The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd

View of Conwy Castle across the Conwy river © Hawlfraint y Goron / © Crown copyright (2021) Cymru Wales

THE Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site which includes the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech and the castles and town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) considers the sites to be the “finest examples of late 13th Century and early 14th Century military architecture in Europe”.

The fortifications were built by Edward I after his invasion of north Wales in 1282. Edward defeated the local Welsh princes in a major campaign and set about permanently colonising the area. He created new fortified towns, protected by castles, in which English immigrants could settle and administer the territories. The project was hugely expensive and stretched royal resources to the limit.

Fresh Welsh revolts followed in 1294 under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn. Conwy and Harlech were kept supplied by sea and held out against the attack, but Caernarfon, still only partially completed, was stormed. In the aftermath, Edward reinvigorated the building programme and ordered the commencement of work at Beaumaris. Edward’s wars in Scotland began to consume royal funding, however, and work soon slowed once again. Building work on all the fortifications had ceased by 1330, without Caernarfon and Beaumaris having been fully completed.

The fortifications played an important part in the conflicts in North Wales over the coming centuries. They were involved in the Glyndŵr Rising of the early 15th Century and the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th Century. Despite declining in military significance following the succession of the Tudor dynasty to the throne in 1485, they were pressed back into service during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. In the aftermath of the conflict, Parliament ordered the slighting, or deliberate destruction, of parts of Conwy and Harlech, but the threat of a pro-Royalist invasion from Scotland ensured that Caernarfon and Beaumaris remained intact. By the end of the 17th Century, however, the castles were ruinous.

The British state invested heavily in the castles and town walls during the 20th Century, restoring many of their medieval features. In 1986 the sites were collectively declared to be a World Heritage Site, as outstanding examples of fortifications and military architecture built in the 13th Century, and are now operated as tourist attractions by the Welsh heritage agency Cadw.

The following is taken from a detailed description of the site by UNESCO:
Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd
The castles of Beaumaris and Harlech (largely the work of the greatest military engineer of the time, James of St George) and the fortified complexes of Caernarfon and Conwy are located in the former principality of Gwynedd, in north Wales. These extremely well-preserved monuments are examples of the colonization and defence works carried out throughout the reign of Edward I (1272–1307) and the military architecture of the time.

The four castles of Beaumaris, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and the attendant fortified towns at Conwy and Caernarfon in Gwynedd are the finest examples of late 13th Century and early 14th Century military architecture in Europe, as demonstrated through their completeness, pristine state, evidence for organized domestic space, and extraordinary repertory of their medieval architectural form.

The castles as a stylistically coherent group are a supreme example of medieval military architecture designed and directed by James of St George (c. 1230-1309), King Edward I of England’s chief architect, and the greatest military architect of the age.

The extensive and detailed contemporary technical, social, and economic documentation of the castles, and the survival of adjacent fortified towns at Caernarfon and Conwy, makes them one of the major references of medieval history.

The castles of Beaumaris and Harlech are unique artistic achievements for the way they combine characteristic 13th Century double-wall structures with a central plan, and for the beauty of their proportions and masonry.

Beaumaris and Harlech represent a unique achievement in that they combine the double-wall concentric structure which is characteristic of late 13th Century military architecture with a highly concerted central plan and in terms of the beauty of their proportions and masonry. These are masterpieces of James of St George who, in addition to being the king’s chief architect, was constable of Harlech from 1290 to 1293.

The royal castles of the ancient principality of Gwynedd bear a unique testimony to construction in the Middle Ages in so far as this royal commission is fully documented. The accounts by Taylor in Colvin (ed.), The History of the King’s Works, London (1963), specify the origin of the workmen, who were brought in from all regions of England, and describe the use of quarried stone on the site. They outline financing of the construction works and provide an understanding of the daily life of the workmen and population and thus constitute one of the major references of medieval history.

The construction of the castles and fortifications, begun in 1283 and at times hindered by the Welsh uprisings of Madog ap Llewelyn in 1294, continued until 1330 in Caernarfon and 1331 in Beaumaris. They have only undergone minimal restoration and provide, in their pristine state, a veritable repertory of medieval architectural form: barbicans, drawbridges, fortified gates, chicanes, redoubts, dungeons, towers and curtain walls.

The individual castles possess a high degree of integrity with the coherence of their planning, innovative design and quality of construction being undiminished.

The overall series of the four castles of Edward I includes within the property boundary all the medieval defensive structures – castles and town walls – but not the planned settlements or waterfronts. All the defensive attributes are within the boundary but as the towns were an integral part of their defensive, administrative and economic arrangements, and their waterside position contributed to their defence and trade, the full range of attributes could be seen to extend beyond the narrow boundaries.

The essential relationship between their coastal landscapes and each castle remains intact and in two cases the intimate inter-relationship of castle and town remains a striking feature of the present-day urban landscape.

The authenticity of all four medieval castles and of the two town wall circuits has been maintained despite some reconstruction in the late 19th Century at Caernarfon.
The town walls at Caernarfon and Conwy remain unchanged providing an almost complete enclosed entity to their related townscapes.

The overall setting of the four castles remains largely intact – with the exception of development on the plain at Harlech and some new development at Caernarfon – and thus they retain their ability to present very clearly their scale, defensive power and intimidating presence.

The four castles and two town wall circuits are protected by statutory scheduling as monuments of national importance and by their being ‘guardianship monuments’ maintained by the relevant conservation body within government according to current conservation principles. All four are protected by Local Plans, Planning Guidance and their World Heritage Management Plans which are reviewed regularly; Harlech is within the Snowdonia National Park while all four are within Conservation Areas that cover the immediate setting of the Castles and Town Walls.

These measures combine to ensure that the Castles are subject to rigorous controls over development that could potentially impact upon them or their setting. Shoreline Management Plans and the Environment Agency’s Flood Risk Assessments help protect the sites from coastal erosion or unsympathetic coastal development, thus keeping intact the important coastal views and sightlines.

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