Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


31.7.16
  Hiking in Hessian Switzerland (Hessische Schweiz)

We've been doing some more hiking tours south of Göttingen. One of the areas - situated near Eschwege - is called the Hessian Switzerland (Hessische Schweiz) due to its mountains and pretty vistas. Here are some photos of a walk we did back in May.

View from the 'Salt Woman' viewpoint towards Eschwege

The dominating feature of the area is the Gobert, a musselkalk ridge which runs from the Hainich in Thuringia to the Werra valley in Hessia. It is one of the largest sturzstrom areas in Germany - errant rocks and boulders of the prehistoric slides can still be seen all over the place. A sturzstrom is basically an XXL landslide with a much larger horizontal impact and distribution of material.

Another pretty view

The plateau of the Gobert proper near the village of Hitzelrode is about 570 metres high and covered with calcareous beech forest and some rare orchids which I can never find. Several hiking tours explore the ridges and valleys that have been cut into the mussekalk by brooks and rivers. The tour we did is not so difficult, but there is another tour that comes so close to some cliffs that you need a good head for heights (which I don''t have).

The way on top of the Gobert

The particular geology of the area goes back to the border between the Upper Bunter sandstone (some 245 million years ago) which consists of 'waterproof' layers of clay and silt, and the strata of water permeable musselkalk above it. Due to the water that permeates through the musselkalk and collects on the clay of the upper Bunter, the rocks formations in the area have been rather unstable, leading to landslides, sturzstroms and rockfalls, the formation of cliffs, crevices and caves.

Cliffs at the Horse Cave

Both rock strata - together with the third and youngest, Keuper - belong to the Germanic Trias which followed the period of the Zechstein Sea. The Zechstein Sea and the following age of alternating arid times and ingressions by the sea stretched from England in the west to Poland in the east; it's nothern border were the Iro-Scottish highlands, then still connected with northern America.

New vistas around every bend

Well, back to the hiking. We had to ascend a pretty steep path until we reached the plateau, but from there it was nice going through the beech forest, with several pretty views at the surrounding landscape. Those spots are well protected by rails and offer benches for a rest. Some of them are connected with historical events or interesting rock formations.

The Salt Woman

Another geological feature are the salt deposits of the Zechstein Sea which have come close to the surface in some spots thanks to the geological changes. One of these deposits can be found nearby - the town Bad Sooden-Allendorf is named for it. The spot on the photo above was either a resting place for women carrying salt along the ridge path, or the guardpost of the wives of salt smugglers who could see far into the valley below and warn their men of patrols.

View from the Horse Cave towards the village of Hitzelrode

Another interesting spot is the Horse Cave or Horse Hole (Pferdeloch). The Horse Cave is a ravine with several musselkalk pillars and chimneys (you can see a photo of the cliffs above). It is said that the ravine has been used as hiding place for the villagers' horses and cattle during the Thirty Years War.

The Wolf Table

The Wolf Table (Wolfstisch) is a musselkalk plate on a boulder of similar material - the combination looks pretty much like a table. It is only a few metres away from another cliff and may have been used as sacrifical place during the Iron Age and perhaps as a secret meeting place in the Middle Ages. It surely is the sort of natural feature that would have been interpreted as having been created by the gods.

Wolf Table, seen from a different angle

It were not the gods, of course, but erosion. The cliff once had been a larger plateau that eroded over time. Besides the Wolf Table, there are several more rocks that have withstood erosion a bit better than the surrounding material. But some - likely far - time in the future, the edge of the cliff will reach the table and it will slide down into the valley.

Closeup of the Wolf Table

The inner German border after WW2 ran directly across the Gobert. The American occupied part in Hessia became part of the BRD in May 1949, while the Sovyet occupied land in Thuringia was part of the GDR since October 1949. For 40 years, this part was inaccessible for us though we lived in Eschwege in the 80ies.

View from the Wolf Table into the valley

There is a second loop of the way on the Goberg plateau on the Thuringian side, which runs directly on the Green Belt for some part. The Green Belt is the result of the former border which had been depopulated and served as refuge for rare species of fauna and flora. After the German reunion, large parts of the belt have been turned into nature parks and biosphere reserves where hiking is allowed, but no building projects and such.

