Northern Wales III: Beaumaris

Beaumaris is on a big island, the Isle of Anglesey, and like Conwy it was a castle town, an English enclave surrounded by Welsh guerrillas.  Begun in 1295 in response to a revolt a year earlier, it was the last link in King Edward’s “Iron Chain” of castles enclosing Gwynedd, the former kingdom of North Wales.  Beaumaris Castle is a high point of medieval Beaumaris Castle (photo of a picture)castle design.  Built on flat marshy ground with no natural defenses, the castle incorporates concentric rings of fortifications – a double ring of walls surrounded by a moat.  The innermost wall is higher than the outer, providing greatly increased firepower.  A fortified dock was built to give sea access, allowing the castle to withstand sieges (as shown in the picture, the sea is more distant now).  However, problems in Scotland shifted the king’s priorities, and the castle was never finished.  An artist’s concept Artist concept of the completed Beaumaris Castleof what the castle would have looked like, had it been finished, is shown to the left.  The picture shows a much more imposing structure that would have been twice the height of the squat one we see today.  The inner walls look particularly impenetrable.  The south gate seen at the lower right faced the sea and was the main castle entrance as well as the dock.  A magnification of this artist’s rendition is shown below, along with a picture of the way it looks now.  The red arrows point to the dock’s

door to the castle.  Rather than using a harbor, this man-made dock used a wide shipping channel (now covered over) to deliver supplies.  Ships up to 40 tons could sail in at high tide and unload goods through the castle wall doorway.  The dock would be defended from the Gunner’s Walk, which can be seen to the right of the arrow in the left picture above, as well as at the top of the castle schematic Schematic of the Beaumaris Castleshown here.  Beneath the Gunner’s Walk was a corn mill for self-sufficiency, the mill turned by differences in water level between the moat and the sea.  Whereas the water in the dock was supplied by the sea, the water in the moat was supplied by a freshwater stream; the level between the two was regulated by a sluice gate in the Gunner’s Walk.  How clever!  The town wall started from here, but wasn’t finished until 1414.

The main entrance to the castle, shown in the paired pictures above, is to the left of the dock and was very well protected.  First there was the moat, then a drawbridge, then the outer gate.  If you got through that, there were the multiple defenses of the inner gate, with every stage having high- and low-level arrow loops.  The inner-wall gatehouse was defended by a barbican, then by three successive pairs of barred gates and portcullises.  Further, the outer wall south gate was off-set from the inner gatehouse, so attackers moving between gates would be exposed from more sides to archers waiting above.

Pictures of the outer walls, which form a rough octagon, are shown below.  The walls had 15 towers, and with arrow loops at two or three levels there were over 300 shooting

positions for the archers inside.  And of course the taller inner walls provided yet more firepower.

From the schematic of the castle shown above, you can see there isn’t a lot of space between the inner and outer walls – it’s function was to be a killing space.  As shown in the pictures below, the inner walls look forbidding, but imagine them being twice that height

had the castle been finished.   The inner walls are 16 feet thick, with inner passageways – and plenty of latrines!  The inner walls sometimes have 3 levels of latrines, examples shown below.

OK, let’s enter the inner ward!  Beaumaris would have been the largest of King Edward’s

castles, and the intended accommodation within the inner ward, shown in the first picture below, was planned on a lavish scale.  It would have had first-floor stables, kitchens, great hall and private chambers.  Both gatehouses were planned to have grand arrangements of state rooms for the king and his family, an example shown in the second picture below.

The last picture above shows the unfinished north gate dominating the courtyard.

The castle also has a chapel; it’s in one of the inner wall middle towers (called the chapel tower, of course), and is accessible either from the inner ward or from the inner wall passageway.

We’ll close with beautiful views from the castle across the Menai Straight to the

Snowdonia Mountains beyond.

Next post – Stow-on-the-Wold, and more, in the Cotswolds.




