As far as castles are concerned, after the second Welsh war we’re into the biggest and the best. And the first on our Quest is Conwy, a staggeringly big and beautiful castle, complete with town walls which you can walk all the way around, even today. And Conwy has a great history to boot, not least in its involvement in the last Welsh war of the winter of 1294-5.
One of the best preserved medieval castles in the UK, the precise location of Conwy was chosen for more than one reason. Firstly, the plateau of rock on which it was to stand was surrounded by water on three sides, always a strategic location favoured by the king. But the placement was also a deliberate reminder not just that Wales was now under English rule, but that he’d triumphed over the Welsh ruling dynasty once and for all. The site had been a Cistercian abbey founded by Llywelyn’s grandfather, Llywelyn ap Iorweth, who during his rule had successfully expanded and consolidated his power in Wales, earning him the title of Llywelyn the Great. And as well as a working monastery, this abbey was the family’s ancestral burial place. But to hammer his point home, Edward demolished it and built his castle right on top of the bones of Llywelyn’s forebears, literally wiping them off the face of the Earth. This is why Llywelyn ap Gruffudd acquired the unenviable nickname of Llywelyn the Last. The abbey community was moved south to a new location at Maenan, where the remains of the church can still be seen today.
As one of the king’s new defensive ‘bastides’, work progressed apace with priority being given to the towers and curtain walls to ensure protection and security for the thirty garrison and constable Edward had put in charge. Under the direction of Master James of St George, the king’s master mason, the entire castle was completed within an astoundingly swift four years, using stonemasons and craftsmen brought in from every corner of England. The town walls were also being built by 1285 and by 1286 the castle was near completion. These were busy times for Master James, who now came into his own and produced his best work for Edward.
The castle was moulded to fit the slightly curved rocky outcrop on which it stands, with the obligatory access to ships supplied by the River Conwy and the harbour whilst providing effective water defences. And it was Edward’s insistence on these coastal locations that really paid off during the Welsh uprising led by Madog ap Llywelyn of the winter of 1294-5.
In December of 1294, as Edward marched across North Wales to crush the rebellion, he found himself cut off from the bulk of his supplies by an attack from the Welsh, and was forced to retire to Conwy with around 8000 of his men, where he spent Christmas. Everything now relied on the strength of the castle and Edward’s ability to keep the army alive during a particularly severe Welsh winter whilst being besieged by the rebel forces.
Things looked very dicey for the king and his army holed up in the town of Conwy. A vicious storm was raging outside, cutting off all contact with his supply lines, so trapped by the enemy and severe floods, they found themselves running low on food. During this bleak mid winter, it looked as though perhaps the Welsh were finally going to gain the day and force Edward to surrender. An English chronicler, Walter of Guisborough, wrote a telling story of their miserable circumstances, when the last remaining barrel of wine set aside for the king was shared out among the garrison. He tells us: ‘They were saving this for the king, but he refused it, saying “In hardship, everything must be held in common, all of us must have exactly the same. As God watches over us all, I am the start and cause of all this, and I should do no better than you.” ‘ The words could have come straight from the mouth of King Arthur himself, Edward’s hero and ultimate role model.
In the event, the hardship was to ease when the storm and floods abated and contact with the main army was re-established. Ships were brought straight to the castle walls from all over England and as far away as Gascony, and the king’s stores were well restocked with grain, fish, meat and vegetables to feed the army languishing within. Now the king could sit pretty until the rest of his army arrived and victory looked certain. The soldiers did so well out of the shipped-in supplies that in the end the excess was being sold off cheaply before it went off. A resounding success for Edward.
But now we must turn to the magnificent castle itself, which worked its magic on me as I wandered around its extensive walls. You need many hours to explore the maze of passageways and towers which retain all the marks of comfortable accommodation. The Chapel Tower in particular has a roofed upper room, complete with fireplace, the back of which shows a montage of period castle life in film to the evocative sounds of a blacksmith’s hammer, Catholic mass in Latin and haunting medieval music. It felt so comfortable in here I was ready to move in.
But the really unique thing about Conwy comes in the shape of the Royal Apartments situated in the eastern inner ward, protected by four massive towers and an outer barbican. And what luxurious accommodation it once was, with private apartments for the king and his family, the extent of which can be seen in the remnants of tracery around the windows, generous fireplaces and fine views over Conwy Bay.
It was with great reluctance that I eventually extricated myself from the palatial fortress that is Conwy. The castle and its intact town walls, the best preserved medieval examples in Europe, are like a little kingdom of their own, and any visit there will leave a Castle Quester feeling they’d really found what they came for.
But Conwy, of course, wasn’t the only castle built in the aftermath of the second Welsh war, and we have two more fantastic fortresses to discover in this group. And so we began our long journey towards the next of Edward’s great castles – the king’s Plantagenet capital of his conquered lands, and his crowning glory – Caernarfon.