Harlech Castle

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Harlech Castle


Harlech Castle - Cadw photograph.jpg
Harlech Castle
Type: Concentric castle
Location: 52°51’36"N, 4°6’33"W
Town: Harlech
Condition: Ruined
Owned by: Cadw

Harlech Castle stands on a crag within the village of Harlech in Merionethshire. It was built at the command of King Edward I as part of his "Iron Ring" of castles around Snowdonia.

The castle stands atop a spur of rock close to the Irish Sea, which when the castle was built was a crag on the sea so that ships might moor at the castle to supply it. King Edward built the castle during his campaigns in North Wales between 1282 and 1289 at the substantial cost of £8,190.

Over the next few centuries, the castle played an important part in several wars; it withstood the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn between 1294–95, but it fell to Owain Glyndŵr in 1404 during his rebellion against the usurping King Henry IV. It then became Glyndŵr's residence and military headquarters for the remainder of the uprising until being recaptured by the King's forces in 1409. During the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Harlech was held by the Lancastrians for seven years, before Yorkist troops forced its surrender in 1468, a siege memorialised in the song Men of Harlech.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the castle was held by forces loyal to King Charles I, holding out until 1647 when it became the last fortification to surrender to the Parliamentary armies. In the 21st century the ruined castle is managed by Cadw as a tourist attraction.

UNESCO considers Harlech to be one of "the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe", and it is classed as a World Heritage site.[1] The fortification is built of local stone and concentric in design, featuring a massive gatehouse that probably once provided high-status accommodation for the castle constable and visiting dignitaries. The sea originally came much closer to Harlech than in modern times, and a water-gate and a long flight of steps leads down from the castle to the former shore, which allowed the castle to be resupplied by sea during sieges. In keeping with Edward's other castles in North Wales, the architecture of Harlech has close to links to that found in the kingdom of Savoy during the same period, an influence probably derived from the Savoy origins of the main architect, James of Saint George.


13th–14th centuries

In local mythology, the site of Harlech Castle in North Wales is associated with the legend of Branwen, a Welsh princess, but there is no evidence for a native Welsh fortification having been built there.[2] The Kings of England had quarrelled often and bloodily with unquiet Welsh princes since the 1070s and the conflict was renewed during the 13th century, until Edward I decided to put an end to the Princes' power at last in 1282.[3] Edward invaded with a huge army, pushing north from Carmarthen and westwards from Montgomery and Chester.[4] Edward's forces advanced down the Conwy valley and through Dolwyddelan and Castell y Bere, onto Harlech. Sir Otton de Grandson took Harlech with 560 infantry in May.[5]

Reconstruction of the castle's early 14th century appearance

Edward ordered the construction of a castle at Harlech, one of seven built across North Wales in the wake of the 1282 campaign.[2] Money to pay for the initial phase arrived in mid-May and carpenters and 35 stonemasons were dispatched in June and July to begin work.[6] By the winter of 1283, the first 15 feet of the inner walls had been built, allowing the castle to be defended in the event of an attack, and a small, planned town had been founded alongside the castle.[7] Sir John Bonvillars was appointed the constable of the castle in 1285; after his death in 1287 his wife, Agnes, took up the role until 1290.[8]

Construction continued under the overall direction of James of Saint George, a Savoy architect and military engineer.[9] In 1286, at the height of the construction, the workforce comprised 546 general labourers, 115 quarriers, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters and 227 stonemasons, and the project was costing nearly £240 a month.[10] The castle was essentially complete by the end of 1289, having cost an estimated £8,190, around 10 percent of the £80,000 that Edward spent on castle-building in Wales between 1277 and 1304.[11]

Harlech was established with a garrison of 36 men: a constable, 30 men, including 10 crossbowmen, a chaplain, a smith, carpenter and stonemason, and Master James was rewarded by being made the constable of Harlech from 1290–93.[12] In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn began an uprising that spread quickly through Wales. Several English-held towns were razed and Harlech, along with Criccieth Castle and Aberystwyth Castle, were besieged that winter.[13] Fresh supplies were sent from Ireland by sea, arriving by Harlech's water gate, and the uprising was crushed.[13] In the aftermath of the revolt, additional defences were built around the route down to the sea.[13] Further work was undertaken between 1323–24, following the Despenser War; Edward II was threatened in the region by the Mortimer family, powerful Marcher Lords, and ordered his sheriff, Sir Gruffuld Llywd, to extend the defences leading up to the gatehouse with additional towers.[14]