View from the Wolf Table, different angle

We plan to do the second circular route as soon as the weather will allow it. For now, I'll leave you with another pretty view.
 


17.7.16
  Sieges, Decline, and Revival - The History of Conwy Castle in Wales

It turned out King Edward I would soon need his new castle at Conwy - the first of his castles in northern Wales that had been completed.

(left: King's Tower)

In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn rebelled and took Edward by surprise. The king's reaction was swift, but while his armies managed to recapture some castles Madog's allies had taken, like Criccieth and Harlech, the king himself and his entourage met with bad weather, lost their baggage train to an ambush, got cut off from the main army by a flood, and just managed to escape to Conwy castle where they stayed under siege from December 1294 to March 1295. They received some supplies from the seaside, but they might have had to do with scarce victuals. Winter storms didn't make the naval routes easier. There is an - unproven - mention in the chronicle of Walter of Guisborough that King Edward shared his private supply, the last remaining barrel of wine, with the garrison, "In hardship everything must be held in common, all of us must have exactly the same." This was likely an anecdote with no foundations in history (1). With the arrival of spring and receeding floods, the rebellion was soon crushed (battle of Maes Moydog, March 5th), though Madog ap Llywelyn escaped for a time, but was captured and imprisoned in August 1295.

Conwy Castle then saw one of its rare moments of splendour when the newly elected archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Winchelsey, was officially confirmed in his office by King Edward who still stayed at the castle (2). Those official ceremonies were very important in the Middle Ages, and one can imagine the curtain walls and the king's hall decked out with heraldic banners and garlands, the nobles wearing their finest and most colourful clothes, the tables set with an abundance of food, silver plates and gem-inlaid goblets. Less visible, a veritable army of servants must have bustled along the passageways between the halls, kitchens, and storage cellars.

Windows and a fireplace in the geat hall

The second, and last, such festive event was the investiture of King Edward I's son, Edward of Caernarfon, as Prince of Wales in April 1301. His birthplace Caernarfon Castle had been damanged during Madog's rebellion and obviously was not in a sufficient state to house the royal family. The future King Edward II was granted the royal revenues of the king's lands in Wales and received the homage of the Welsh leaders. This was to give the young prince an income of his own and the Welsh a focus of worship and service. During his reign, King Edward II would establish cordial relationships with several Welsh leaders and accepted a number of Welsh nobles in his household.

(Left: Chapel Tower)

We've seen in the first post that Conwy Castle continued to be in various stages of bad repair since the 14th century, but some parts must have been habitable when King Richard II fled there in 1399. But surely, his stay in the castle was not accompagnied by garlands and heralds, and splendid meals with the nobles of the realm, most of whom had shifted their allegiance to Henry of Bolingbroke Duke of Lancaster, the future Henry IV (3).

Richard's reign had always been unruly due to internal stife between some noble houses who used the king's minority to gain influence. When he finally came of age, Richard tried to assert his power but alienated some of the leading families by his harsh course. The relationship with France was more than a bit uneasy, too. When Richard refused to recall the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke after the death of his father - maybe fearing the rival claim of a man assisted by the Lancaster wealth (and with a son and heir, while Richard had no offspring) - it was the straw that broke the camel's back. While Richard launched an expedition to Ireland where the Anglo-Irish lords whom Richard II had forced into submission in 1395 rebelled again, Henry returned from France and soon gathered a large number of followers, among them Henry Percy Duke of Northumberland.

When King Richard II returned, he found most of the nobles allied against him. He sought refuge in Conwy Castle where he met with the Duke of Northumberland who acted as Bolingbroke's emissary on August 12, 1399. Percy swore that no harm would come to the king if he surrendered (4), an act that may have taken place in the chapel. Richard did surrender and was taken to London where he abdicated as king. He was then transfered to Pontefract castle where he died in February 1400, after a rising to restore him failed. Bolingbroke was crowned as King Henry IV in October 1399.

The range of the royal rooms

Conwy Castle remained in the focus of history. Ony a few months after Henry ascended the throne, the Welsh rose for the umptieth time, this time under Owain Glyn Dŵr. Two cousins of Owain, Rhys and Gwilym ap Twdwr, disguised themselves as carpenters and by that ruse gained entrance into the castle (March 1401). They killed the guards, opened the gate for their men and took control of the place. The rebels also managed to capture the walled town. They held out for several months before they negotiated a surrender that included a royal pardon for the leaders by King Henry IV. Yet, their capture of Conwy lent new impetus to Owain's rebellion. The townspeople, mostly of English descent, claimed a totally unrealistic damage repair that was never paid.

