In an effort to maintain English control over Northern Wales, King Edward I and his successors littered the Snowdonia region with a series of enormous castles. Collectively these became known as the Iron Ring of Snowdonia, and form one of Wales’ most impressive architectural legacies. Edward’s main castles were Conwy, Harlech and Caernarfon. All of these, as well as numerous others, are within twenty miles of each other, making multiple visits in one day easy. They are now among the most popular tourist destinations in Wales. It is important to note that a fourth castle, at Beaumaris, was begun a few years later. Although never finshed, the completed portion is considered by some to be one of the most perfectly designed castles in the British Isles. It is the peer of its three older brothers, and merits a visit in tandem with the rest of the Iron Ring fortresses.
Following the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain in the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, the last surviving independent Celtic tribes in Europe were pushed to the northwesternmost fringes of the British Isles. In Wales, Scotland and Ireland the Celts fiercely resisted assimilation into the Roman and later German worlds. But the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century ultimately doomed the Celts, at least as independent kingdoms. After William the Conqueror defeated the Saxons in England, the Normans turned their attention to Wales. For the next two centuries Celtic territory was slowly eroded, until the last surviving Welsh king was finally defeated by Edward I in 1282.
The final stage of Edward’s conquests in Wales involved the crushing of several costly uprisings in the rugged northern regions of Snowdonia. Not desirous of addressing any further rebelliousness from the Welsh, Edward embarked on the most ambitious and expensive castle-building venture of the Middle Ages. Old fortifications throughout Wales were restored, expanded, and in some cases replaced. The centerpiece of the project would later become known as the Iron Ring, a trio of massive, state-of-the-art castles located by the sea on the northern fringe of Snowdonia. These were Conwy, Harlech and Caernarfon. A fourth castle, Beaumaris, was begun in 1295 but was never completed.
Warfare between the English and Welsh continued intermittently following the construction of the Iron Ring castles. During the Welsh rebellion of 1294-1295, Caernarfon withstood a major siege. However, thanks to Edward’s foresight, all of his new castles were built along the coast, thereby ensuring their ability to remain supplied by sea. The siege and rebellion failed, and Wales was largely pacified for the next century. Warfare between the English and Welsh flared up again at the beginning of the 15th century. Caernarfon was again unsuccessfully besieged, however Harlech Castle was taken and used as the headquarters for the Welsh army. Welsh resistance was finally wiped out when Harlech was retaken by the English in 1408.
The Snowdonia region was largely quiet thereafter. However, the Iron Ring Castles were destined to play minor roles during some of England more turbulent periods. During the War of the Roses, Harlech was held by the Lancastrian faction and was their last major stronghold in England. The Lancastrians endured a seven-year siege within Harlech, until finally capitulating in 1468. This event inspired the song The Men of Harlech. Nearly two centuries later, in 1646, Caernarfon Castle was the scene of a major triumph of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians over the Royalists. Over the centuries, the Iron Ring castles have been remarkably well preserved. They are now among the most popular tourist destinations in Wales.
Conwy is the greatest intact castle in Wales, and among the best in Europe. It was built between 1283 and 1289, and was the first of the Iron Ring Castles to be completed. It is a linear castle, with successive defenses, guarded by eight massive guard towers. A narrow bridge connects the castle to the mainland. Although not an official royal residence, royal apartments were maintained in the inner ward of the castle. A watchtower, Bodysgallen Hall, was constructed on a nearby hill in the 13th century as an advance lookout post to the northern approaches. There is little in the way of exhibits here, however virtually the entire castle is accessible to visitors, adding a sense of authenticity to the visit.
Harlech was constructed between 1283 and 1290, and differs from Conwy and Caernarfon in that it is a concentric castle rather than linear. It is also somewhat smaller than its contemporaries, and perhaps a bit less well preserved. That said, it is no less impressive or formidable than the other fortresses of the Iron Ring. Guarded by steep cliffs, a narrow approach and a massive gatehouse, it was all but inaccessible to invaders. While all of the coastal castles enjoyed access to the sea, Harlech’s Way from the Sea is particularly unique. A narrow, heavily fortified stairway reached from the lower precincts of the castle all the way down to the sea, nearly 200 feet below. It is still in use today.
Caernarfon was the most ambitious of the Iron Ring castles. Although it was also begun in 1283, it was still a work in process four decades later. Construction stopped in 1323, but despite its huge proportions fell short of the original design. Like Conwy Castle, Caernarfon was built on a linear design, but was considered extremely formidable nonetheless. During its early years, Caernarfon Castle doubled as a royal residence for the Prince of Wales. Many of the castle’s features were designed with that in mind. Four residential towers were included in the construction: the Eagle Tower, Queen’s Tower, Chamberlain’s Tower and Black Tower. Today the castle is home to a museum and a number of interesting exhibits.
All three castles maintain the following hours: April-May & October 9:30am-5:00pm; June-September 9:30am-6:00pm; November-March 9:30am-4:00pm; closed December 24-26, January 1. Admission for Conwy Castle is L4.50 for adults and L4.00 for children. Admission for Harlech Castle is L3.50 for adults and L3.00 for children. Admission for Caernarfon Castle is L4.90 for adults and L4.50 for children. Web: www.cadw.wales.gov.uk (official webite of Welsh historic sites).
In their efforts to keep Northern Wales under control, the English packed the region with castles, both by Edward I and his father, Henry III. In addition to Beaumaris Castle, Edward constructed the Castles of Aberystwyth, Builth, Flint and Rhuddlan. These latter four have long since been destroyed, but their ruins can be visited. In addition, the Castles of Castell-y-Bere Criccieth, and Dolwyddelan, built by the Welsh and converted to English use by Edward, still survive in part to the present day. Also in the area are Caerphilly Castle and Pembroke Castle.