Bloodiest Castles in North WalesPublished on 3 Jun 2013 by Gwion Llwyd
We should start our tour of the Bloodiest Castles in North Wales with the largest of them all perhaps. Caernarfon Castle. Following years of bloody battle, Llywelyn, the last price of Wales, was finally defeated and killed by the armies of Edward I in Builth in 1282. King Edward I wanted to deny Dafydd, Llywelyn’s brother, any chance of staging a comeback so quickly drove home his advantage by ordering the construction of huge a huge castle in Caernarfon and other strategic locations.
James of St George was put in charge. He immediately employed hundreds of workers to dig the huge moat that was to surround the castle and to cut the great foundation trenches that would support the 6-meter thick walls of the castle. Any houses of the old welsh township that lay in the way were torn down and destroyed.
By 1284 the castle was almost finished. Edward I and his wife Elenor came to stay and by the end of the year Caernarfon was established as the centre of government for the newly formed welsh shires.
But all was not well. In 1294 Madog ap Llywelyn led the welsh in a revolt against their new English rulers. The town walls were burnt to the ground and the newly appointed English sheriff was killed. A year later however, Edward was back in charge. He refortified the castle and strengthened its defenses. Especially the bits that faced towards the local town.
What started as a spat between two neighbours eventually led to the sacking of Ruthin castle and years of bloody fighting right across Wales.
Owain Glyndwr, a descendent of the welsh princes, fell out with his neighbour, the anti welsh Norman landowner, Reynold de Grey. The English King, Henry IV sided with De Grey in the argument, but this didn’t stop Glyndwr from marching on de Greys stronghold in Ruthin in 1400. The town was raised to the ground and de Grey was captured and held for ransom. Following the bloody battle, Glyndwr and his army marched onwards to Denbigh then Flint before moving southwards along the English border to Oswestry and Welshpool.
Other welsh lords, long oppressed under English rule, were emboldened by Glyndwrs success and rallied to his side. In response, King Henry IV summoned a huge army and marched on the rebellious welsh. The guerrilla tactics adopted by the rebels and their knowledge of the mountains was to prove decisive during these early years however. Henry was unable to regain control, resorting instead to punitive assaults on a villages thought to be sympathetic to Glyndwr.
But in time, the enforced economic blockade on Wales began to take hold. The support Glyndwr had enjoyed from the French waned and the rebellion stalled. The killing of the charismatic prince himself finally ended the revolt in 1416. Accounts vary but it is though that Owain Glyndwr was tricked away from his army before being killed on a lonely field.
Harlech castle in North Wales must be the most fearsome stronghold in the UK. It dominates the landscape to this day, but imagine what impression it must have had back in the 13th century when it was built.
A concentric outer curtain wall surrounded an even stronger inner ward with four protective towers at each corner. Painted a brilliant white, the castle looked out over the Irish Sea crashing against the cliffs some 50m below. A deep trench cut into the rock protected the castle from the only approach by land. And all this when the native population lived in houses of wood, mud and straw.
But let’s assume you’re not easily scared and you decide you’re going to attack the castle anyway. Under a rainstorm of arrows, you battle your way over the outer curtain wall and somehow navigate across the deep ditch to the east of the castle. Now you’re faced with the main gatehouse, the only access to the inner ward. Here you have to crash your way through 3 sets of heavy oak doors and three separate iron portcullis gates. But you’re in luck; the first portcullis has been left open. You charge through and bash up against the second portcullis. But, silently, the first portcullis gate is lowered shut behind you. Trapped inside this narrow corridor, the soldiers in the guardrooms to either side are free to take pot shots at you through narrow arrow slots in the walls. Boiling hot oil poured down from the murder holes in the ceiling and your attack seems doomed.
But lets pretend you miraculously manage to escape. Battered and bruised but undeterred, you decide on a seaward attack the following day. The enemy has a far stronger navy but luckily they’re busy fighting the Scots further north. You sail towards the cliffs to the west of the castle. A substantial sea gate stands guard against such an invasion, but perhaps you’ve been able to drug the soldiers inside and come ashore without too much of a fight. A path has been carefully cut into the cliff leading up to the western face of the castle. But this has been made deliberately narrow windy. Forced to ascend slowly in single file you and your soldiers are easily cut down by arrows fired from the castle walls above. You’re forced to retreat once again.
All this makes Harlech Castle the best castle in the UK. Owain Glyndwr did of course famously usurp the English from Harlech in 1404 but the castle was virtually deserted by then. No one has ever really stormed the castle successfully. Indeed the castle was the last stronghold to hold out in both the War of the roses and the English Civil War. On both occasions, it was a prolonged siege and the exhaustion of supplies and support from without that led to the surrender of the garrison within. The castle held firm.
You can of course visit all these castles and many others when you stay at our North Wales holiday cottages. The Cadw website is a great place to start.