Wales is truly the “Land of Castles”. With more castles per square mile than anywhere else in Europe, when visiting Wales, you are never far away from history and legend. With Iron Age hill forts, Roman ruins and castles from Medieval Welsh princes and English kings sprinkled throughout the landscape, you can come to Wales for its beauty and stay for the history. To celebrate the history of our beautiful country and our Welsh Castle Coasters, here are 20 amazing facts about Welsh Castles.
Experts estimate that there are over 600 castles scattered around the Welsh landscape and it is thought that during the Medieval period, there was a castle every twelve square miles. Unfortunately, there is no way of truly knowing how many castles Wales is home to.
Though the absolute number of castles might be debated, there is little dispute that the castles of Edward I reign supreme. King Edward I invaded Wales twice in 1276–77 and 1282–83 which led to the most defining era of castle building in Wales. Over 12 years he built 17 castles all over Wales including an Iron Ring of castles around the heart land of the Welsh Rebellion, in the mountainous region of Snowdonia. The building cost of Edward I came to about £80,000, which is over £100 million today!
Most of the surviving castles in Wales were actually built by the English to subjugate the Welsh. Although the original number must be much higher, only less than 30 of the castles surviving in Wales were built by Welsh Lords and Princes.
Caerphilly Castle is the second biggest castle in the whole of the UK. It was also the first truly concentric castle in Britain at the time, making it an engineering marvel. The massive walls, towers, gatehouse and even artificial lakes cover a colossal 30 acres, which is three times the size of the Principality Stadium, the home of Welsh rugby. If that isn’t amazing enough, one of the Caerphilly Castle’s towers leans at angle of 10 degrees, that’s more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa which is only about 4 degrees.
Originally the site of a Roman fort, of which the walls can still be seen, Cardiff Castle was transformed in one of the finest examples of Gothic revival in the 18th century by the richest man in the world, the 3rd Marquis of Bute. But even more incredibly, after nearly 2000 years if occupancy, Cardiff Castle was called upon for defence, probably for the last time, during World War II. Due to aerial bombardment by the Nazi’s Luftwaffe, air raid shelters for almost 2000 people were built within tunnels in the Castle’s walls, protected by the layers of masonry and the earth banks above.
Flint Castle was the first castle built in Wales by Edward I and is architecturally unique in the British Isles. But its massive stand-alone tower (called a Donjon), thick walls (7 meters) and its price tag (about £5.5 million in today’s money) aren’t what makes this castle so famous today. It has been forever immortalised in the words of Shakespear as he recounts the fateful meeting between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle in 1399. Flint Castle provides the backdrop to a true turning point in history as Edward I’s great, great grandson, Richard II, is captured and forced to later abdicate by the eventual Henry IV.
Architecturally, Pembroke Castle is outstanding. It has a huge cylindrical tower with a stone dome, measuring nearly 80 ft high. What’s more, unusually all the rooms inside are circular. And if that wasn’t unique enough Pembroke Castle also has a complex barbican with three portcullises and is the only castle in Britain to incorporate a natural cavern, a large cave known as “The Wogan”, which has shown occupation for 12,000 years. However, Pembroke Castle’s biggest claim to fame is as the birthplace of the Welsh King of England, King Henry VII. Known as Harri Tudur to the Welsh, King Henry VII was a proud Welshman to the core. He continued to enjoy Welsh music, poetry and sport and even continued to fly the Welsh flag as King. With thousands of years of history under its belt and being the birthplace of a King, Pembroke Castle also has the distinction of never falling in battle to the Welsh.
Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey is thought to be the greatest castle never completed. With a dock within its 5.5-meter-wide moat, sea-going ships could sail right up to the castle gate to resupply. The last and largest of Edward I’s castles, the symmetry of the castle is what makes it so special. But due to a shortage of funds and trouble brewing in Scotland, unfortunately Beaumaris was never completed. Even incomplete, the splendour of this castle has earned it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Perched on top of the limestone cliffs of the River Wye is the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain. Originally called Striguil, the building of Chepstow Castle began in 1067. In addition to being the oldest castle, Chepstow also hold the accolade for the oldest surviving gates in the whole of Europe. Using the science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, the castle gates were dated to the 1190s. These magnificent gates, with an elaborate lattice framework on the back, were originally sheathed in iron to prevent attackers burning or battering them down.
Although the sea has now retreated, Harlech Castle still dominates the shores of Cardigan Bay. The “Way from the Sea”, a path up the rock face, once allowed besieged defenders to be fed and watered by ship. The building of Harlech Castle began during Edward I’s second campaign in 1283, and during the hight of construction in 1286 employed nearly 1000 men. But Harlech Castle’s fame now stems from the seven-year long siege during the War of the Roses. The longest siege in British history, the Lancastrians held out against the Yorkist to the point of starvation before surrendering, inspiring the great cultural song “Men of Harlech”. It is said that the survivors left the castle playing music and flying flags, one of which was our very own Harri Tudur. Harlech is another castle that has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
Dolforwyn Castle in Powys was the last the castle to be built by the last sovereign Prince of Wales. Constructed in 1273, on a hill above the Severn Valley, Dolforwyn Castle was built by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, also known as Llywelyn the Last, in defiance of King Edward I. When commanded to stop building, Llewelyn boldly responded that he did not need permission from the King to build on his own land. Unfortunately, Llewelyn’s defiance only lasted as long as the two-week siege it took to the Marcher Lord Roger Mortimer to take the castle.
