Highly evolved designs
The new castles were the work of Master James of St George, the top military architect of his day. Unlike earlier, simple square castles, Edward’s new fortresses had inner and outer curtain walls and circular towers and gateways. They show a clever progression towards the highly evolved concentric design of Beaumaris Castle, on Anglesey.
Beaumaris Castle is the last of Edward I’s ‘Iron Ring’
Their design was based on the bastide towns of Gascony in southwest France whose castles were integrated into walled town filled with busy traders. Populated exclusively by English settlers, these new market towns cunningly engaged the Welsh in English ways. The Welsh were allowed to enter the towns by day but kept out at night and forbidden to either trade or carry weapons. Not until the 1700s did the Welsh have similar towns of their own.
When they were new, the castles were boldly whitewashed to emphasise their power. Part of a cleverly conceived project, they occupied key strategic positions, were a day’s march apart, and could be resupplied by sea.
Many of the sites also had symbolic significance. Conwy occupies the site of an earlier Welsh monastery and sits on the west bank of the River Conwy, deliberately within the territory of the Princes of Gwynedd. Caernarfon’s banded masonry echoes imperial Roman Constantinople, another ancient military stronghold, royal palace and seat of government. Beaumaris was built on the site of the demolished Welsh Llanfaes Abbey.
Today, many of these iconic castles are cared for by CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments. Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Harlech are also internationally renowned and protected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. All of them are open to the public and together they give a real insight into Wales’ turbulent past.