Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd

Name: Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd.
Location: in northern Wales, on the coast.

The vast plan of fortifications traced by Edward I of England to consolidate the conquest of Wales in the 13th century, the complex made up of the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech, next to the fortified villages of Caernarfon and Conwy, stands out as the best example of the military architecture of the time and one of the best works designed by his genuine servant, the Savoyard Master James of Saint George, architect of the works of Edward I in Wales.

Caernarfon Castle, Caernarfon, Gwynedd in North-West Wales

Although many other peoples preceded them, the Celts (called galli by the Romans) were the first documented inhabitants of Great Britain. Historic documents allow us to know that they arrived at the island around the 6th century BC, bringing with them their secrets in ironworks, and pretty soon their language and culture were imposed on their predecessors' to later being shifted, at the beginning of the 1st century AD, by the Roman civilization. Three Celtic areas managed to survive to the romanization process though: the remote and wild Scotland; Cornualles, which due to its remoteness became a Roman-free zone, and Wales, even though this one was theoretically a Roman enclave, the romanization was practically none, due to its rugged orography.

Centuries of Resistance

Wales was called Cymru, "land of the Cymry", a semi-nomadic people of shepherds under a tribal organization. First, they rejected the Romans, and then the Germanic peoples who occupied Britania (the Roman name for Great Britain) in the 5th century and who gave them the name welsh, "barbarians." In this time, many Bretons found shelter among the cymbals, to whom they transmitted Christianism, which would later become a symbol of the fight against the Pagan invaders.

After the Norman Conquest (11th century) it was initiated the annexation of Wales by the Anglo-Norman knights, who became the "Lords Marchers", feudal owners in the lowlands, favorable for agriculture. The mountains remained the strongholds of the tribal bosses who, having opted for the rebellion, maintained a permanent guerrilla warfare against the Norman Lords. At the beginning of the 13th century, only the northerly district, Gwynedd, remained truly independent, mainly because it was the most rugged area, and also because its governors knew how to avoid the annexation attempts handling with the same agility both the sword and the diplomacy.

Some Welsh governors had preferred appeasing the invaders, becoming vassals of the English Crown for later being also recognized as Lords Marchers. The strategy adopted by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth the Great, Lord of Gwynedd, was the opposite, being the architect of the national Welsh resurgence movement during the first half of the 13th century. Like all good politicians, Llywelyn knew how to keep open all fronts: he established an alliance with the Crown by marrying King John's daughter, he joined the barons in their struggle for the Magna Carta, achieving this way that the document included favorable terms to Welsh people's rights, and at the same time he enlarged his domains fighting against the Lords Marchers, while instigating his fellow countrymen to fight for a united and free Wales.

King Edward I Times

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd the Last, Llywelyn the Great's grandson, followed initially with success the same double-speak after his grandparent, taking lands from the Lords Marchers and agreeing at the same time with King Henry III, from whom he achieved the title of "Prince of Wales". He considered then that he had achieved enough power to take the next step, the total independence, and when Edward I was proclaimed King of England in 1272, he refused to pay him vassalage. The new king responded by leading an army which surrounded Gwynedd, by land and sea, forcing the Welsh to capitulate in 1277. Llywelyn preserved his title of Prince of Wales but he was forced to move to London to honor King Edward I, a humiliation he never forgot. The English established in Gwynedd a solid and strong government, which caused a lot of tension among the Welsh nationalists, so a new rebellion broke out again in 1282, lead by Llywelyn. In one of the first battles, he fell after being pierced by an arrow thrown by an anonymous soldier who had no idea that he had just killed Llywelyn himself, putting an end to the last hope for a Welsh independence. Months later, the rebellion was suppressed and Gwynedd became a possession of the English Crown, whose heirs maintain since then the title of Prince of Wales.