Despite being more than 700 years old Conwy Castle is exceptionally well preserved. With most complete set of residential rooms inhabited by the medieval monarchy anywhere in Britain, not even the Tower of London can hold a candle to it. What’s more, the town of Conwy one of the finest examples of a walled town anywhere, still protect by its unbroken 1,400-yard (1.3km) wall. Even with the spectacular mountains of Snowdonia rising in the distance and the serene River Conwy at its feet, Conwy Castle still dominates its surrounding.
In 1975, Kidwelly Castle provided the opening backdrop to the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. But 900 years ago, Kidwelly Castle began life as a Norman stronghold, a far cry from the witty comedy about the Arthurian legend. During the battles with the Welsh, it changed hands many times. One attack on the castle gave rise to a warrior princess and one of Wales greatest heroines, Princess Gwenllian. Sometimes referred to as the Welsh Boudicca, she is the only woman to lead a medieval Welsh army into battle. But much like Boudicca, her attack was in vain, and she was beheaded by Normans. It is said that her ghost still haunts the town. As weaponry advanced and castles became a shadow of the defensive strongholds they once were, Kidwelly Castle was saved and converted into a court and prison and used until 1609.
Caergwrle Castle has the sad honour of being the last castle to be built by a native Welsh prince, Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the half-brother of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Caergwrle Castle was the base for Dafydd ap Gruffudd rebellion against the English garrison at Hawarden in 1282, which was the spark that ignited Edward’s second Welsh campaign.
The completion of Cardigan Castle, built in stone by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176, was celebrated by the first national Eisteddfod. The 1176 Cardigan Eisteddfod was a cultural tournament and gathering of musicians and poets. According to the medieval chronicle “Brut y Tywysogion”, Rhys announced the event a year in advance throughout Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland. This unprecedented event drew in people as far away as Ireland and France. Though now we celebrate the Eisteddfod on Saint Davids Day, the Cardigan Castle Eisteddfod was held over Christmas in 1176.
Caernarfon Castle is recognised around the world as one of the greatest castles of the Middle Ages and for good reason, took 47 years and cost a staggering £25,000, that’s more than £20 million today. The grandeur and the scale of the castle makes it worthy of its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Caernarfon Castle also began the tradition for the title of the Prince of Wales to be given to reigning monarch’s first-born son. This was thanks to Edward I’s son being born in Caernarfon and was presented to the Welsh nobility as a prince ‘that was borne in Wales and could speak never a word of English’.
Craig Y Nos Castle stands in the Brecon Beacons and is known as the most haunted castle in Wales. Bought by the one of the most famous women in the world, the opera singer Adelina Patti lived at Craig Y Nos Castle for more than 40 years. Some say her ghost can still be felt from time to time. For a sleepover of the sinister variety, Castle Craig y Nos has now been converted into a hotel and offers visitors a unique experience with their ghost tours.
Fans of Doctor Who will recognise Skenfrith Castle from the episode “Amy’s Choice”. Constructed in the Monnow Valley, along with its sister fortifications of Grosmont and White Castle to form a triangle known as the “Three Castles”, Skenfrith Castle was result of the Norman conquest of South Wales and is a repeated favourite of television crews.
Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire is the ancestral lands of the Deheubarth dynasty who controlled South-West Wales from 920 to 1197. One of the most famous members of this family was Princess Nest the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr. Nicknamed “Helen of Wales” for her extraordinary beauty, like her namesake, Helen of Troy, her splendour led to her abduction and civil war. Throughout her life she became a king’s mistress, a Norman wife and was abducted by a Welsh prince. Bearing at least nine children to five different men, many prominent families can trace their lineage back to her, including both the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England, George Washington, JFK and Princess Diana.
If you think that the “Red Wedding” in Game of Thrones was just a story, then think again. Abergavenny Castle, in Monmouthshire, was the site of one of the most barbaric acts in Medieval Europe and it occurred on Christmas Day no less in 1175. After years at war, Sytsylt ap Dyferwald and his fellow Welsh Lords were presented a peace offering by William de Braose, a Norman Lord. Much like when Robb Stark walked into the Twins, the unarmed men were welcomed into the castle and the doors locked before the bloody and brutal mass murder began.
As you can see by this list, the Castles of Wales have so much to offer. The beauty of Wales can entice you and the history and legend can fulfill you. So next time you are thinking about your travel destination, give Wales a thought and travel through time within the walls of these magnificent, world-renowned castles. And to whet your appetite, or as and memory of your trip, why not check out our amazing Welsh Castle Coasters. Featuring 6 different Welsh castle which include, Caernarfon Castle, Caerphilly Castle, Cardiff Castle, Conwy Castle, Kidwelly Castle and Pembroke Castle, they will forever remind you of the amazing time you had in Wales. Made of Welsh slate from the mountains of Snowdonia and laser engraved, they make the perfect Welsh Gift.