The upper floor of the great hall

Little is known about Conwy Castle during the War of the Roses where it never played a significant role. The next time Conwy comes into focus is during the reign of King Henry VIII when the castle and town walls were repaired in the 1520ies. The castle was used a prison and armament store. Moreover, the royal rooms in the inner bailey got an overhaul that pointed at a use as residence for a future prince of Wales. But the political focus had shifted away from the unruly border regions, and with a king of Welsh descent on the throne, big whopping castles like Conwy were no longer needed. The antiquarian William Camden reported in 1586 that the town of Conwy was but thinly inhabited.

(right: Stockhouse Tower)

King Charles I finally had enough of ruins in bad repair and sold Conwy Castle to Edward, 1st Baron of Conway and Secretary of State, in 1627. The purchase sum was £ 100 (5), but I doubt it was a snap, considering all those leaking roofs, broken floorboards, and tumbling support arches. No wonder then that his son got rid of the thing when he had the chance. Said chance came in the person of John Williams, Archbishop of York, Welsh-born and a stout royalist. Williams had parts of the castle repaired, garrisoned and provisioned out of his own pocket, though King Charles promised to refund him. The king also promised that no other officer would be set over Williams until the royal debts were repaid. That didn't work out too well because Sir John Owen, who was appointed governor of Conwy town in January 1645, definitely acted as Williams' superior and even broke into the castle to 'requisition' provisions. Enraged, Williams turned to the parlamentarians and provided them with important information about Conwy. General Thomas Mytton took the town in August 1646, but the castle withstood a siege until November when it fell as well.

Immediately after the castle came into possession of the parlamentarians, it was used as prison and artillery fortress, but the Council of State decided to slight it already in 1655. Fortunately, that was not done with much enthusiasm; the only trace of post Civil War destruction was a - now repaired - large hole in the Bakehouse Tower.

More damage did its next owner, the third Lord Conway, to whom the castle was returned by Charles II. Instead of putting money into its upkeep at a time where castle became less important als military structures and living places, he tried to get as much money out of it as possible and had all the lead roofs and ironworks removed and sold - much to the dismay of the town inhabitants, who opposed Conway's agent, William Milward, as best as they could by subterfuge and attacks, but in vain. By the end of 1660, only the magnificent stoneworks of Conwy Castle remained reasonably intact, though open to the elements.

The way to the main gate

A hundred years later, the ruins began to attract visitors and artists interested in the picturesque. The castle appears on paintings from the 1790ies to Turner's work in 1851. Some of those paintings are interesting because the show the castle from an angle of the east barbican that is now considerably changed by the bridges across the river Conwy to connect Chester and Holyhead by a coastal road: Thomas Telford's suspension bridge from 1826 and Robert Stephenson's tubular bridge from 1848 (I did not take a photo from that angle). On the other hand, the easier access by road and railway increased the touristic interest in Conwy and its castle.

Interior of the southwest tower

At some point, Conwy Castle had come to the Holland Family, who leased it from the marquesses of Hertford, descendants of the Lords of Conway. But in 1865, it passed into the care of the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses of Conwy (6). Some restoration work was done at that time, like the repair of the damaged Bakehouse Tower.

Parts of the town walls were restored as well. John Henry Parker, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, paid for the fun.

The platform outside the east barbican

As already mentioned in the first post, understanding of the Mediaeval buildings and their construction increased when Arnold J. Taylor became Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for the Ministry of Works who had taken over the guardianship of Conwy castle and town walls in 1953. He conducted extensive research in Mediaeval sources and on the buildings themselves and discovered that Master James of St.George and other masons hailed from Savoy and introduced some French elements into Edward's Welsh castles.

Conwy Castle and Town Walls are part of the World Heritage Site Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in Gwynedd since 1986, cared for by Cadw. Maintenance of the site is still expensive, amounting to about £ 30,000 per annum. The castle attracts close to 200,000 visitors every year, so it's well worth the expense.