Northern Wales II: Caernarfon

Oh, there is history here!  The Romans built the first fort nearby, from which Caernarfon derives its name; in Welsh, the place was called “y gaer yn Arfon”, meaning “the stronghold in the land over against Môn”.  Following the Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror turned his attention to Wales.  When the person nominally in charge of (northern) Wales was killed by the Welsh (1088), Norman control was re-established by building 3 castles, one of them here at Caernarfon.  It would have been a motte and bailey castle – the easy-to-build but militarily formidable fort of the time, with a protective ditch and a timber palisade enclosing a courtyard (bailey) and wooden keep on a raised earthwork (motte), similar to that shown at Lincoln Castle (post “The Lincoln Castle, Bishop’s Palace, and the Magna Carta“).  The Welsh recaptured the area in 1115, and this original Caernarfon castle became the property of the Welsh princes – until war broke out between Wales and England in 1282.  England’s King Edward I invaded and marched through northern Wales, capturing Welsh castles and starting his own at Conwy.  Several months later in 1283 the last Welsh castle fell, and Edward began building a new castle at Caernarfon, replacing the pre-existing motte and bailey structure.  The castle was intended to be the definitive chapter in King Edward’s conquest of Wales, constructed not only as a military stronghold but also as a seat of government and royal palace.  The defenses were built on a grand scale with a deliberate link to Caernarfon’s Roman past, the striped and angular walls designed to echo those of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome.  The pictures below are from the internet.

Part of the castle’s fame comes from its association with the English title, “Prince of Wales”.  According to legend, Edward got the angry Welsh to submit to the Crown by promising them he would name “a prince, born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English”.  To the surprise of the Welsh, his son Edward II was born at Caernarfon in 1284 (speaking not a word of English – or any other language), and was created Prince of Wales in 1301 with control over Wales and its incomes.  Since then the title has traditionally been held by the eldest son of the monarch.  Prince Charles was “invested” with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969.

A schematic of today's Caernarfon CastleA schematic of Caernarfon Castle is shown here.  As you can see, it’s all walls and towers; construction was stopped in 1330 before it was completed.  Although there were once interior buildings, none have survived.

The main entrance to the castle, shown in the left picture below, is the town-facing King’s Gate; the right picture is a drawing of the unfinished

rear of the King’s Gate.  Had this twin-towered gatehouse been finished, it would have been protected by two drawbridge, 5 sets of doors, 6 portcullises, many murder holes above, and arrow loops to the side.  You can see from that drawing above that there was a chapel above the gatehouse passage.  It had double sinks for holy water, and slots in the floor to allow raising of the portcullises.  The whole second floor was intended to be a large hall; the windows and remains of finely sculpted heads finishing off the roof supports show that it was designed for stylish living.

Closer views of the castle walls are shown below.

High-tech arrow loop with slanted slitsArrow loops are everywhere in the walls, creating a veritable medieval machine gun.  These arrow loops were high-tech for their time: not only were they angled to allow each archer to cover a wide area, they also had an angled central pillar in the center of each loop to provide extra protection.

The impressive walls of the town and castle survive largely intact, but all that remains of the buildings within the castle are the foundations.  In part that’s because the buildings within the castle were never completed; money for construction was diverted to repair town walls damaged in the Welsh revolt of 1294; more money was diverted for Edward’s invasion of Scotland (post, Stirling Castle); and Edward died in 1307.  Further, when the Tudor’s (of Welsh origin) ascended the English throne in 1485, the Welsh were treated better.  Hostilities eased, castles became less important, and consequently they were neglected.  By 1620 only the Eagle Tower (shown later) and King’s Gate had roofs, and the domestic buildings had been stripped for building material.  Still, the interior is impressive!  The two pictures below look toward the unfinished Queens Gate.  In the first

picture, the large bare rectangle on the right is where the Great Hall once stood.  In its heyday the Great Hall would have been impressive, featuring fine architecture.  On the other side of the courtyard, the three joined brown rectangles are the foundations of the kitchen.  During the castle building, these kitchens would have fed up to 600 people.  A

large part of the diet was boiled meat (doesn’t that sound English?); the kitchen had fitted cauldrons and running water supplied by pipes from the Well Tower, as indicated above by the illustration and the picture of the ruins. There was also a waste disposal chute that went through the castle wall.

Inside Caernarfon Castle, looking at the Queen's GateReturning to the Caernarfon Castle overview, re-shown here, the jutting structure behind the kitchen site is the unfinished rear of the King’s Gate, and across from that the Chamberlain Tower, with the North-East Tower, Watch Tower and Queen’s Gate in the background.  The pictures below look in the opposite direction toward the huge three-

turreted Eagle Tower.  In the first picture, the leftmost tower is the Watch Tower, then the Chamberlain Tower and the Eagle Tower.  Note at the left edge of the right picture above, and in this The Granary Tower on the right, the North-East Tower on the left; note the notched walls that were unfinishedpicture of the Granary and North-East Towers, that there are notched walls ready for an expansion that never came.

