Secret Castle Series | CricciethPublished on 15 Mar 2021 by Amy Bowers
A spectacular coastal fortress which stands proud on its own rocky headland. Criccieth Castle is a landmark historic site which has plenty to tell us about the fortunes of war.
Built around 1230 by Llywelyn ap Iowerth (Llywelyn the Great), the castle sits on a high rocky peninsula with enormous views over Cardigan Bay to the Irish Sea beyond. It is a strategic and quite astonishingly beautiful setting, and you can easily see why Llywelyn was drawn to it.
The amazing views alone make this place very much worth a visit. The castle’s romantic ruins have attracted dozens of artists over the centuries, and it was famously painted by J. M. W. Turner in 1835 as part of his series depicting shipwrecked mariners.
A castle that was built – and destroyed – by Welsh princes
In the early thirteenth century, this part of North Wales was ruled by Prince Llywelyn the Great. It was regarded as the pre-eminent Welsh kingdom.
Llywelyn sought to cement his power by building a number of castle forts, including the castle at Criccieth. You can enjoy the same the far-reaching views he enjoyed from the high rocky headland – both out to sea and back towards Snowdonia, the heartland of his kingdom.
Llywelyn the Great died in 1240, and turbulent times with the English saw the Welsh lose dominance of this part of his kingdom soon afterwards.
By 1250, however, fortunes had changed, and Criccieth castle was back in the hands of Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn the Last (the name is a bit of a spoiler). He beefed up his grandfather’s stone structure with curtain walls and new towers.
More turbulence with the English saw Llywelyn the Last – the last native prince of Wales – killed in battle in 1282. Criccieth castle was taken by English King Edward I and extensively refortified. His upgrades were put to the test a decade or so later when the castle had to withstand a long siege by the Welsh, during which supplies were brought in by ship.
Criccieth castle’s fate was finally sealed in 1404 when the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyndŵr captured it and set it alight. Even today, its walls still bear evidence of the intense scorching – look out for the burn marks when you visit.
Golden girdles, and an axe with a food allowance
Aspects of Criccieth’s castle life were captured by the 14th century Welsh bard Iolo Goch. He wrote about ‘the bright fort high on a rock’ and the court of Syr Hywel y Fwyall – Sir Hywel of the Axe.
Sir Hywel was the Constable of Criccieth castle. He had been knighted for his bravery in the Hundred Years’ War – the ‘axe’ moniker might give us a clue as to why.
Iolo’s poem describes Sir Hywel and his golden-girdled wife entertaining their guests at the castle whilst beautiful maidens weave bright silks in the great hall. It certainly sounds like they knew how to throw a colourful party.
After Sir Hywel died in 1381, a ration of meat was ordered to be served before his axe in perpetuity, the food being donated afterwards to the town’s poor `for his soul’s health.’ This unusual ceremony was apparently observed until the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign in the middle of the 16th century.
Whilst we do know that Criccieth’s medieval poor were better fed for a while, no one seems to know what ultimately happened to Sir Hywel’s famous axe.
Visiting Criccieth Castle
The castle is now maintained by Cadw, the Welsh heritage body. Find out more about visiting hours and entry prices here.
Stay near Criccieth Castle
Stay in a beautiful Dioni holiday cottage near this fabulous medieval castle. Take a look at some of our favourite holiday cottages near Criccieth.