The castles seem to spring up from the Welsh soil as easily and strongly as the green grass does after the generous autumn rain. Amidst the distant echoes of cries – both fierce and disconsolate – uttered in different languages, more than 400 stone giants whisper stories of blood, fire and steel to the traveller entering Wales.
Fortresses that constitute a historical legacy that has survived the violent passage of Norman lords, Welsh princes and English monarchs, merging, in some cases, with a Mother Nature who, covering them with ivy and bushes, tenderly claims them as her daughters, knowing the hardships they have suffered at the hands of man.
Travelling in Wales becomes a complete master class on the different types of European medieval defensive constructions.
Origin of Welsh castles: Cardiff Castle
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror, the first King of England of Norman origin, ceded rich lands to his allies. To protect their new estates near rivers and coastal ports, they built the first castles in Wales, using sand and wood from the surrounding natural environment.
The first major fortress erected at this time overlooks the centre of Cardiff, the capital city and main welcome point for travellers in Wales.
Cardiff Castle was built at the end of the 11th century on the orders of the Norman Robert Fitzhamon, Lord of Gloucester and Glamorgan. However, the defensive history of the place chosen to erect this Viking bastion goes back to the times of the Roman occupation. Nero’s legions established a large wooden fort here in the second half of the first century.
Over the centuries, the De Clare, Despenser, Beauchamp, Neville, Tudor, Herbert and Windsor dynasties added structures – both defensive and beautiful lordly rooms – to the main body of the castle. Finally, between 1776 and 1947, the Butes – a family that is credited with making Cardiff one of the most important coal exporting ports in the world – transformed the castle into the Gothic fantasy that visitors can appreciate today.
The Stone Castle era: Caerphilly Castle
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Sand and wood proved insufficient to contain large-scale attacks and, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the military architects who advised the various lords of Wales set their sights on the stone in the mountains.
Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire was the first stone castle in Wales. More than twenty followed, but none as grand as Caerphilly, the first castle in the UK to use a defensive system of concentric walls and moats. Its enormity impacts the traveler from a distance.
Caerphilly was raised in South Wales by Gilbert ‘The Red’ de Clare, a brave warrior and Norman lord, with red hair and a glowing heart. Also of indomitable spirit was the enemy from whom he wanted to protect himself: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native king of Wales as an independent country.
Llywelyn ‘The Last’, as he would later be called, controlled much of central and north Wales, setting his sights on the south. The powerful walls of Caerphilly were erected between 1268 and 1271, repelling Llywelyn’s attacks. Today, they are worn out and colonized by a grass that gives them an archaic and tired look.
Edward I, by denying Gilbert of Clare the military support requested on five occasions, stripped the Norman lord of his possessions, and Caerphilly Castle – the second largest in the United Kingdom, only surpassed by Windsor – would become of little military relevance from 1283, when the English monarch had already finished with Llywelyn.
The Iron Ring of Edward I: Harlech Castle
This was not the case with the four castles that Edward I’s military architect, James of St. George, designed around the mountains of Snowdonia, the natural and spiritual heart of old Wales, to secure the lands conquered by their king at the end of the 13th century. Conwy, Beaumaris and Caernarfon are the sister fortresses of Harlech Castle.
To visit Harlech, the traveller leaves Caerphilly to the north on roads that pass by the serene waters of the lakes that are sandwiched between the green-covered mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park.
Ruggier, however, were the waters of the Irish Sea that struck the base of the cliff on which the great Harlech mass stands. Seven centuries later, the sea has receded and that military work in which more than a thousand craftsmen worked appears isolated, like a stone ship that has run aground in a parallel world to which it no longer belongs.
The outer walls of Harlech Castle appear thin and weak when compared to the massive walls of the inner circle. Its main door, practically impregnable, looks to the east, the only place from which a large army could approach. Today, only disorganized formations of tame sheep graze the grass on the slopes, but Harlech experienced frantic military activity and suffered long sieges, including the longest in the history of the British Isles.
It occurred during the War of the Roses, a contest that pitted the houses of Lancaster and York against each other for the English throne. Between 1461 and 1468, a handful of men from the Lancaster army resisted the siege, thanks to a secret staircase that connected the fortress to the sea, allowing it to be resupplied by that route. Finally, that’s where the last Lancaster stronghold fell.
From the top of the circular towers of Harlech, you can see, far to the north, the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park. In the winter of 1953, a New Zealand mountaineer and a Nepalese sherpa were training hard on their slopes. On May 29, 1953, they were the first men to crown the largest and most impregnable stone castle in the world: Everest. No fire, no swords. Far from the echo of the battle, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became heroes.
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