Although the castle was never finished and never really used, King Edward (and other officials and overseers) did visit and were housed in completed royal lodgings on the upper floors.  When Edward and wife Eleanor visited in 1284 to have their son, the Eagle Tower was likely completed (up to the 2nd floor) and had the grandest

apartments.  Had Caernarfon been completed as intended, it could have contained a royal household of several hundred people.

City and castle walls are shown below.

When we were there, Caernarfon had a street fair.  Nice!  Among the highlights were a really cool (and momentarily convincing!) velociraptor moving through the crowd, and a

very cute calf.  Awwww!  Can I take him home??  And how about dining on super-fresh street seafood at the harbor under the shadow of a castle?  Crab anyone?  This kind of

experience is why we tolerate some of the discomforts of traveling.  Are you jealous, stay-at-home readers?  I’ll finish with pictures of the Caernarfon harbor.


Next post – Northern Wales III: Beaumaris

Northern Wales I: Conwy

Wales is a crescent-shaped peninsula jutting out from the England’s west side; it is relatively small, 170 x 60 miles.  Like Scotland, it’s part of the U.K. but not part of England, thank-you-very-much.  Their distinctiveness is evident in the pervasive presence of the Welsh language, which many speak, proudly.  Welsh is definitely not a dialect of English; its words look like an unpronounceable random assembly of letters, and it sounds like Elvish from Lord of the Rings.  It’s one of Europe’s oldest languages, written down around 600 A.D. and spoken 300 years before the existence of French or German.  All commendable, but let me give you an example of its challenges, like the name of this town a mile away from where we were staying.  As shown in the left picture below, the town’s name is “Llanfairpwllgwyngyll”.  Go ahead, pronounce it.  You see what I mean.  And

actually, that’s a compromise for the road signage.  The town’s real name is shown on the railroad station terminal, shown on the right picture – “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”.  In Welsh, it means “St. Mary’s Church by the white hazel pool near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St Tysilio by the red cave”.  You couldn’t pronounce the short version so don’t even try the full name!  The good news is that everyone in Wales speaks English.

A little history of Wales is needed to add context to what you’ll see.  Wales, like England, was conquered by the Romans.  When the Roman empire fell, the Germanic Saxon tribes conquered England but could not overcome the wild warriors of Wales.  The various medieval kingdoms of Wales were unified in 1216, but the country was independent for just over 60 years – in 1282 England’s King Edward I invaded and soon conquered the country.  To maintain control in the troublesome North Wales, he built 17 castles that were masterpieces of medieval engineering, with many having sea access to negate any siege.  Most castles were built simultaneously with a walled town that was then filled with English settlers – English islands in the midst of angry Wales.  Except for a rebellion that started in 1400 and lasted for several years (Conwy Castle was itself captured and held by the Welsh for 3 months), Wales has remained under English domination – a domination that at least in the first few hundred years was harsh and punitive.  Today Wales, like Scotland, enjoys some measure of self-rule within the UK; it was granted its own parliament in 1999.  The Brexit vote puts a new spin on Wales’ future, possibly giving it independence again after 700 years.

North Wales is more scenic than the south, with more mountains and less population, but

for us its allure is its high concentration of castles, some of the best in England.  We’ll do three of them, starting with Conwy.  Nearby is also Mt. Snowdon (not shown), taller than any mountain in England (it’s a whopping 3,560 feet; should be fun to climb!).

Before we go to Conwy, let me show you the Menai Suspension Bridge that we have to cross every day.  Built in 1826, it had to be a suspension bridge to allow passage of the tall-masted sailing ships of that time – particularly the Royal Navy.  It’s 100 feet above

sea level at high tide, and at 580 feet long it was the longest bridge of its day.  It was an engineering marvel, and is still used today for local traffic.  The hardware, particularly the huge Lego-like chain cables, are massive!  The view from the bridge isn’t bad either.

