It was encouraging to see widespread blue sky, sunshine and not too much cloud that morning and with two places in mind to visit I made sure I was in Conwy not long after 9am so I could hopefully get a shady space in the edge-of-town car park I prefer to use. I got lucky, there was a vacant space right underneath the big tree where I parked at Easter, and first thing was a long walk to the marina and back so I knew that Snowy and Poppie would be settled and quiet in the van while I was looking round the castle.
Conwy Castle was one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles around North Wales and was built over a 4-year period between 1283 and 1287. Before his invasion of North Wales the site of the castle and its walled town was occupied by Aberconwy Abbey, a Cistercian monastery favoured by the Welsh princes; when Edward captured Aberconwy in March 1283 he decided that the location would form the centre of a new county and he would relocate the abbey to a new site eight miles away at Maenan near Llanrwst, building a new English castle and walled town on the monastery’s site.
Work began on the castle within days of Edward’s decision, it was controlled by Sir John Bonvillars and overseen by Edward’s architect, master mason James of St. George who had also worked on the castles at Flint and Rhuddlan. More than 1,500 craftsmen and labourers were recruited from across England for the task and the first phase of work between 1283 and 1284 focused on creating the exterior curtain walls and towers. In the second phase, from 1284 to 1286, the interior buildings were erected while work began on the walls for the neighbouring town and by 1287 the castle was complete. Edward’s accountants didn’t separate the cost of building the town walls from that of building the castle so the total cost of the two projects together came to around £15,000, a huge sum of money for that period.
The first constable of the castle, who also became Mayor of the new town of Conwy, was William de Cicon who had previously been the first constable of Rhuddlan Castle. He held the position at Conwy from its construction until his death in 1310 and during that time, for a yearly fee of £190 (equivalent to £200,000 today) he oversaw a castle garrison of 30 soldiers including 15 crossbowmen, supported by a carpenter, chaplain, blacksmith, engineer and a stonemason. During December 1294 and January 1295 Cicon held Conwy Castle alongside Edward whilst under siege during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant cousin of Llywelyn the Last; the castle was supplied only by sea before forces arrived to relieve Edward in February. For some years afterwards the castle formed the main residence for visiting senior figures and also hosted Edward’s own son, the future Edward II, when he visited the region in 1301.
Unfortunately Conwy Castle wasn’t particularly well maintained during the early 14th century. A survey in 1321 reported that it was poorly equipped, had limited stores and was suffering from roof leaks and rotten timbers, and by 1322 it was no longer fit to accommodate the king. These problems persisted through the years until Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, took over control of the castle in 1343. Sir John Weston, his chamberlain, conducted many repairs including building new stone support arches for the great hall and other parts of the castle, however after the death of the Black Prince in 1376 Conwy fell into neglect again.
In August 1399 the castle was used very briefly by Richard II as a refuge from the forces of his cousin and rival Henry Bolingbroke. After Richard’s abdication Henry IV’s reign began in 1400 but rebellion broke out in North Wales shortly afterwards under the leadership of Owain Glyndwr. In March 1401 two of Owain’s cousins undertook a surprise attack on the castle; pretending to be carpenters sent to do repairs they gained entry, killed the two watchmen on duty and took control of the fortress, with Welsh rebels attacking and capturing the rest of the walled town. The brothers held out for around three months before negotiating a surrender and as part of the agreement the pair were given a royal pardon by Henry.
In the 1520s and 30s Henry VIII conducted much restoration work on the castle, during which time it was being used as a prison, a depot and as a potential residence for visitors, but by the early 1600s it had fallen into disrepair once again. In 1626 Charles I sold the castle to Edward Conway, an English soldier and statesman and 1st Viscount Conway, for £100, then four years later Edward’s son, also called Edward, inherited the ruin. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642 the Archbishop of York, John Williams, took charge of the castle on behalf of the king and set about repairing and garrisoning it at his own expense but in 1645, Sir John Owen, a Welsh landowner, was appointed governor of the castle instead, leading to a bitter dispute between the two men.
Following a substantial siege in November 1646 Colonel John Carter was appointed governor of the castle and fresh repairs were carried out but in 1655 the Council of State appointed by Parliament ordered the castle to be deliberately damaged to render it beyond military use. Following the return of Charles II from exile in 1660 the castle was handed back to Edward, Earl of Conway but five years later, and despite opposition from the town’s leading citizens, he decided to strip the remaining iron and lead from the fortress and sell it off. Completed under the supervision of Edward’s overseer William Milward, it was work which finally turned the castle into a total ruin.
By the end of the 18th century the ruins were considered to be very picturesque and they began attracting visitors and several artists including J M W Turner. Between 1822 and 1826 Thomas Telford’s 326ft long suspension bridge was built across the River Conwy, with one end being anchored into the rock at the base of the castle, then in 1848 Robert Stephenson’s tubular railway bridge was built with the rail line into the town passing the rear of the castle.
In 1865 the castle passed from the Holland family, who had leased it from the descendants of the Conways, to the civic leadership of Conwy town and restoration began on the ruins, including the reconstruction of the Bakehouse Tower which had been deliberately damaged in 1655. In 1953 the castle was leased to the Ministry of Works and Arnold Taylor, a medieval historian and international expert on European castle building, undertook a wide range of repairs and extensive research into the castle’s history. Following a steady increase in traffic over the years the suspension bridge was superseded by a new road bridge which was built alongside it and completed in 1958. The suspension bridge closed to traffic on December 13th that year when the new bridge was opened and since then has only been used by pedestrians and cyclists.
Already protected as a Scheduled Monument, in 1986 the castle and its town walls were added to the World Heritage List as a historic site of outstanding universal value, and now in the 21st century it’s managed and maintained as a tourist attraction by Cadw, with a separate visitor centre which opened in 2012.
In the Great Hall invited guests would enjoy a feast of good food in front of the warming fire but those summoned there when the constable of the castle was doling out justice weren’t so lucky – they would find themselves on a short trip along the passage behind the fireplace to the Prison Tower, followed by a 12 foot drop into the dark, damp dungeon below.
A lovely and very unexpected surprise greeted me when I climbed the spiral stairs of the Chapel Tower. On the first floor was the tiny Royal Chapel and with its vaulted recess forming the chancel and three narrow stained glass windows it’s the single most beautiful surviving feature in the castle. Flanking the chancel were two much smaller rooms, one which would have been the sacristy and the other the vestry, for which two locks were bought for its door in 1535. In the centre of the small room was a modern wooden bench engraved with words by Welsh poet and author Damian Walford Davies – ”At the altar they heard estuary birds cry over the kiss of salt and river water” – words which I thought were quite sweet.
While I’d been wandering round I’d heard a couple of trains going past the castle so back down from the Royal Chapel I went to sit in a window recess in the Queen’s Chamber overlooking the rail line; I knew if I waited long enough I would see a train and sure enough, ten minutes later, one came past on its way to Llandudno Junction.
Having climbed four of the eight towers I drew the line at climbing the other four right to the top so I was happy just to walk round the castle’s upper walls and take photos wherever I could, especially of the views over the estuary. Needless to say, I took so many I couldn’t possibly put them all on here.
I really enjoyed looking round the castle and I could have stayed much longer but I had to get back to the dogs. Having bought the guide book after I came back out (I’d wanted to keep my hands free for taking photos) I knew there were several parts which I hadn’t seen so maybe a second visit will be planned in the future. Snowy and Poppie were curled up fast asleep when I got back to the van and I don’t think they’d missed me but they were happy to see me, and as I headed off to the next place to visit I knew that this time I could take them with me.