Merlons on south west tower

Footnotes
1) Guinsborough ceased writing his chronicle in 1345 which implies that he died. He may have relied on eyewitneeses for the events in 1294, but Ashbee's guidebook states that the event is not proven, and Davis doesn't mention the detail at all. I don't think it would have been much in character for Edward I - his son would more likely have done something like that; Edward II was known for keeping the company of social inferiors.
2) I found a contradiction between Davies who said Conwy was besieged until early March, and Ashbee who mentions the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury for February 2, 1295. February does strike me as a bad time for traveling, so a date in March would make more sense. Nor does the guidebook give a source for the earlier date.
3) His father John of Gaunt was the 4th son of King Edward III; Richard II was the son of Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III. Richard had ascended to the throne still a minor in 1377.
4) The death of Richard II at Pontefract castle in February 1400 - it is said he starved to death - may or may not have been murder; that riddle will probably never been solved. But we can't say that Henry Percy of Northumberland swore false in Conwy like the guidebook does, quoting the French chronicler Jean Creton as factual evidence. Creton later was among those who said that Richard was still alive in 1402, but those stories have been discarded.
5) It is difficult to compare the value to the present day currency, but at the time one of the richest men, Henry Somerset 1st Marquess of Worchester, had an annual income of £ 20,000.
6) The guidebook unfortunately doesn't explain the legal background and implications of that transaction. Since the Holland Family had only leased the castle, once can assume they only passed on the lease. I couldn't find out when exactly the castle came into possession of the government.

Literature
Jeremy A. Ashbee. Conwy Castle and town Walls - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2007
R.R. Davies: The Age of Conquest. Wales 1063-1415, Oxford 1987, repr. 2000
 


13.6.16
  To Seal the Conquest - Building Conwy Castle in Wales

The Welsh rebellion against King Edward I had failed. Llywellyn ap Gruffud had died in December 1282, Edward had taken the main seat of the Princes of Gwynedd, Dolwyddelan Castle, in January 1283 and Aberconwy in March. Llywellyn's brother Davydd was still at large in the mountains, but that seems to have been a minor problem for King Edward who considered northern Wales conquered.

Edward liked the site of Aberconwy Abbey, overlooking the river Conwy and the sea; and there was a nice rock promontory as well, the perfect place for a castle.

Conwy Castle seen from the seaside

There had been a castle at the other side of the river: Degannwy, founded by the Normans in the 11th century and destroyed by Llywellyn ap Gruffudd in 1263, after he had starved the English garrison into surrender during his wars with King Henry III. But Edward wasn't interested in rebuilding Degannwy (of which almost nothing remains today).

King Edward had been to Aberconwy before when he concluded the treaty with Llywellyn ap Gruffudd after their first clash in 1277. He now moved the Cistercian abbey, the burial place of the princes of Gwynedd (1), a few miles up the valley, and called for his chief architect, Master James of St.George, who took a look at the rock plateau and got some ideas.

Conwy Castle seen from the town side

Digging of the rock cut ditch around the future castle began a few days after Edward's decision. Try to get any craftsmen or labourers that fast today, lol. And without filling in any forms to boot.

Conwy Castle was planned in connection with an - equally fortified - town, and a stockade surrounding the site is mentioned as early as May 1283. Significant parts of the town fortifications which were soon constructed in stone, remain today (2).

The west barbican with its flanking towers

The work at first concentrated on the castle's outer defenses. Responsibility fell to Master George of St.James and Sir John de Bonvillars. Other men involved in the construction were the master carpenter Henry of Oxford and the engineer Richard of Chester. There are the names of further master masons and engineers in the accounts, some of them hailing form Savoy like George. But the main workforce were labourers from England and Wales, often conscripted. At the height of the construction work, some 1,500 men were busy there.

By November 1284 the towers and curtain walls were finished and a garrison of 30 men was put into the castle (probably living in tents or huts). £ 5,800 had been spent on the fun so far.

During the next two years the interior buildings, inlcuding the great hall, the chambers for the king and queen, and two chapels, were constructed. The castle was completed in 1287. Unfortunately, the work of these years is less well documented than the phase of 1283-84.

The town walls were also finished about that time. The totals cost of castle and town walls amounted to £ 15,000 (3).

