In September 1315, thieves in north Wales attacked Alexander le Convers and robbed him. As medieval robberies go this was a major heist as the thieves with 1,000 marks (£660) a massive sum of the time. Le Convers and his money was destined for Holyhead and then Ireland to fund increasingly bankrupt Anglo-Norman Colony in Ireland. This robbery served to underscore how fragile and dangerous the crucial communication corridor of North Wales which connected medieval Norman colony in Ireland to the king and kingdom of England.
A few weeks ago, I travelled through the North of Wales along this corridor to see some of the sites of what was the umbilical cord of Norman Ireland. Arriving in the port of Holyhead, I was reminded of another dramatic tale in this regions intertwined history with Ireland. In 1315, as a Scots army invaded Ireland, the Scottish sea captain and sometime pirate Thomas Dun raided this port hoping to stop any aid coming to Ireland. Today everything has changed, there’s little remaining of medieval Holyhead, although given my experience the town’s food emporia haven’t changed much.
However I hadn’t come all the way to north Wales to reminisce about long dead Scottish pirates and eat dodgy fish and chips. I was bound for the small town Conwy which in late medieval period was a crucial stop off point for travellers like Alexander le Convers bound for Holyhead so boarding a train I took a forty minute ride across North Wales.
As the train neared Conwy, its became really obvious easy it must have been for Vivian de Standon, the man accused of the robbery of Le Convers in this terrain. While the robbery itself took place the far side of Conwy at a town called Denbigh, north Wales is hilly terrain not unlike parts of the Wicklow mountains. Its little surprise that the medieval kings of England struggled to keep this corridor open in through the late middle ages. Thieves and brigands aside Welsh rebels also made life increasingly difficult.
To combat rebels and indeed to a lesser extent outlaws the English king Edward I built my destination – Conwy castle. One of a string of castle’s that Edward built along the North Coast of Wales, Conwy is one the most impressive I think probably the most impressive medieval fortifaction I’ve seen in northwestern Europe. This was no doubt a haven for medieval travellers. Indeed had Alexander le Convers not been robbed in Denbigh in September 1315, he would have found temporary safety at least behind its walls the following day given he was robbed scarcely 20 miles from its walls. Completed in 1287, the castle along withs walled town were one of the most heavily defended places on the route to Holyhead.
For Royal officials who stayed within the castle walls, they would have found that most rare of commodities for the medieval traveller carrying over £600 in the 14th century – peace of mind. While the town is heavily fortified, the word impregnable springs to mind when you first see the castle which dominates the landscape in all directions.
Even over seven hundred years after its construction the key ideas of the original architects is plainly obvious. Started in 1283 the massive complex with huge walls, the solid rock foundations and the heavily defended gates all illustrate it was defence rather than austentation was the primary concern. Scaling these walls would have been nigh on impossible while tunnelling underneath, a common tactic in seige warfare was impossible due to solid rock foundations.
The entrance into Conwy castle is a formidable structure. Standing dozens of metres off the ground, it was accessed by an unprotected ramp, the stump of which is seen on the left below. Walking up this exposed ramp, any visitor was open to fire from the castle towering above them. Reaching the top of the ramp the final few steps were taken across a retractable drawbridge to an arch between the towers on the right.
Once inside this initial gate you enter an outer barbican, over looked by two enormous towers. While surveillance culture is a modern concept the arrowloops, towers and wall-walks that overlook this courtyard, even today gives you a sense of being watched. Forcible entray into this castle appears impossible. It came as little surprise to read that when the one time it was captured, in 1401 by soldiers loyal to the rebel Welsh Prince Owain Glyn Dŵr, it this is believed subterfuge rather force was used. (Below is the outer barbican from the tower above. In the center background is the outer draw bridge and ramp to the right is entrance into the castle proper)
Once inside the main gate a large courtyard opens in front of the visitor. While the most spacious aspect of the castle the four towers and walls that loom over you at all times again highlight that even once inside the castle this area could be a killing ground to unwelcome visitors. Defence was never to the fore front of the designers plan.
The most impressive feature in this court yard is massive remains of the great hall which run long the south wall. As Conwy was a royal castle and potentially a residence of the king, this was a prerequisite for such a castle.
Originally built on two levels with a store in the basement, this great hall hosted very few monarchs. Edward I stayed once, as did his son, Edward of Caernarfon the future King Edward II. The only other monarch to stay was Richard II in 1399. The most famous royal connected with Conwy was the famed Black Prince, a son of Edward III. Supposedly the ideal of chivalry, that is when he wasn’t massacring the inhabitants of French towns in the 100 years war, the Black Prince oversaw restorations of the great hall. This saw a timber roof replaced with massive sandstone arches one of which stands majestically over the remains of the hall to this day.
Towards the back of the outer courtyard you approach yet another impressive defensive works – the access to the inner bailey. Separated by a curtain wall the inner bailey is accessed through a small gate. The approach is very narrow forcing your to walk around a 90 foot well and then cross what would once have been a drawbridge.
It worked like this
While this is impressive it left me wondering why they would build a well outside the defenses of the inner bailey. Surely if the attackers successfully seized the outer bailey and the defenders retreated to Inner yard they lost control of the water supply?
The inner bailey
The inner bailey is a far more claustrophobic area of the castle. At times its almost warren-like, but most interesting to the visitor with its numerous royal apartments, towers and defensive features all interlinked by a series of passages and staircases.
Towering above Conwy castle are six massive towers. These were not just defensive building or illustrations of power, although they command a striking presence and no doubt were a welcome sight in the distance for travelers. This is the view from atop the Kings tower.
They also contained some of the castles crucial chambers. The two that intrigued me most of all were the prison tower and the kitchen tower. The prison tower at Conwy has to be one of the grimmest things I have ever seen. The chamber was contained in the base of a tower. Accessed from the floor above the circular chamber had no windows. Ironically it is now home to this piece of nationalistic Welsh art.
The kitchen chamber was also a very interesting in terms of design. This oven was built into the walls something that took careful planning and consideration as the chimney had to wind its way through the walls above.
Leaving the castle complex itself before I walked back toward the train station you are left with a distinct impression of Conwy castle’s complex story.While it was a welcome sight to the like of a travel like Alexander le Convers, for many others it represented quite the opposite. This formidable fortifaction was built by Edward I, a particularly brutal English king who fought wars of conquest in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. At the heart of this was Conwy – not only an integral of the story of the English conquest and subjugation of the Welsh but also a crucial part of a similar story in Ireland. A fascinating place.