Castle of the Week 95 – Harlech

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The second castle we bring you from the new Stronghold 2 game is a spectacular and daunting stronghold. Built for King Edward I during his second campaign in North Wales, it was part of a procession of castles used to keep Wales from rebelling under the rule of King Edward I and to suppress revolt against the English.

Harlech is a testament to the building genius and skill of castle architect, Master James of St. George. In the building of Harlech he used the landscape to the best advantage; Harlech Castle seems to have always been a part of the rock on which it triumphantly rises. As a tactical stronghold it had the unsurpassed advantage of keeping watch over the Snowdonia countryside and also the ability to keep watch out to sea.

Work began on the castle in April 1283 and, by the year of 1286, 900 workers were under the watchful eye of Master James. With this army of workers he produced one of the best preserved concentric castles surviving today. With a moat to defend it where it faces the south and east, it rests on a high rocky bluff that looks over Tremadog bay. With sheer cliffs to protect its seaward side, Master James had a 200 foot stairway carved into the cliff on the western side so supplies could be brought into the castle from the sea. This proved invaluable during the rebellion of Madoc ap Llywelyn in 1294-95; Harlech Castle was held by a force of only 37 men. Ships from Ireland kept the defenders supplied.

With only the east side of the castle vulnerable to attack, and the gatehouse proving to be its strongest point, Harlech was not an easy castle to conquer. The gate passage was protected; three portcullises and guard rooms were on either side. Comfortable rooms on the upper floors were the private rooms used for the King and visiting nobles and dignitaries.

Harlech Castle was designed with a bastide town, where the town and castle relied on each other for trade and protection. This was an idea borrowed from Gascony, France. The town was populated with English only, with the Welsh allowed in during the day and forbidden to trade.

After Edward I had successfully defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in Snowdonia and in Anglesey, the English established their hold. It would not be until the year 1404 that Harlech Castle was taken by Owain Glyndwr during a national uprising against the English. It became the palace for Owain and from here he led his supporters. The Welsh held the castle for four years until the year 1408 when it was retaken by the English.

Sixty years after, during the War of the Roses, Harlech Castle held up for the Lancastrian side until it fell to Lord Herbert for the Yorkist side.

The castle has stood through time to be a testament of the building genius of Master James of St. George. It was his careful planning of the details of this majestic castle that kept it preserved for future generations; it stood through war and strife till it finally came to know peace and is now cared for as a historic monument by the Cadw.

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No part of this article would be possible to imagine without the pictures, so a very special thank you to both Cadw. Crown copyright and Simon and Gina Robins at Castlexplorer for permission to use their photos. The wonderful map was produced by Shawn Brown. Please check his site as there are other Harlech maps there.

Write-up provided by Lady Arcola.