Harlech Castle, located in
Harlech, Gwynedd, Wales, is a
concentric castle, constructed
atop a cliff close to the Irish Sea.
Architecturally, it is particularly notable
for its massive gatehouse
Built by King Edward I
his conquest of
, the castle
was subject to several
assaults and sieges
during its period of
active use as a fortification
seven-year siege of the castle, during the Wars of the Roses
, has been memorialised
in the famous song "Men of
Harlech in 1610.
Construction started in 1283 as part of Edward I's second Welsh
campaign. The castle was part of
Edward's iron ring of castles around Snowdonia, a string of new castles to hem the prince
Like many of the castles in the area, Harlech was
designed by Master James of St.
. The castle took seven years to build, and cost an
estimated £8,190 to build (£88 million in 2009). Following its
completion, James was appointed Constable of Harlech Castle, a
position he held for over three years.
All the royal castles of Edward's second Welsh campaign were sited
so that they could be kept supplied at all times. Harlech was not
always isolated; the sea used to come to the foot of the
The main gatehouse at Harlech Castle.
The castle is built to a concentric plan, with one line of defences
enclosed by another. The outer walls are much shorter and thinner
than the mighty inner walls, and have no towers defending them
besides the small gatehouse. The inner ward is roughly square, with
a large round tower at each corner. The domestic buildings,
including the great hall, are built against the inside of the inner
walls. Since the surrounding cliffs made it practically impossible
to attack the castle except from the east, this side is faced by
the imposing gatehouse. The gateway is flanked by two massive
"D-shaped" towers, and defended by a series of doors, portcullises
. Notably, there are large windows
on the inner face of the gatehouse. The west wall of the inner ward
also has large windows (as it forms
one wall of the great hall).
The outer ditches at Harlech were cut into the rock. In the height
of construction, in 1286, the workforce was 546 general labourers,
115 quarriers, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters and 227
Harlech is also notable for an unusual feature: the "way from the
sea". Edward's forces were often in danger from land-based attack,
but he enjoyed total supremacy on water. Many of his castles
included sally ports
resupply from the sea, but Harlech's is far more elaborate. Here, a
fortified stairway hugs the rock and runs almost down to the foot
of the cliffs, where (at the time of construction) the sea reached.
Today, the sea has retreated several miles, making it more
difficult to envisage the concept in its original setting. James of
St. George's plan was a triumph; when the castle was besieged
during Madoc ap Llywelyn
campaign, this stairway was used to supply the castle.
Like many of Edward's castles, Harlech was originally designed to
be attached to a fortified borough
After the completion of the castle, Master James was made constable
between 1290–1293, a high status job, that gave him time to work on
Edward's castles that were still under construction.
The castle built by Edward I as can be seen today was probably
built on the site of an earlier Welsh fortress. The scope of this
earlier creation is a matter archaeological conjecture but Welsh
history and legend suggests the site has had continuous military
use from perhaps as early as the Iron
. The noted antiquarian
describes a rich history long before King Edward I;
"Our most famous structure, and perhaps the most famous
in the whole of the land, is Harlech Castle, erected in the
Harlech, according to the traditions of this county, goes back in
its origin to much earlier times. One of its towers, known as Twr
, is a name that carries us back to
the times of Bran ap Llyr
authorities say that the first fortress of a military character
erected here was built by Maelgwn
some time in the sixth century. In the eleventh century
it seems to have been known as Caer Collwyn
. Collwyn ap Tango was lord of
Eifionydd, Lleyn, and Ardudwy, and lived
in the time of Anarawd, King of
Gwynedd, in the ninth century.
Collwyn resided in a square
tower of the original building, the remains of which may still be
seen, for some of its walls form the base of the present
, Cambridge University Press, by
A. Morris (1913)
In 1294, Madoc ap Llywelyn
to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, began an uprising against English rule
that spread quickly through Wales. Several English-held towns were razed and
Harlech (along with Criccieth Castle and Aberystwyth Castle) were besieged that winter.
As noted above,
the "Way to the Sea" helped the defenders survive until the siege
was lifted the following spring.
In 1404, the castle fell to Owain
after a long siege when starvation reduced the
determined and fearful garrison to just twenty-one men, becoming
his residence and family home and military headquarters for four
years. He held his second parliament in Harlech in August 1405.
Four years later, after another long siege of eight months, Harlech
Castle was retaken in 1409 by Prince Henry (later Henry V
) and a force of 1000 men under
during which Edmund Mortimer
to death and Glyndŵr's wife, Margaret
, two of his daughters and four grandchildren were
captured, later to be imprisoned and die.
In the Wars of the Roses in the first part of Edward IV of England
(1461–1470), Harlech was held by its Welsh constable Dafydd ap Ieuan
as a Lancastrian stronghold.
Following the Battle of
, Margaret of Anjou
and the infant Henry VII of
fled to Scotland via Harlech. Following the defeat
of the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton, Edward controlled the country and Harlech
eventually became last major stronghold under their control.
Sir Richard Tunstall
arrived as a
reinforcement to the Lancastrians in the latter half of the siege
in 1465. In 1468 it was the last Lancastrian fortress to surrender;
it was able to withstand the seven-year siege through its being
provisioned from the sea. It is the longest known siege in the
history of the British Isles. This famous siege inspired the song
"Men of Harlech
" according to
tradition. The castle was also briefly occupied during the
insurrection of 1498.
During the English Civil War
castle was the last royalist
hold out against the Parliamentary
The surrender, on 16 March 1647, over a year after King Charles
had himself been captured,
marked the end of the first
of the war. The parliamentarians slighted
the castle after its fall.
Harlech is part of the "Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in
Harlech, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy (Gwynedd)" World Heritage site
, reflecting its
importance and remarkable state of preservation. The castle is now
in the care of Cadw
and is open to
selected the Castle
as one of his five choices for the 2006 BBC
television documentary series
- The Oxford Companion to British History - Oxford
University Press (1997) page 454; Dictionary of Ancient &
Medieval Warfare by Matthew Bennett (2001)
- R.R. Davies, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr (Oxford:
University Press, 1995), pp. 115f
- Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe by (The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) - page 212.
- The Oxford Companion to British History - Oxford
University Press (1997) page 454