Later Middle Ages

Harlech Castle by John Speede, 1610

In 1400 a revolt broke out in North Wales against King Henry IV, led by Owain Glyndŵr.[15] By 1403 only a handful of castles, including Harlech, still stood against the rebels, but the castle was under-equipped and under-staffed to withstand a siege, the garrison having just three shields, eight helmets, six lances, ten pairs of gloves, and four guns.[16] At the end of 1404, the castle fell to Glyndŵr.[15] Harlech became his residence, family home and military headquarters for four years; he held his second parliament in Harlech in August 1405.[17] In 1408 the King's forces under the command of the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V, placed Harlech and its commander, Edmund Mortimer, under siege, conducting a bombardment with cannon, probably destroying the south and east parts of the outer walls.[15] When this failed to take the castle, Henry left John Talbot in charge of the siege and moved on to deal with Aberystwyth Castle.[18] Supplies finally ran short, Mortimer and many of his men died of exhaustion, and Harlech fell to the King's side in February 1409.[19]

In the 15th century, Harlech was in the line of battle again during the series of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. In 1460, following the Battle of Northampton, the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou fled to the castle. Between 1461–68, the Lancastrians held Harlech, under the steady command of Dafydd ap Ieuan, for seven years against the Yorkists.[20] Thanks to its natural defences and the supply route by sea, Harlech held out and as other fortresses fell, eventually became the last major stronghold still under Lancasterian control.[21] The castle became a base for their operations across the region: there were planned operations in 1464, Sir Richard Tunstall mounted attacks from Harlech in 1466 and Jasper Tudor landed there with French reinforcements in 1468, before then raiding the town of Denbigh.[21] Tudors' arrival caused the Yorkist King Edward IV to order William Herbert to mobilise an army, possibly up to 10,000 strong, to finally seize the castle.[22] After a month's siege, the small garrison surrendered on 14 August.[20] This siege is credited with inspiring the song Men of Harlech.[23]

Early Modern period

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was reported to the Privy Council that Harlech Castle had fallen into a dilapidate state and it was recommended that the quarter sessions of Merionethshire be moved from Bala to Harlech in order that the castle could be maintained without cost to the Crown. This recommendation was not carried out.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Harlech had not apparently been repaired since the 1468 siege, and had become completely dilapidated, with the exception of the gatehouse, which was used for the local assizes.[24] In 1644 Prince Rupert appointed a local Royalist, Colonel William Owen, as the castle's constable, and Owen was entrusted with repairing the fortifications.[25] A long siege ensued from June 1646 until 15 March 1647, when the garrison of 44 men surrendered to Major-General Thomas Mytton.[26] The castle was the last royal fortress to surrender in the war, and the date marked the end of the first phase of the war.[26] The castle was no longer required for the security of Merionethshire and, to prevent any further use by the Royalists, Parliament ordered its slighting, or destruction.[26] The orders were only partially carried out, however, and the gatehouse staircases were destroyed and the castle rendered generally unusable, but it was not totally demolished.[27] Stone from the castle was reused to build houses in the local town.[28]

18th–21st centuries

In the late-18th and 19th centuries, the picturesque ruins of Harlech began to attract visits from prominent artists, including John Cotman, Henry Gastineau, Paul Sandby, J M W Turner and John Varley.[29] In 1914 it was transferred from the Merioneth Crown Estate to the control of the Office of Works, who commenced a major restoration project after the end of World War I.[30] In 1969 the castle was transferred to the Welsh Office and later to Cadw, who manage the property in the 21st century as a tourist attraction.[30] Harlech was declared part of a World Heritage site in 1986, UNESCO considering Harlech one of "the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe".[31]


The gatehouse, with corbelled towers

Harlech Castle rests upon part of the Harlech Dome, a spur of rock almost 200 feet high; the land falls away sharply on the north and west, and a ditch cut into the rock protects the remaining approaches to the castle.[32] The castle has a concentric design, with one line of defences enclosed by another, forming an inner and outer ward; the outer wall was originally somewhat taller than today.[33] Harlech is built from local grey-green sandstone, with large, regular blocks used for the towers and irregular material, possibly taken from the ditch, used for the walls.[28] A softer yellow sandstone is used for the decorative work in the castle, possibly quarried from around Egryn Abbey near Barmouth.[28]

The main entrance to the castle would have involved crossing a stone bridge between the two easterly ditch bridge towers and the main gatehouse; little remains of the bridge towers today and a timber entrance way to the gatehouse replaces the bridge.[34] A water gate overlooks a protected stairway of 127 steps that runs down to the foot of the cliffs.[35] In the 13th century, the sea came up close to the stairway, allowing resupply by sea, but today the sea has retreated significantly, making it more difficult to envisage the concept in its original setting.[32]

