Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in Europe. There are over 600 in all, dominating the verdant landscape and pulling in countless visitors each year. In my South Wales hometown of Bridgend alone there are three, so it’s little surprise that a lot of my childhood memories consist of clambering over the ruined walls and exploring the derelict. hidey holes of various castles across my homeland.
For us Welsh they’re undoubtedly a big part of our cultural heritage, but something of a sore one. Virtually all of them were built by invading Norman/English forces to subjugate the natives. To me, the most impressive castles are the quartet of North West Wales fortresses (Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech) constructed by King ‘Longshanks’ Edward I – best known as the monarch who did battle with William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. They stand as ‘the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century architecture in Europe’, according to UNESCO, who have justly listed them as world heritage sites.
Beaumaris Castle on the isle of Anglesey was the last castle Edward built, as a response to an uprising from the pesky Welsh after he thought he’d already conquered them. At first glance it is perhaps the least impressive-looking of the four, but had it been completed (Edward had to direct the money to fighting in Scotland and France) it would have been the largest. Its extensive, concentric design is a symmetric masterpiece in the making, all in a pretty seaside town setting.
More dramatically positioned is Harlech Castle, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea and mountains of Snowdonia. Despite its seemingly impregnable position, the castle was actually captured four times in history; although not, tellingly, under Edward I’s watch. One such siege, during the 15th century, gave rise to the immensely popular ‘Men of Harlech’ song, best known to most from the film Zulu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1csr0dxalpI. Whilst some parts of the complex are inaccessible due to decay, the rampart views and imposing atmosphere are excellent.
I would say that picturesque Conwy Castle is the prettiest of the four. It’s deliberately unsymmetrical, unlike Beaumaris, in order to fit on the rock site on which it stands, and driving across the suspension bridge leading up to its walls makes for a stirring experience. The eight mural drum towers that punctuate the curtain walls are both fun and exhilarating to climb, giving as they do some fantastic views of both the town’s estuary and the Snowdonia Mountains.
Caernarfon Castle is the one, absolute, must-see: not just the best castle in Wales but in the whole of Britain, in my opinion. It dominates the sleepy town around it, and the walls remain almost completely intact. The formidable ramparts are accessible, as are all the polygonal towers and most of the turrets, and the exhibits within on the history of medieval Wales and its castles are excellent. Small wonder, then, that Edward saw fit to have his son proclaimed Prince of Wales here. It’s a tradition that continues to this day: Prince Charles was formally invested as the 21st Prince of Wales within Caernarfon Castle in 1969.
So what elevates these four castles above the 600 or so others, UNESCO status aside? For me, they’re emblematic of proud Gwynedd’s fiercely patriotic heritage. It was this area of Wales that provided the most stubborn resistance, prompting Edward I to construct these four (and other, smaller ones too) great castles. To this day, Gwynedd is the area of the country where most people speak Welsh as their first language. They talk of a North/South divide in England, but I can confirm there is one in Wales too – between the industrialised South, where I hail from and most of us don’t speak Welsh, and the more rural North where traditions are arguably clung to more ferociously, most powerfully demonstrated by the use of the Welsh language (the oldest in Europe) itself.
The Welsh writer Thomas Pennant described the medieval Welsh castles as being ‘the magnificent badges of our subjection’. I think he’s hit the nail on the head, particularly with regards to the four castles I’ve discussed here. For no Welsh castles are more magnificent than those in Gwynedd where, quite frankly, they simply had to be in order to keep the passionate and proud Welsh in check.