Harlech Castle

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Harlech Castle stands today as an impressive historical monument to the turbulent British past. When first completed in 1289 it may have been viewed somewhat differently.

Whichever side one sat upon, Welsh or English, there can be little doubt that this castle was a dominant and imposing site within the local Snowdonia scenery. Dressed in its bright lime mortar and standing high upon the 200ft sea cliffs; this castle made a statement. Trouble had occurred between England and Wales because a weakened English crown in the form of Henry III had recognised an independent Wales under Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Yet within a decade the new English King, Edward I or ‘Longshanks’, wished to reverse this. Llywelyn disagreed and two costly wars broke out.

The first of the pictures below is of a great model, currently on display in the castle gatehouse, it illustrates the castles location & whitened walls. At the right hand side of the model can be seen the steps leading down to the sea gate. During the 13th Century the sea came right to the foot of these cliffs and the castle could therefore be restocked from the sea.

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The other two pictures above show the view :

(right) from one of the gatehouse towers looking north and 

(bottom) looking west from by the Prison tower, past the Chapel tower and across the sea to the Lleyn peninsula.

Harlech Castle took over 7 years to build, with 950 workmen toiling upon it. The workmen were drawn from across the whole of England and the castle’s final cost was about £9,500; that was a very large sum 725 years ago. Indeed the entire ring of castles, built by Edward I to subdue the Welsh, cost about £80,000 and even that sum was less than the cost to Edward of the 2 preceding Welsh / English wars. So it appears that the Castles were a good investment for him.

The Castle has a classic ‘concentric’ design. It consists of high inner curtain walls with substantial round towers. These inner walls are then surrounded by lower outer perimeter walls. The sea and natural rocky outcrop upon which the castle is built, add to the defensive strength on 3 sides. The eastern, inland facing side, would have been most exposed and required more fortification. To this end the east side has the impressive gatehouse with twin D-shaped towers. The picture below left shows the gatehouse, as seen from the inner curtain wall.

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The picture above right shows the view through the gatehouse, from within the castle. Any attackers who had successfully breached the moat & eastern perimeter wall would now have needed to progress through here. Between Tamsin (far end) and Jane (nearer us) there would have been double metal portcullises. On either side are guardrooms with arrow slits leading in to this passageway and above there are murder holes for further archers, rock throwers and perhaps boiling oil cauldrons too. I would not wish to have been caught in here!

Moments in History:

  • 1283 – Subsequent to the fall of the Welsh Castles Dolwyddelan and Castell y Bere during the 2nd Welsh / English war; over 500 English soldiers marched to Harlech. This secured the building of Harlech Castle.
  • 1289 / 1290 – Castle completed.
  • 1294 – Madog ap Llywelyn besieged Harlech over winter but the castle held out due to its sea gate and the siege was lifted in the spring.
  • 1404 – Owain Glyndwr succesfully captures Harlech Castle after a long siege. He sets up court within.
  • 1409 – Harry of Monmouth (the future King Henry V) regains Harlech from Owain Glyndwr after an 8 month siege.
  • 1468 – After a 7 year siege the Lancastrians surrender Harlech at the end of the War of the Roses. This was the longest siege in British history and inspired the song ‘Men of Harlech’.
  • 1558 / 1603 – The Gatehouse residential rooms were refurbished to hold the local Elizabethan Court.
  • 1647 – Harlech Castle was the last Royalist stronghold to surrender during the 1st English Civil War. After the surrender, Parliamentary forces damaged the castle beyond use as a fortress.
  • 1987 – Harlech is made a World Heritage Site along with Caernarfon, Conwy and Beaumaris.

The pictures below show (left) the westerly facing inner curtain wall from the outer ward and (right) the inside of the same wall looking across the inner ward towards the location of the Great Hall.

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Various domestic buildings were built against the inner side of the curtain wall, including Great Hall, Chapel, Kitchens and Well. The Great Hall functioned as a centre of entertainment and business for those who ran the castle. In peace time Harlech usually had a garrison of only about 30 soldiers and craftsmen, so this was somewhat spacious accommodation for the times.

Today the sea has receded and Harlech Castle stands high on its cliffs overlooking the gradually expanding town of Harlech. The castle is cared for by Cadw and I really do recommend a visit if you’re in the area. And finally if it’s night time, go down towards the beach and look back at the spot lit castle.

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