Plan of Harlech Castle

The gatehouse follows the design, sometimes termed the Tonbridge-style, that became popular during the 13th century, with two massive "D-shaped" defensive towers flanking the entrance.[36] The passage into the castle was guarded by three portcullises and at least two heavy doors.[8] The gatehouse has two upper floors, broken up into various rooms.[37] Each floor has three large windows overlooking the inner ward; the second floor has two additional grand windows on the sides of the gatehouse; the gatehouse was fitted with fireplaces and would originally have had prominent chimneys.[38] The use of these rooms has been the subject of academic debate: historian Arnold Taylor argued that the first floor of the gatehouse was used by the constable as living accommodation, with the second floor used by senior visitors; Jeremy Ashbee has since challenged this interpretation, suggesting the high status accommodation may instead have been located within the inner ward, and the gatehouse used for other purposes.[39]

The inner ward is guarded by four large circular towers. Over time these acquired various names: in 1343, clockwise from the north-east, they were called Le Prisontour, Turris Ultra Gardinium, Le Wedercoktour and Le Chapeltour, but by 1564 they had been renamed the Debtors', Mortimer, Bronwen and Armourer's Towers respectively.[40] Le Prisontour incorporated a dungeon and the Le Chapeltour may have contained an artillery workshop in the 16th century.[41] Several ranges of buildings were built around the inner ward, including a chapel, kitchen, service buildings, a granary and a great hall.[42] The battlements may originally have been built with triple finials in a similar fashion to Conwy, although little remains of these in the modern era.[43]

The architecture of Harlech has close links to that found in the Kingdom of Savoy in the same period.[43] These include semi-circular door arches, window styles, corbelled towers and positioning of putlog holes, and are usually ascribed to the influence of the Savoy architect Master James.[44] The links between the Harlech and Savoy are not straightforward, however, as in some cases the relevant Savoy structures were built after James had left the region.[45] The similarity in architectural details may, therefore, be the result of the wider role played by Savoy craftsmen and engineers on the Harlech project.[45]

Castles of King Edward's "Iron Ring"
Beaumaris Conway Rhuddlan

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Harlech Castle)


  1. "Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd". UNESCO. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/374/. Retrieved 2012-07-14. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Taylor 2007, p. 5
  3. Ashbee 2007, p. 5; Taylor 2008, pp. 6–7
  4. Ashbee 2007, p. 6
  5. Taylor 2007, pp. 5–6
  6. Taylor 2007, p. 6
  7. Lilley 2010, pp. 100–104; Taylor 2007, p. 7
  8. 8.0 8.1 Taylor 2007, p. 21
  9. Taylor 2007, p. 7
  10. Morris 2004, p. 117; Taylor 2007, p. 7
  11. Taylor 2007, p. 8; Taylor 1974, p. 1029; McNeill 1992, pp. 42–43
  12. Taylor 2007, pp. 7–8
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Taylor 2007, p. 9
  14. Taylor 2007, p. 8
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Taylor 2007, p. 10
  16. Taylor 2007, p. 10; Liddiard 2005, p. 82
  17. Davies 1995, p. 115f
  18. Gravett 2007, pp. 55–56
  19. Taylor 2007, p. 10;Gravett 2007, p. 56
  20. 20.0 20.1 Taylor 2007, p. 11
  21. 21.0 21.1 Hicks 2012, p. 179
  22. Taylor 2007, p. 11; Goodall 2011, pp. 367–368
  23. Cannon 1997, p. 454; Taylor 2007, p. 11
  24. Taylor 2007, pp. 11–12
  25. Hutton 1999, pp. 136–137
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Taylor 2007, p. 13
  27. Thompson 1994, p. 155; Taylor 2007, p. 13
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Lott 2010, p. 116
  29. Taylor 2007, pp. 13–14
  30. 30.0 30.1 Taylor 2007, p. 14
  31. "Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd". UNESCO. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/374/. Retrieved 2012-07-14. ; Taylor 2007, p. 14
  32. 32.0 32.1 Taylor 2007, p. 17
  33. Taylor 2007, pp. 17–18
  34. Taylor 2007, p. 18
  35. Taylor 2007, pp. 17, 31
  36. Taylor 2007, p. 18; Goodall 2011, p. 217
  37. Taylor 2007, p. 25
  38. Taylor 2007, p. 23
  39. Taylor 2007, p. 25; Ashbee 2010, pp. 80–81
  40. Taylor 2007, p. 27
  41. Taylor 2007, pp. 27–28
  42. Taylor 2007, pp. 28–30
  43. 43.0 43.1 Taylor 2007, p. 29
  44. Coldstream 2010, pp. 39–40
  45. 45.0 45.1 Coldstream 2010, p. 43


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