As the island of Anglesey was the destination for the final stop on my castle Quest, I wanted to approach it by boat, just as Edward’s forces had done all that time ago. It was a beautiful day on the water, and as the castle drifted into view from the Menai Straits it was easy to see that Beaumaris is where Edward’s story in Wales comes to an end. You can immediately see, for all its grand design, that this is a short castle, devoid of crenellated battlements and lofty turrets, and that’s because Beaumaris is where the money ran out.
Beaumaris, or the castle on the fair marsh as it name means, is different in several ways to the other castles in the ‘Iron Ring’. Built to fill in the gap in the king’s defences after the final Welsh uprising in 1294-5, this last project for Master James of St George was to be his swansong. With a flat site, unrestricted by rocky or challenging terrain, Edward gave his master mason free reign to design the castle as he wished, and the result is a masterpiece in medieval engineering. The concentric walls are almost perfectly symmetrical, with a moat filled from the sea and ingenious layers of defence. But first the site had to be freed up in order to build the castle, and the centre of Madog’s revolt was in the way.
Edward had the villagers of Llanfaes moved to a new borough on the other side of Anglesey in order to make way for his latest fortress. In the spring of 1295, the depopulated village was commandeered for the castle, and the new settlement established some 12 miles away to the south west of the Island. It was given the appropriate name Newborough, which it still bears today.
This done, the king established his headquarters at Llanfaes until 6th May, when he granted Master James a whole “60 shillings” (around £1,600 in today’s money) and from then on a series of payments were to be made to fund the new build, reaching into the thousands over the next six months.
Again, work charged ahead at an astounding pace, with over 2,500 people being brought into work on the new project, and when the king returned to inspect his new castle in July there was much to show for two and a half months’ work. Clearly pleased with what he saw, Edward took some time out to relax amid the new walls and towers in accommodation comprised of temporary thatched buildings. There are records of the king being entertained by a harpist named Adam of Clitheroe, and this occasion is marked by a harp sculpture in the north gatehouse.
The castle did reach an impressive stage before work ceased, so there is much to explore and admire in a wander around the site. You can investigate the extensive intramural passageways and a myriad of nooks and crannies without realising the place was never finished, and the beautiful chapel royal within the eastern curtain wall is worth a visit alone. With five lancet windows, exquisite carving and a vaulted ceiling, it retains all the feel of the medieval mass that would have taken place inside, and this really takes you back in time. Then moving outside, the defences have been clearly thought out by Master James, and a walk around the outer ward can give you a feel of an entirely different sort.
Any attacker would have a near-impossible task breaking into the castle. If you could get across the moat and scale the outer walls without being shot, you’d then be trapped in the outer ward in a valley of stone, an inescapable killing field. The colossal towers of the inner curtain wall would give defenders the greatest cover whilst they fired down missiles and arrows onto the invaders below. I felt tiny walking around between the two sets of formidable walls, even in their incomplete state, and it’s clear that once you were in the outer ward, there’d be no real way to scale the inner defences to break into the heart of the castle. In short, it was near impregnable.
But despite being perfectly designed and the ultimate showcase for Master James’ talent, the money was beginning to dry up. Edward’s wars had come at a heavy cost to the kingdom, and castles were hugely expensive to build. In 1296, Master James wrote a letter to complain of the lack of funds for construction. In it, he says:
“We write to inform you that the work here is very costly, and we need a great deal of money… In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed – and shall continue to need – 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2000 minor workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea-coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths and carpenters for putting in the joists and floorboards and other necessary jobs.”
He ends the letter with a plea that we would all recognise today:
“P.S. And, Sirs, for God’s sake be quick with the money for the works… otherwise everything done up till now will have been of no avail”. Some things never change…
But despite Master James’s pleas, the money still slowed to a trickle and ultimately, for all its genius in design, the work at Beaumaris eventually ground to a halt, and the castle was never completed.
And with that, unlike the castle, my visit to Beaumaris means my Quest is now complete. All that remains is to tie up the loose ends of the story with what happened to Edward and his master mason, and to reflect on what I’ve discovered and experienced over the two weeks as I’ve travelled in time and space through medieval North Wales. So join me tomorrow for a look back, and in some ways a look forward, because covering this Quest is the reason I started this blog, and now it’s all over…