The Castles of Cymru

15/04/2013 17:51

Wales, Cymru i.e., is located under a large cloud. Under the cloud it’s raining and rain sometimes bends with the wind force. Then the rain falls horizontally. When the wind blows the cloud, while drags a new one. Cymru, i.e. Wales, does not suffer drought. Its underground aquifers are full. The rivers are full. The water falls from the sky and stays in the air. Then there is the sea. In summary, Wales is a wet country.

Here came to soak some nomadic tribes in the Neolithic and later Celtic tribes. All left their mark on the territory, as stone burials or fortified enclosures on the hills. Behind them, without umbrella, the Romans arrived.

Maybe it was the sight of a Publius Ostorius Scapula subordinate, or maybe Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, Roman governors in Britannia, who commanding their legions harassed and conquered what is now called Wales, the first to discover the Briton tribes strongholds. Or maybe they were already Aulus Plautius soldiers, the general who commanded legions IX Hispana, II Augusta, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix to overtake Britannia in AD 43. Or perhaps some Decurion who drove out druids from Ynis Môn during Gnaeus Julius Agricola campaigns against Ordovices, Silures and Caledonians in 78 AD.

Looking up they would see the stone walls that supported the wooden palisades on, for example, Dynas Powys hill in Glamorgan valley, in Llanmelin, or in Caer y Twr on Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey. Since Neolithic times the population of the islands took shelter in fortified enclosures, known today as hillforts, or fortifications erected on high knolls. Hundreds of them remain. Some wider take up to some 80 hectares; some smaller just one. More spectacular in their condition, or simply a circular mound hardly guessed. Many of them still gathered population during the years of Roman rule, others were abandoned, and still others would be resettled in the Middle Ages.


Soon after consolidating their gains and control the country Rome extended its network of roads, opened mines and encouraged trade. The main road in the south of Wales went from Glevum (Gloucester) to Moridunum (Carmarthen) and beyond. Also raised their own fortifications, camps and auxiliary strongholds: Deva Victrix, Cardiff, Caer Gybi, Caernarfon, Segontium... and stable settlements became cities, which is preserved in an extraordinary condition Silurum Civitas (Caerwent). The Roman city preserves almost completely its walled perimeter, the main road, old cardo, is now paved. And the foundations of the Principia, ancient command dwellings, the troops barracks and a sanctuary where stood Jupiter and emperor effigies. Outside the walls, the settlement spread with shops and homes of relatives, employees and service who developed their work in the city. On the porch of Saint Stephen’s church, the centre of the premises, there’s a column that was dedicated by the local council to the commander of the Legio II Augusta, Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, who would become governor of Britannia Inferior. Civitas Silurum was a major city. Contained in the Iter Britanniarum in Antonini Itinerarium and in the seventh century Ravennatis Anonymi Cosmographia fourth book.

Legio II was based within walking distance of Venta Silurum in Augusta Isca, now Caerleon, by the River Usk. Caerleon have got spacious bathrooms and amphitheatre, with both preserved stretch of wall sections and a troop barracks area.

The fall of the Empire took the legions off the British Isles and small kingdoms emerged controlled by local lords. The Angles and Saxons invasions pushed the Romanized Britons westward after the battle of Chester in the year 616. The armies of Powys in today Wales, led by King Selyf ap Cynan succumbed to the thrust of the armies of King Æthelfrith. Wales’s territory was divided into weak kingdoms: Gwynedd, Deheubarth, Powys, Gwent, Gwynllwg... who created border markings, Marchia Wallia, between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The latter, in the eighth century, during the reign of King Offa, in Mercia, built a long ditch along the border, Offa's Dyke, of which there are still traces today. 

In the tenth century began the Norseman raids that would conclude with the conquest of England in 1066, after the Battle of Hastings. In Wales, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn reigned over Gwynedd and Powys. These were the kingdoms that remain more stable and still were relatively independent from Norman control until the unification of the Principality of Wales in 1216.

The Normans began the raising of the first castles, most of them in the border bow to consolidate their positions and control the territory of the small Welsh kingdoms of Deheubart and Gwent as they succumbed to the ravages of the eleventh century. At first they were inexpensive constructions, in the way of motte-and-bailey strongholds consisting in a natural or artificial promontory where a tower was built with a courtyard enclosed by a fence. When the Welsh kingdoms regained control over territory constructed fortifications in the Norman style as Castell-y-Bere, Dolwyddelan, Criccieth, Carreg Cennen and many other places along the border. The Norman castles became more sophisticated over time, shaping a more solid and robust construction, such as Monmouth, Chepstow, Cardigan, Pembroke, Laugharne ... the latter, at the mouth of the River Taff, documented in 1116 in the Brut y Tywysogyon, the Welsh Chronicle of the Princes, would be ruled by Rhys ap Gruffudd, one of the men who dominate the political scene of West Wales in the twelfth century.

In 1276, after the Welsh uprising, the British crown declared war. Once defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Wales only retained the territory of Gwynedd. After losing a second war in 1284 the Statute of Rhuddlan incorporated the Principality to England. Edward I created in a few years, a ring of castles to consolidate power in Wales, with special efforts in surrounding the mountains of Snowdonia in the north.

For 12 years he spent 60,000 pounds, more than ten times the kingdom’s annual income. The castles of Edward I were designed in months by just one man: master James de Saint George d’Esperanche. Traced imposing gates, barbican, battlements and arrow slits. Introduced new ideas in military construction, concentric defences, large stretches of wall, fortified gates. Each of the castles was built to a walled town, usually repopulated by English settlers. All the forts were built with sea access, so that they could be supplied in case of siege.

Flint Castle in Clwyd began in 1277, and the Rhudlan soon after, even before the second war with Wales. Both are little more than a ruin today. Would follow those of Aberystwyth, Ruthin and Hawarden. After the second war began the building of the enormous strongholds that would close the ring: Caernarfon, Conway and Harlech. The Caernarfon was built on the basis of a previous Norman fortification. Edward I encouraged his master builder to emulate the walls of Constantinople imitating Yedikule walls, the seven towers that defended the city gate of the Bosphorus. Caernarfon was not just a British stronghold in Wales but became administrative and judicial centre and commercial hub of the neighbouring counties. Shortly after its construction, was born on April 25 the first English Prince of Wales, Edward of Caernarfon or Edward II, son of Edward I. In 1911 was took up again the ceremony of naming the Prince of Wales here. In 1969 fell on Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II. The perimeter of the walled city has been completely preserved, as well as in neighbouring town of Conwy, keeping also the structure of medieval streets.

At the other end of the Menai Strait and on the other side, on the island of Anglesey, Beaumaris rose the most perfect and concentric. Beau Mareys', the beautiful swamp castle was begun in April 18, 1295. Last Edward I conquest in Wales he completed the circle of fortifications surrounding the north. The concentric layout, symmetry unparalleled in previous constructions of master James of Saint Georges, would be completed by Nicholas of Derneford. The castle has little story to tell. Never besieged ended as garrison office shortly before finishing the English Civil War in 1646. Already in the eighteenth century acquired a rich ivy mantle as engraver Alfred Sumners portrayed.

With the advent of the Tudor dynasty some of the strengths were significantly modified, substantially improving the living areas and with no intention to strengthen the defence. Raglan castle was the last built in Wales, in 1435.

From the late eighteenth century on, with Romanticism, the ruins that had become the majority of strengths became fashionable. Turner's paintings and other engravers and watercolour painters like John Boydell Hawarden exalted the liking of audiences who beginning to sensitize and appreciate their cultural heritage.

© J.L.Nicolas


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