Remains of the great hall in the outer ward

But albeit finished, Conwy Castle shared the fate with Beaumaris and already showed signs of decline in 1321. The roofs leaked and timbers had rotted, not to mention the garrison was poorly equipped, lacking bowstrings and working crossbows, and the stored grain was rotten. In fact, by the 1330ies, all of the king's northern Welsh castles were in such a bad state that King Edward III could not have been housed properly should he have decided to visit the country.

The combination of timber supports and lead roofs turned out to be a big problem. The chamberlain of the Black Prince who had been given the royal possession in Wales, Sir John of Weston, added eight stone arches in the great hall to support the roof in 1346. One of these still remains.

Remains of the chapel adjacent the great hall

But the castle was neglected again in the later 14th century. Yet there must have been some habitable rooms when King Richard II fled to Conwy in August 1399; and the castle was taken by some cousins of Owin Glyn Dŵr in 1401, though they surrendered it to the English a few months later (4).

Like Beaumaris, Conwy Castle played a small role in the Civil War. Conwy-born John Williams, archbishop of York, held the castle for King Charles. He paid for repairs as well as provisioning the garrison. But he had a falling-out with the governor Sir John Owen and went over to the parlamentarians. Nevertheless, Conwy was one of the last three castles in England and Wales to be taken by the parlamentarians. It was then partly dismantled; the - now repaired - damage of the Bakehouse Tower dates to the 1650ies. A few years later, all the lead was taken down to be reused.

View from the outer ward to the west barbican

We can thank Arnold J. Taylor, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, for the conservation of what remains of Conwy Castle and the town walls today, and that is still an impressive lot. The castle had come to the Ministry of Work's guardianship in 1953. Taylor researched the construction and Mediaeval documents, and it was he who found out about Master George of St.James' connection with Savoy which explains some unusual features of the Edwardian castles in Wales. He was also instrumental in removing some latter additions to the town walls.

Conwy Castle and town walls are part of the Unesco World Heritage since 1986 and are now cared for by Cadw. Let's have a look at the place.

View from the southhwest tower across the outer ward to the inner bailey

The castle is basically rectangular in shape, with an outward bent to the south, following the outline of the rock outcrop. It consists of an outer ward with a great hall, a middle ward with a well, and the inner bailey which houses the lodgings of the king and his family. The curtain walls and the eight towers (about 20 metres high) rise directly out of the cliff, except for the town side where an additional dry ditch protects the castle. To the west (the town side) and the east barbicans offer additional protection.

The stones are mostly local sandstone of a grey variant, and red sandstone from Chester and the Wirral in places where carved details were needed. Originally, the castle walls were whitewashed and maybe decorated with heraldic devices in form of hangings and banners when the king was present. It must have been a stunning view in the sunshine, less austere than the grey walls on a dreary day like on my photos.

The outer ward

Originally, the main gate in the western barbican was reached by a drawbridge across the dry ditch, but today there is a way leading up from the town (after you paid your dime in the Visitor's Centre). The gate would have been further protected by a portcullis. Compared to the line of defenses in Beaumaris Castle, the entrance into Conwy Castle was easier, but only from the town side which was additionally protected by the town walls. The barbican consists of two big towers and a middle part with murder holes or machiolations and merlons for archers. The two-storeyed towers (with additional basements for storage) held rooms with fireplaces and latrines; they were likely used by the garrison or the castle's constable.

The gate leads into the outer ward. On the south side lies the great hall with a chapel. The foundations on the right side belonged to a kitchen with a brewhouse and bakehouse.

The great hall seen from the direction facing the barbican

The great hall and chapel are on courtyard level. The cellars below which had been dug into the bedrock are now open to the view. The hall was lit by windows in the curtain wall and three more elaborate ones facing the yard. The range was partitioned by wooden screens into the chapel, the hall and a smaller room with its own fireplace. The great hall was used for banquets but also official hearings and other state displays. Though the English kings did not stay in Conwy Castle often.

One can still see the projecting stubs of masonry where Henry of Snelston, master mason of the Black Prince, added the stone arches (made from Wirral sandstone) in 1346, to support the roof after the timber supports had rotten away.

