From the Norman Conquest of 1066 onwards, English kings struggled to gain the control over Wales that they claimed. Wales remained a loose collection of regions ruled by princes who were as often at war with each other as with the English. The wild terrain made it an inhospitable place for Norman knights, but perfect for the guerilla tactics the Welsh employed – attacking, then melting away into the mist and mountains.
In 1282, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd died in battle against Edward Longshanks’ forces, aged about 60. Remembered as Llywelyn the Last, he had been the dominant power in Wales from around 1258. The grandson of Llywelyn the Great, his authority was a high watermark for native Welsh rule. His position was recognised by King Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272), but Henry’s son Edward I (r. 1272-1307) sought to enforce the English crown’s direct rule over Wales from 1277. Edward’s conquest of Wales relied on the building of a set of fortifications known as the Iron Ring of Castles.
These are Edward I’s 10 ‘Ring of Iron’ castles.
1. Flint Castle
Edward’s attacks on Wales began before Llywelyn’s death. In 1277, the king began work on the first castle of what would become his Iron Ring at Flint on the north-eastern border of Wales. The location was strategically vital: it was a day’s march from Chester and could be supplied via the River Dee from the sea.
Flint saw the appearance of James of St George, who would oversee Edward’s castle building project as architect and master of works. Many of Edward’s Welsh castles showed inspiration from other parts of the world, and Flint had a large corner tower detached from the walls that was popular in Savoy. Edward may have seen this design himself, or it might demonstrate the influence of James, a native of Savoy.
Like other castles built during this project, a fortified town was also laid out with the intention of planting English settlers there. The castle was attacked several times by Welsh forces but never captured. In 1399, Richard II was at Flint when he was taken into the custody of his cousin, the future Henry IV. As a royalist fortress during the Civil War, its fall meant it was slighted – destroyed to prevent it being held against the government ever again – leaving the ruins that can be seen today.
2. Hawarden Castle
The next castle Edward ordered built in 1277 was at Hawarden, also in Flintshire, about 7 miles southeast of Flint Castle. Hawarden commanded an elevated position that was probably the site of an Iron Age hillfort and an earlier Norman wooden motte and bailey castle. Edward chose the site to shore up control of the border between England and Wales.
It was an attack on Hawarden Castle in 1282 that led to Edward’s final determined push to conquer Wales. Just after Easter 1282, Daffyd ap Gruffydd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, attacked Hawarden Castle. Edward launched a full assault in retaliation and Llywelyn was killed. Daffyd succeeded his brother, briefly becoming the last independent ruler of Wales.
Daffyd’s capture shortly afterwards led to his historic execution. At Shrewsbury on 3 October 1283, Daffyd became the first recorded person to be hanged, drawn and quartered as punishment for high treason. Hawarden was also slighted during the Civil War.
3. Rhuddlan Castle
The next of the first phase of castles in 1277 was at Rhuddlan, west of Flint along the north coast of Wales. Rhuddlan was ceded to England as part of the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277 and Edward ordered construction of a castle there to begin immediately. Another strategically important site that could be supplied by river from the sea easily, it extended the king’s reach into Wales.
Edward also laid out a new borough, to be populated with English settlers, and this plan is still visible in the town today. In 1284, the Statute of Rhuddlan was signed at the castle, effectively handing over control of Wales to the King of England and introducing English law to Wales. During the Civil War, Rhuddlan was another royalist stronghold, falling in 1646 and being slighted two years later.
4. Builth Castle
Construction of Builth Castle began in May 1277, though the building was left unfinished in 1282 when Llywelyn’s defeat and death made it less strategically important. The castle was built on the site of an existing motte and bailey, though much of this former structure may have been destroyed after it was seized by Llywelyn in 1260.
Builth Castle was granted to Prince Arthur Tudor, heir to Henry VII, in 1493. Arthur died in 1502 aged 15 and his younger brother became King Henry VIII in 1509. During Henry’s reign, Builth Castle burned down and over subsequent centuries the stonework was removed by locals so that nothing remains of the castle today.
5. Aberystwyth Castle
The final castle built as part of the 1277 programme was at Aberystwyth on the mid-west coast of Wales. Aberystwyth Castle was built in a diamond-shaped concentric design, with two gatehouses opposite each other and towers in the other two corners, as Rhuddlan had been.