Edward I is famous for being considered the most active castle constructor in medieval Europe. His campaigns in Holy Land and France allowed him to get a closer look at the advanced techniques in military engineering of the crusaders, and the French model of fortified cities, as well as their importance for keeping control over a conquered territory. This experience was extremely useful to him, especially in Wales, where he focused his main building activities. In France, he also met the person who would become the main architect of his projects, Master James of Saint George, who was appointed "Master of works" in 1278, designing and managing all the King's constructions in Wales, where he lived and worked until his death.

Castles of Master James

At least 17 castles are due to King Edward's initiative in Wales between 1276 and 1296, including the new ones and the Welsh-originated ones, reconstructed after their conquest. Some of them were built during the 1276 and 1282 campaigns, but most of them are posterior, and they were conceived to enhance the royal power over a territory that was still potentially rebellious.

To this group belongs the Castles of Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris, which are considered the most important constructions of King Edward. The three former ones date back to 1283, and Beaumaris to 1295, erected after a new Welsh revolt. All of them are near the sea and they are all works carried out by the same architect, the Master James of Saint George. Despite their imposing figure, none of them (except perhaps Beaumaris Castle that was never finished) turned out to be impenetrable. Caernarfon was taken over by the Welsh during the 1294 revolt when it wasn't finished yet, even though later it resisted a harsh siege from the army commanded by Owain Glyndwr, the last great Welsh rebel, who in the first years of the 15th century almost managed to expel the English from his homeland. Glyndwr could, on the other hand, conquer Conwy and Harlech, installing his headquarters for 3 years in the latter one.

Although with certain shared similarities, the 4 fortresses were actually conceived for different purposes. Beaumaris and Harlech are authentic castles exclusively built to store a military garrison; in Caernarfon and Conwy, we find the opposite, fortified complexes that include a castle and a walled village, where the English colonists settled. This settlement was stimulated by King Edward as an important part of his policy on integrating Wales into the domains of the English Crown.

Fortified Cities

The style used in the Castles of Beaumaris and Harlech is very similar and it illustrates perfectly the architectonic concept of James of Saint George. Both buildings are made up of two concentric enclosures, square (the inner one) and octagonal (the outer one), flanked by round towers. This common disposition had to be adapted, however, to very different locations. Beaumaris is located in a low and marshy land, in the south of the Isle of Anglesey and in the banks of the Menai Strait, which separates the Isle of Anglesey from the rest of Wales; without any doubt, a strategic place but gradually suited to bear the brunt of the great medieval castles. Harlech, on the other side, occupies a rocky rugged hill next to the sea, creating a spectacular scenography that enhances its powerful look and justifies its popularity. Harlech also has the peculiarity of having had as governor James of Saint George himself, between 1290 and 1293.

The other type of fortification used by King Edward is more complex, as it includes, next to the castle itself, a walled settlement occupied by the English colonists, whereas the Welsh population always stayed outside the enclosure. Rules like the one that established a single market for both populations (English and Welsh), located in the new village, show us how these places were destined to keep English control in all aspects of life, such as the economy.

To this model belong the splendorous complexes of Conwyn, to which was added during the 19th century a hanging bridge for the access, and Caernarfon. Contrary to most Edward's constructions, both castles present a lineal floor, instead of being concentric, leaving a small outer enclosure in Conwy, which includes two barbicans on the edges, and completely disappears in Caernarfon. In the latter one, for several reasons, Edward I's architecture reaches its apotheosis. It was erected to serve as the King residence during his campaigns, and later on, as the headquarters of the government of Northern Wales. In this castle, Edward II was born, the first heir of the English Crown who held the title of Prince of Wales. During the Victorian Age, it was subjected to an extensive restoration, perhaps, too extensive, but which allowed the castle to preserve all its royal style and pomposity up to this date. It was, in fact, the scenario for the two magnificent investitures of the Prince of Wales in the 20th century (future King Edward VIII's investiture in 1911, and in 1969, the investiture of current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles). The investiture that took place in 1969, made possible for 500 million people all around the world to discover the splendorous profile of its towers, something that Edward I could have never imagined but, undoubtedly, would have made him very proud.

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