View towards the Prison Tower (to the right; the one without a turret)), Kitchen Tower (left), across the middle ward to the royal appartments and towers in the background (right to left: Bakehouse Tower, King's Tower, Chapel Tower, Stockhouse Tower)

There is a direct connection from the great hall to the dungeons in the tower known as Prison Tower. The tower has a room known as 'dettors chambre' in the 16th century, for prisoners who were allowed some measure of comfort like a wooden bed. Below is a true dungeon, an oubliette that goes 12 feet deep into the bedrock and could only be reached by a trap door.

The Kitchen Tower on the opposite side of the outer ward contained store rooms and accomodation for the staff.

Middle Ward with the well

The inner bailey was separated by a curtain wall with a gate, running from Bakehouse Tower to Stockhouse Tower, and a dry ditch in the bedrock that could be crossed by a drawbridge. The bridge still existed in 1520, when one Dafydd ap Tudur Llwyd got paid for "makyng anewe brigge to entre into the ynder warde", but the ditch was filled in in the 1530ies. Nothing remains of the guard house at the gate.

The well is located in front of the ditch. It is 28 metres deep and fed by a spring. It once had been covered by a shingled roof on timber pillars. The well with its clean water was one of the few positive features of Conwy mentioned in a survey prior to the Civil War.

A view of the maze of the royal chambers

Conwy has the best preserved royal chambers in England and Wales. But some odd pathways and stairs that connect the rooms with those in the adjacent towers make it clear that the cahmbers were added after the outer walls and towers had been built, and were not planned thoroughly from the beginning. Master George was just too busy with all those castles, it seems. The royal appartments were like a palace that could be sealed off the rest of the castle and supplied from the eastern gate, which was protected by a second barbican, or the Water Gate beneath the Chapel Tower.

The rooms for the royal family and their immediate staff were at first floor level on both sides of a courtyard. The eastern range consisted of one large room, the southern one was divided into two chambers. The ground level held a kitchen in the south range and a cellar in the east site. Originally, both parts had a separate entrance; the eastern room was known as King's Great Chamber, the southern ones as King's Chamber and Queen's Chamber (5). But during the Tudor times, the rooms could only be reached by the east entrance and were known as great chamber, outer chamber and privy chamber.

Like in the great hall in the outer ward, the timber roof supports in the King's Great Chamber were replaced by stone arches in 1346. The windows facing the yard were unusually large for the time the castle was built; likely a Savoyard feature.

Window with seat in the King's Chamber

The Chapel Tower includes a second chapel for the private use of the royal family. The King's Tower with its four storeys housed the accomodation for the most important officers of the king's household like the treasurer and steward, not the king himself.

The Stockhouse Tower which is not connected to the royal chambers, held another prison (complete with chains at the wall) and probably more storage rooms. With so much place for storage one wonders why the garrison had to share one bowstring among them in 1321, lol. The Bakehouse Tower got its name due to the great oven built into one of its walls.

Each tower has an additional watchtower turret (the feature is missing in the unfinished Beaumaris Castle). Putlog holes in the walls point at the possibility of outward facing battlements, or brattices.

The east barbican

Behind the east range of the royal appartments is another barbican. It seems to have served not only as defense structure but also as garden overlooked by the king's and queen's chamber. There also was a water gate connecting to the Chapel Tower by a winding staircase down the bedrock which allowed to supply the castle by the sea, but that gate no longer exists.

The curtain wall of the barbican has a well preseved set of machiolations, or murder holes which you can see in the photo.

Kitchen Tower (left) and Stockhouse Tower seen from the western barbican

Footnotes
1) Moving the burial site was a humiliation for the Princes of Gwynedd as much as a strategical decision.
2) The town walls will get their own post.
3) The Conwy Guidebook gives the modern equivalent for the money: £ 5,800 would be £ 15-18 million today; £ 15,000 about £ 45 million. Less than the Berlin Airport and with a better result.
4) I'll leave the history of Conwy Castle to another post.
5) Though Queen Eleanor of Castile, Edward's wife, visited Conwy only once prior to the building of the royal appartments.

More about the castle history can be found here.

Literature
Jeremy A. Ashbee. Conwy Castle and Town Walls - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2007
 


29.5.16
  Unifinshed Perfection - The Architecture of Beaumaris Castle

When work on Beaumaris Castle was finally abandoned in 1330, the curtain walls had been completed and all towers raised to battlement level at least. The inner towers were supposed to have an additional storey and should have been crowned by turrets the way you can see in Caernarfon and Conwy, but that was never done. The harbour was dug out as well as part of the moat. The southern barbican had been completed (but not the gate house). The northern gate house was completed to the first floor, and some of the interior buildings, including the chapel, may have been finished, too, though little remains of them today.

