In the Epilogue of my Welsh Quest, I mentioned that we might find another couple of castles to visit during the rest of our stay in North Wales. And believe it or not, we did. But these bonus finds weren’t built by Edward 1st, they were the power projects of the native Welsh princes long before the warrior English king pitched up to claim them.
When I flew from Caernarfon down to Harlech to photograph the castles from the air, we also passed this little gem. I looked down to see Criccieth Castle sitting pretty atop a rocky promontory on the north-eastern corner of Cardigan Bay. So I couldn’t resist taking a few snaps of this modest, yet commanding fortress. And when we visited it on the ground I discovered it was not only built by a Welsh prince, it was also destroyed by one, while its reputation for fine hospitality moved a Welsh poet to immortalise it in verse.
The first castle on the site was almost certainly built by Llywelyn ab Iorweth, or ‘Llywelyn the Great’ as he became known, grandfather of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, whose stand against Edward 1st resulted in the Welsh wars of my Quest. By 1201, Llywelyn the Great had emerged as ruler of most of Wales, a position that was strengthened when in that same year the English King John recognised his right to rule. Four years later John even welcomed the Welsh prince into his family by arranging his marriage to his own illegitimate daughter, Joan.
It’s believed that Criccieth was built in the 1230s, when Llywelyn transferred his power base to this new site within his expanded territories. The location was an obvious choice for a successful Welsh ruler. Nature had provided perfect sea-cliff defences, leaving just the landward side to be fortified with earthworks, and the lofty position gave out an unmistakable statement of power and authority, and made an ideal lookout point for mountain passes, borders and grazing land. Borrowing from the latest in English castle design, Llywelyn built a twin-towered gatehouse, complete with ground floor arrow slits and comfortable accommodation on the first and second floors. The gatehouse passage led into the inner ward where the now vanished great hall and kitchen would have stood, constructed against the inside of the curtain wall. When the prince was in residence, it was to this relatively modest but nevertheless impressive royal fortress that he would summon important people to meetings by day, while the evenings were given over to feasting around the open fire. But to reach its heyday of fun and fine living, Criccieth would have to wait until the next century.
Llywelyn’s son and heir, Dafydd, was less successful than his father. To keep control of his lands, Dafydd imprisoned his own brother and nephew at the castle. But with power struggles and turmoil rearing their heads, it was left instead to Llywelyn’s grandson, Llwelyn ap Gruffudd to re-establish the dynasty’s rule in Wales. As anyone who followed my Quest will know, this Llywelyn was initially even more successful than his ‘Great’ forebear, being formally acknowledged as Prince of Wales by the English King Henry III. During his rule he enlarged Criccieth by adding an outer ward to enclose the entire hilltop, including new towers and an outer gatehouse. But as we now know, Llywelyn became known as ‘the Last’ of this native princely dynasty when he fell foul of Edward 1st, losing his life in a skirmish during the second Welsh war in 1283. So after he died, the English king took over all his lands, including Criccieth.
Edward made further alterations to the castle, heightening the original gatehouse, repairing towers and building a ‘King’s Hall’ in the inner ward, and he established a ‘free borough’ at Criccieth, bringing in settlers from Shropshire. But by the end of 13th Century the arrival of prisoners from Edward’s subsequent Scottish war saw the castle revert to a place of incarceration, and there are further references to prisoners being kept there until its destruction. But it wasn’t bleak for all the people who stayed at the hilltop fortress, because in the hands of a 13th Century war hero, it gained its reputation as a party palace.
In 1359, the Black Prince, son of Edward III, made his brother-in-arms, Sir Hywel ap Gruffudd, Criccieth’s first Welsh constable. A local man and a descendent of Welsh nobility, Sir Hywel ꟷ also known as Sir Hywel of the Axe ꟷ had distinguished himself fighting alongside the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. His twenty years at the castle earned him the praise of a Welsh poet, Iolo Goch, who described a sophisticated and stylish court with the ageing Sir Hywel and his wife at its centre. According to the poem, hospitality abounded with music, singing and dancing, while games were played in the great hall and beautiful maidens wove vibrant silks in this ‘marvellous fine castle’:
The fair wall which you see
a good dwelling to come to
and the bright fort high on a rock
and the red stone on the edge of a croft,
this is Criccieth and its New work
an old edifice that is.
But all good times come to an end, and towards the end of the 14th Century unrest was growing in Wales again, and in 1400 the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr led a revolt, attacking several boroughs in north-east Wales. The uprising spread throughout the country, and by 1403, Owain had gained control of much of the area surrounding Criccieth, and the castle, along with those at Harlech and Aberystwyth fell to sieges by Welsh forces. Owain himself made Harlech his royal court after being proclaimed Prince of Wales, leaving Criccieth and its borough to be destroyed by his followers. Another poet, Owain Waed Da, now described a very different castle, telling us that the: ‘rocky stones of the stone wall’ had fallen and the castle was now useless.
Criccieth was never to see those glory days of hospitality again, and it was never rebuilt. But the ruin still lingers, crowning that towering hill by the sea, and reminding people through the centuries of its rich history. As I wandered around the remains of this lovely Welsh fortress I could almost hear the music playing and the songs echoing through the ragged walls, and it’s easy to imagine how the place would have been when the good times rolled and the mead flowed…
…and talking of mead, we’ve just started brewing our own. My new Quest to discover all about honey wine is getting underway…