Harlech Castle is a 13th century castle situated in Harlech in Wales. It occupied a strategic defensive position, sitting atop a sheer rocky crag overlooking the dunes and sea below. It is known that an ancient Celtic fortress, Twr Branwen, had previously stood on the site.
History of Harlech Castle
Following centuries of fighting between Welsh princes and the Kings of England, the conflict that would ultimately lead to the construction of Harlech Castle took place during the 13th century, when King Edward I invaded North Wales and established various fortresses and town walls throughout the land. Ultimately, Edward’s army advanced through Carmarthen, down the Conwy valley and onto Harlech.
The eventual site, a rocky crag overlooking the dunes far below, abutting the Irish Sea, is rumoured to have been placed upon a patch of land associated with Branwen, a Welsh princess featured in the Mabinogion––a collection of early prose stories of Celtic Britain.
Despite this fabled association, Edward ordered a massive fortress constructed––one of seven castles in North Wales he had built throughout his invasion. By the winter of 1283, the first 4 metres of Harlech Castle’s inner walls had been erected.
Under the watchful eye of the Royal Mason, James of St. George, construction reached its peak in 1286 and consisted of 30 blacksmiths, 227 stonemasons and nearly 550 general labourers. Harlech Castle was mostly complete by 1289, for £8,190, or about 10% of the £80,000 total budget Edward would spend on his Welsh castle-building tour between 1277 and 1304.
Eventually, Harlech Castle was established with a garrison of 36 men, including 10 crossbowmen, a constable and a chaplain. Despite its association with King Edward’s invasion, Harlech Castle has also played an integral role in other British conflicts throughout the years, including the Welsh Revolt of 1294-95 (where it’s reinforced exteriors were able to withstand invasion) and during the Glyndwr Rising in 1404 (where, like its counterpart Beaumaris, it was briefly captured).
Architecture and Design of Harlech Castle
Harlech Castle sits atop a projection of rock that falls away on the north and west sides, while a fortified ditch cut into the base rock protects the remaining approaches––making it a highly effective and heavily guarded fortress.
Built from local grey sandstone (while a softer, yellow sandstone was incorporated for decorative purposes), Harlech features a concentric design, typical of the other Medieval Welsh castles built under Edward I.
The concentric castle stands on top of a steep cliff face ensuring that only the east side was open to attack. A strong twin-towered gatehouse, measuring 80 x 54 feet, guarded the entrance with the passageway containing three portcullises, doors and murder holes.
There were guardhouses to either side of this passage and the upper floors of the gatehouse contained the private living quarters. A fortified stairway, known as the Way to the Sea, led down to the sea and during times of attack supplies were shipped in to the defending garrisons.
The outer wall of Harlech castle is in ruins but the inner walls and huge round towers remain at nearly their original height. The square inner bailey was small and contained the great hall, kitchen and other domestic buildings. A chapel was situated against the north wall and a second hall was against the south wall. Additional living accommodation was provided in the corner towers.
Master James of St George
As integral to the construction of Harlech Castle and its neighbouring fortresses as the king who ordered them built, Master James of St. George’s stylistic influence is more than apparent. Appointed Master of the Royal Works in Wales around 1285, the mason was inevitably granted full control of the construction of all fortresses, including Harlech, but also Caernarfon Castle, Conwy Castle and Beaumaris Castle.
Noticeably, the design of all of these buildings shares a unique and mostly uniformed style––one that features a heavy, Savoy-Norman French influence. Flourishes aside, nearly all of the Welsh castles and the ring of town walls built by Master James of St. George have survived centuries of battle, age and weather, and remain today mostly intact.
Castle Harlech through the years
Harlech Castle played a key role in the national uprising led by Owain Glyndwr. After a long siege, it fell to his forces in 1404. The castle became Glyndwr’s residence and headquarters, and one of the two places to which he is believed to have summoned parliaments of his supporters.
It was only after a further long siege in 1408 that Harlech was retaken by English forces under Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V.
Not only has Harlech Castle played host to many years of infighting since its erection, but it has also witnessed numerous other British historical events, namely the War of the Roses. Between 1455 and 1485, Harlech served as a backdrop against the feuding between the rival factions of the House of Lancaster and York.
Following the 1460 Battle of Northampton, Margaret of Anjou (Queen of England and wife of King Henry VI), fled to Harlech and remained held by her Lancastrian supporters for seven years during the reign of Yorkist Edward IV. Unlike other fortresses, Harlech remained a major stronghold due to its natural defences and proximity to the sea.
English Civil War
At the time that the First English Civil War broke out in 1642, Castle Harlech was in complete disrepair––virtually dilapidated, save for the gatehouse, as a result of a major 1468 siege. Despite the onslaught of various battles that would last until 1646, Harlech was bestowed with a new constable, Colonel William Owen, who was entrusted with repairing the building and all exterior fortifications.
By the conclusion of the first phase of the war (the entire English Civil War would run until 1651), Castle Harlech was the last mainland royal fortress to surrender.
As Harlech was no longer required for the security of North Wales, parliament ordered it demolished as to prevent further use by Royalists. The orders, however, were partially carried out and only the gatehouse staircases were destroyed, the rocks from which were used to build houses in the local town, and Harlech sat unused well into the 19th century.
By now the ruins of Harlech, the fortress was transferred to the control of the Office of Works in 1914, resulting in a major restoration project following the end of World War I. In 1969, it was further transferred to the Welsh Office, and then finally to Cadw, who currently maintain the management of the property.
Today, Castle Harlech is an architectural marvel of British engineering; UNESCO has deemed it a World Heritage Site, and it continues to operate as a popular tourist attraction for visitors.
Harlech Castle is managed by Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly Government. It is a World Heritage site and is open throughout the year except for the Christmas and New Year holidays.