Beaumaris Castle, both curtain walls seen from the moat

But when William de Emeldon, chancellor of the exchequer of Ireland surveyed several Welsh castles after Edward the Black Prince was invested as Prince of Wales in 1343, things didn't look too good in Beaumaris. The chamber above the sea gate was dilapidated, roofs were lacking in several towers and the chambers below therefore ruinous, the chapel tower needed to be completed, the kitchen was unuseable, parts of the battlement had fallen down, and the southern gate house was in bad repair; the twin towers flanking the northern gate house needed their staircases to be completed. William estimated the most important repairs to cost £ 685. We don't know if any of the suggested repairs had been undertaken.

Remains of the harbour

Minor repairs went on, and the castle was garrisoned in 1389 (towards the end of the second phase of the Hundred Years War) and again in 1403 during the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dŵr. But no substantial renovation was done, and and the castle constable Roland de Velville reported that there was scarcely a chamber in Beaumaris where a man could lie dry in 1534. Five years later, the new constable, Richard Bulkeley, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Henry VIII, that Beaumaris was "ruynous and ferre in decay", and badly equipped with arms to boot. Since relations between England and Scotland - ruled by the Catholic James V - were more than a bit unruly at the time, Henry VIII feared a Scottish invasion via Wales. Bulkeley bought gunpowder, bows and arrows, sallet helmets and brigandines for the garrison at his own costs.

View through the south gate

In 1609, the castle was "utterlie decayed". Later, another of those poor Bulkeleys who got stuck with Beaumaris, Viscount Thomas, paid £ 3,000 out of his pocket to repair the castle in service of King Charles I (see also the first post) in 1642. During the time the castle was held by Cromwell's men under Colonel John Jones after its surrender, two men of the garrison were imprisoned for "stealing ye leads of ye castle".

Lead was expensive. The lead roofs were officially dismantled in Beaumaris and Conwy in during the Restoration in 1660. What existed in the way of inner buildings was taken down in during time as well (the stones were probably used ot build Beaumaris Gaol in 1829); the rest got grown over by ivy.

View towards the north gate

The 19th century saw a rise in interest for picturesque ruins, and ivy-clad Beaumaris with its formidable towers attracted the first tourists. It was the location for a 'Royal Eistedfodd', a meeting of poets and singers, in 1832. Among the visitors were Victoria duchess of Kent and her daughter Princess Victoria - the future queen.

The Bulkeley family was connected with Beaumaris Castle since 1440 and held the office as constables without interruption since the Civil War. The sixth Lord Bulkeley bought the ruins from the Crown in 1807, but his successor Sir Richard Williams-Bulkeley gave the castle to the Commissoners of Works in 1925. Repairing those dang roofs turned out to be too expensive. *wink*

View into the inner bailey

The Commissioners of Works got rid of the pretty but ultimately wall damaging ivy and carried out repairs and restoration neccesary to prevent further decline. They also dug out part of the moat which had filled with silt and refilled it with water - half of the castle is thus surrounded by it again. Makes for some really nice photos. :-)

Beaumaris was declared part of the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd World Heritage site in 1986. Beaumaris Castle is today managed by Cadw, the Welsh Assembly Government's agency for historic monuments.

A model of the castle

The drawing above shows Beaumaris Castle as it should have looked when finished. You can see the almost perfect symmetry of the double curtain walls with their towers set up in regular intervals, and the double D-shaped south gate and north gate. The only feature that stands out is the sea gate (left of the south gate). The walls and towers, as well as the gates, remain today, albeit some of them are lacking their upper storeys. The buildings in the inner bailey have mostly disappeared except for some foundations, as did the part of the south gatehouse that should have housed living quarters - the north gatehouse is in better shape (though lacking the second floor). All wooden structures, including the floors, decayed long ago.