When King Edward I invaded and captured Northern Wales in early 1283, he built Conwy and its castle as a garrison town.  The area was a crossing point over the River Conwy between coastal and inland North Wales and was the site of a century-old Cistercian monastery (Aberconwy Abbey) favored by the Welsh princes.  As a powerful symbol of English power, he chose that site to build his English castle and walled town, uprooting the Welsh abbey.  It took only 4 years to build the castle and city walls.

Although the town itself is ordinary, it does have a good sense of humor, as shown in the store-front picture below.  It also has the best medieval walls in Britain, and a hulking,

still-awesome castle.  A representation of the (impressive!) city in 1287 is shown in the right picture.

So let’s see this castle!  The left picture below shows an entrance to Conwy through the city walls – the picture was taken from the left-most entrance to the city shown above in the representation of 1287.  The picture of the city street shows the problem of incorporating

a medieval city (with walls!) into the automobile age; you have to squeeze through that gate, and as you might surmise, yes, it’s a one-way road (actually, this is an exit from Conwy).  The right picture is a shot over the city wall showing the impressive castle in the background.  Doesn’t it look like an Eskimo art sculpture of a castle?  Solid; earthbound; compact.  And in this case, impenetrable.

Below are representations of the castle in 1287, and what it looks like today.  The entrance today is steep, but not like it was!  Then, as shown in the left picture below, you first

walked up a steep ramp that no horse could climb, then crossed a drawbridge, passed under a portcullis, stepped through 2 sets of doors (all protected with murder holes and arrow loops), and then entered the killing ground of the barbican.  The upper right picture isCastle walls from the side a good overview of the castle.  Notice that it’s divided into two sections, a front and a back.  The front was the working part of the castle; the back had the royal apartments.  The castle was at the cutting edge of military technology, with thick walls, rounded towers and turrets providing lethal fields of fire, a solid rock base, and royal apartments that could be defended separately.  Well supplied with fresh water from a spring-fed well, 91 feet down, and with its own dock, it could withstand sieges indefinitely.  Nothing on this scale had been seen before in Wales, which at that time had no real cities.  The last picture above and the picture to the left show how intimidating it still is.

The pictures below show the working part of the castle, viewed from the ground and from

the castle wall.  That doorway in the middle of the upper right picture went to the chapel Representation of the chapel and dining hall in the 1280'sand the Great Hall dining area, shown in the lower right picture.  A representation of how the chapel and dining hall looked in the 1280’s is shown here on the left.  People ate here regardless of rank; status was indicated by distance from the top table (and the further away, the plainer the food).

Below is a look at the living quarters, in this case the multiple apartments in the turrets and towers.  The floors are long gone, but you can see that each apartment had a window

and a big fireplace – and would have been quite cozy, if a bit compact.

Now to the royal apartments.  People of power protected their privacy, even in a castle.  As shown in the first representation below, entry to the royal apartments was barred by a

gatehouse, including a drawbridge!  Access from the castle walls was blocked by two doors, shown in the adjacent magnified image.  The royal apartments themselves are quite

spacious; in the 1280’s they would have been opulent and luxurious.  Today they’re one of the best unaltered medieval royal apartments in the UK.  Pictures of one of the apartments

are shown above.

I’ll finish this post by sharing a little Conwy history, and then some views of this pretty area.  The town buildings are not medieval, but the streets do have some history.  The street just outside the city walls is “Town Ditch Road”, named for the dry moat that was the first line of defense for the city.  The street running along the harbor by the castle is still “King’s Quay”.  Within the city walls there is a street that has a changed name; “Berry Street” was renamed from “Burial Street” – it had been a big ditch for mass burials during the plague in the 1600’s.  Shifting gears from that gruesome note, below are pretty views of the Conwy area from the castle walls.

Spiral fractures; be careful in castles!Not all went well on this trip to Conwy; descending a castle stairwell, perhaps foolishly in sandals, I slipped on a wet step and fell backward.  I protected my camera, but alas, not my hand, as shown in the x-ray.  I apparently sat on the hand, and the buns of steel did the rest; two fingers with spiral fractures.  Broken fingers are bad enough, but worse, that’s the end of the plan to climb Mt. Snowdon.  What a disaster!  So back we go to poor Britt in Lincoln.

I underestimated how delicate one’s fingers are; a year later I still need to do hand exercises.  Nevertheless, it’s only a wee blip in our adventures, and after a few months of healing we will return to this pretty area of Wales!

Next post – Caernarfon Castle!