Edward’s work at Aberystwyth actually relocated the entire settlement. Aberystwyth means ‘mouth of the River Ystwyth’, and the settlement was originally on the opposite side of the river, about a mile to the north of its present location.
In 1404, Aberystwyth Castle was captured by Owain Glyndwr as part of his rebellion against Henry IV and was held for 4 years. Charles I made Aberystwyth Castle into a royal mint, and it remained royalist during the Civil War. Like other castles, it was slighted on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.
6. Denbigh Castle
When the conquest of Wales intensified in 1282 following Llywelyn’s uprising, Denbigh Castle was the first of a new phase of fortifications built on the orders of Edward I. Denbigh lies in the north of Wales, but is further from the coast than castles built in the first phase.
Edward gave the land to Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, who built a walled town in which to settle English people, protected by the castle. Denbigh boasts a triangle of octagonal towers at its entrances and 8 more towers around the walls. The walled town proved impractical and Denbigh grew beyond it. Eventually, more than 1,000 metres of walls were added to the castle’s defences. Denbigh was another Royalist centre partially destroyed in the Civil War.
7. Caernarfon Castle
In 1283, Edward began construction at Caernarfon on the northwest coast of Wales, opposite Anglesey. There had been a motte and bailey castle here for two centuries but Edward envisioned it as his principal seat in Gwynedd. The castle was large, and between 1284 and 1330, a total of £20,000-25,000 was spent on Caernarfon Castle, a vast amount for a single building.
Edward reportedly ensured that his son, the future Edward II, was born at Caernarfon Castle on 25 April 1284. Prince Edward was not heir to the throne at the time of his birth, but when his older brother Alfonso passed away in August 1284, Edward became next in line. In 1301, to demonstrate his control over the country, Edward I made his heir Prince of Wales, giving him control of the region and its income. This began the tradition of the heir to the throne being designated Prince of Wales. After his deposition in 1327, Edward II became known as Sir Edward of Caernarfon.
8. Conwy Castle
The stunning Conwy Castle was built between 1283 and 1287 and was supported by a walled town. Sitting on the north coast of Wales, east of Caernarfon, it is well positioned to be supplied by sea. In 1401, during Owain Glyndwr’s revolt against Henry IV, Conwy Castle was seized by Rhys ap Tudur and his brother Gwilym. They pretended to be carpenters to gain entry and managed to control the castle for three months. The pair’s youngest brother Maredudd ap Tudur was great-grandfather to Henry VII, the first Tudor king.
Although the castle was partially slighted in the aftermath of the Civil War, having held out for the Royalist forces, it remains an impressive structure today that was not as completely destroyed as other castles.
9. Harlech Castle
The final castle begun in 1283 was at Harlech, on the west coast of Wales about 50 miles north of Aberystwyth. Harlech boasts a palatial gatehouse that was an expression of Edward’s authority and dominion over Wales. When Harlech Castle was built, it was on the coast, though the sea has receded some distance now. The castle still has a water gate that made it easily supplied by sea.
During the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the castle held out for the Lancastrian faction for seven years, provisioned unopposed from the sea. The long siege is remembered in the song Men of Harlech. During the Civil War, Harlech held out for Royalists until 1647, making it the last fortification to fall to Parliamentary forces.
10. Beaumaris Castle
In 1295, Edward began his most ambitious building project to date in Wales: Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey. Work continued until 1330 when funds ran out completely, leaving the castle unfinished. Like others, Beaumaris Castle was captured by Owain Glyndwr’s forces, showing the importance of Edward I’s Welsh castles to control of the country more than a century later.
Like others of Edward I’s castles, Beaumaris held out for the Royalist forces during the Civil War. It was captured by Parliamentary forces, but managed to escape the programme of slighting and was instead garrisoned by Parliamentary forces. UNESCO designated Beaumaris Castle a World Heritage Site in 1986, describing it as one of “the finest examples of late 13th-century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe”.
Edward I’s conquest of Wales has left deep scars. His Ring of Iron was an instrument of subjugation, but the ruins that remain to us today are important and awe-inspiring places to visit.