears on paintings from the 1790ies to Turner's work in 1851. Some of those paintings are interesting because the show the castle from an angle of the east barbican that is now considerably changed by the bridges across the river Conwy to connect Chester and Holyhead by a coastal road: Thomas Telford's suspension bridge from 1826 and Robert Stephenson's tubular bridge from 1848 (I did not take a photo from that angle). On the other hand, the easier access by road and railway increased the touristic interest in Conwy and its castle.

Interior of the southwest tower

At some point, Conwy Castle had come to the Holland Family, who leased it from the marquesses of Hertford, descendants of the Lords of Conway. But in 1865, it passed into the care of the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses of Conwy (6). Some restoration work was done at that time, like the repair of the damaged Bakehouse Tower.

Parts of the town walls were restored as well. John Henry Parker, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, paid for the fun.

The platform outside the east barbican

As already mentioned in the first post, understanding of the Mediaeval buildings and their construction increased when Arnold J. Taylor became Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for the Ministry of Works who had taken over the guardianship of Conwy castle and town walls in 1953. He conducted extensive research in Mediaeval sources and on the buildings themselves and discovered that Master James of St.George and other masons hailed from Savoy and introduced some French elements into Edward's Welsh castles.

Conwy Castle and Town Walls are part of the World Heritage Site Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd since 1986, cared for by Cadw. Maintenance of the site is still expensive, amounting to about £ 30,000 per annum. The castle attracts close to 200,000 visitors every year, so it's well worth the expense.

Merlons on south west tower

Footnotes
1) Guinsborough ceased writing his chronicle in 1345 which implies that he died. He may have relied on eyewitneeses for the events in 1294, but Ashbee's guidebook states that the event is not proven, and Davis doesn't mention the detail at all. I don't think it would have been much in character for Edward I - his son would more likely have done something like that; Edward II was known for keeping the company of social inferiors.
2) I found a contradiction between Davies who said Conwy was besieged until early March, and Ashbee who mentions the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury for February 2, 1295. February does strike me as a bad time for traveling, so a date in March would make more sense. Nor does the guidebook give a source for the earlier date.
3) His father John of Gaunt was the 4th son of King Edward III; Richard II was the son of Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III. Richard had ascended to the throne still a minor in 1377.
4) The death of Richard II at Pontefract castle in February 1400 - it is said he starved to death - may or may not have been murder; that riddle will probably never been solved. But we can't say that Henry Percy of Northumberland swore false in Conwy like the guidebook does, quoting the French chronicler Jean Creton as factual evidence. Creton later was among those who said that Richard was still alive in 1402, but those stories have been discarded.
5) It is difficult to compare the value to the present day currency, but at the time one of the richest men, Henry Somerset 1st Marquess of Worchester, had an annual income of £ 20,000.
6) The guidebook unfortunately doesn't explain the legal background and implications of that transaction. Since the Holland Family had only leased the castle, once can assume they only passed on the lease. I couldn't find out when exactly the castle came into possession of the government.

Literature
Jeremy A. Ashbee. Conwy Castle and town Walls - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2007
R.R. Davies: The Age of Conquest. Wales 1063-1415, Oxford 1987, repr. 2000
 
Comments:
Fascinating history of a splendid castle. I forget about the association with Richard II.
 
Thank you Anerje. Wales is closest to Ireland, and the rest of England didn't look like it would welcome Richard back with cheers. :-) I suppose he stayed in Conwy and Flint in hope to sort out who'd still be on his side and come up with a plan to deal with Bolingbroke. But the support just wasn't sufficient and Richard must have realised that.
 
Da kann ich mich Anerje nur anschließen, schon sehr interessant die Geschichte um Conwy Castle und Deine Bilder illustrieren das alles wieder einmal sehr schön.
Liebe Grüße von der Silberdistel, die diesen Ausflug in so altes Gemäuer wieder einmal sehr genossen hat
 
It seems soon to be deposed kings have a habit of fleeing to Wales:)
 
Anerje, and then they leave the safety of the castles.
 
Vielen Dank für deine netten Worte, liebe Silberdistel.
 
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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