The passage between sea gate and barbican

The material used are limestone (a smooth grey variant and a more common brown laminated stone), grey sandstone and green schists, all quarried locally on Anglesey. The distribution of the various stones in the wall is random, contrary to Caernarfon where the horizontal lines of red sandstone are clearly set to form decorative bands. The praecambrian green schist has only been used during the first building phase until 1298 and can be found in the walls up to 20 feet heigth. None of the stones are suitable for intricate carvings, which adds to the sturdy impression of Beaumaris - no fancy archs and elaborate window transoms.

Remains of the south gatehouse with the foundations of the staircase turrets

It was not easy to get into the castle if you couldn't provide an inviation letter. :-) The way through the sea gate, barbican and south gate involved a drawbrige and a series of no less than fifteen doors or portcullises. And in between those were murder holes and arrow slits through which all sort of upleasant things could be thrown or shot.

The D-shaped double towers of the south gate are but lacking their upper storey, but the building attached to it that would have faced the inner bailey has never progressed even to the level of the - also unfinished - northern gatehouse. The staircase turrets exist only in foundations, and the first storey apparently was never roofed in when work ceased in 1330. No wonder that the biggest post of repair costs on William de Emeldon's list was the southern gatehouse.

Remains of the barbican adjacent to the south gatehouse

Beaumaris was not only a formidable defense structure but also designed as royal residence, either for Edward I and maybe a future queen (his wife Eleanor of Castile had died in 1290), or his son Edward II, the Prince of Wales - who might have liked to help with the thatching of those roofs and digging out the moat - and his household But King Edward I visited the castle but once, in July 1296. Some temporary wooden housing had been set up for the king then; since the main work concentrated on the defense structures. I don't know if Edward II ever stayed at Beaumaris, maybe Kathryn can enlighten me.

Fireplaces in the inner wall

The gate houses were clearly intended to be grand structures with large inward facing windows and halls and chambers befitting a king. Several of the buildings along the inner curtain wall may have been completed and later fallen into decay. Some fireplaces and door frames can still be seen, as well as holes in the wall to support floor beams, and bits of wall plaster.

Besides the royal appartments, a great hall, and the kitchen, there would also have been lodgings for the constable and his household and maybe the local sheriff as well (if he didn't reside in Llanfaer), and those must have been habitable at the time when the castle was garrisoned

Remains of buildings along the inner curtain wall

The garrison would likely have lived in the towers of the inner curtain wall where several chambers were habitable during the time the castle was used, though originally barracks may have been planned, perhaps even in the outer ward. Some arched lintels that once supported a floor can still be seen. The towers were intended to be three storeys high, but the uppermost one was never finished. The tower halfway along the eastern inner curtain wall houses a little chapel that has been restored, but it was closed when I visited the place.

The interior of the north-east inner tower seen from an upper storey

I posted a photo of the inner passageways in my first post about Beaumaris. They would have run through the entire inner curtain walls at first floor level, and a significant part of them is still intact. Those passageways connected the various buildings and towers with their guardrooms, sleeping chambers and other rooms along the wall, and also held a set of 16 latrines which emptied into the moat by a system of drains. Yuck. The drains already needed mending in 1306.

Those passageways also still exist in Caernarfon and in Pembroke. The ones in Pembroke Castle are much lower than those in the Edwardian castles in northern Wales. He got his nickname 'Longshanks' for a reason.

The outer ward, with the outer curtain wall and the remains of battlements to the left

While the inner bailey was the place for accomodation, the outer ward was a defense structure. You didn't want to get caught between both sets of curtain walls and the twelve outer and six inner towers plus the inner gate towers. Arrowslits would allow a defense against outside besiegers, though some of them have been blocked, probably during the Civil War (when bows were mostly replaced by guns). The corbelled tables that supported the wooden battlements are still intact in part, though the upper crennellations are mostly gone.

Stairs leading to the battlements of the outer wall

Like the sea gate next to the southern gatehouse, there was another gate next to the northern gatehouse, the Llanfaes Gate. It was used during the time when the north gate had been blocked because its doors and portcullises were not yet working (they never did, it seems), but the Llanfaes Gate remained unfinished as well; their towers never got the outward looking D-shape outlined in the foundations. Today, the moat ends at Llanfaes Gate.

View from Beaumaris Castle across Conwy Bay to the mainland


Literature
Arnold Taylor: Beaumaris Castle - Cadw Guidebook, Cardiff 2004
 


The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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