Harlech

Reconstruction_of_Harlech_Castle

Reconstruction of the castle in the early 14th century, seen from the sea.

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Gatehouses The King’s gate at Caernarfon is one of the most powerful of gatehouses, begun in 1283. In front of the entrance is a turning bridge; the front end rose up into a recess while the rear dropped into a pit behind. The passage was heavily defended: if the gatehouse had been completed it would have had no less than five wooden doors and six portsculli along its length. Evidence in the existing walls suggests that the never-completed rear section made the passage turn at right-angles, thence over a second drawbridge before arriving in the lower ward.

In order to enter the great gatehouse at Harlech, the visitor was required to pass the outer gatehouse with its twin turrets and turning bridge, the pit into which it dropped forming an additional obstacle. Then followed the main gate passage, arched throughout its length and flanked by huge towers. The first obstacle was a two-leaved door closed by a drawbar running into a slot in the wall thickness. There followed two portsculli, behind which was another door with drawbar. Further down the passage was a third portcullis, with possibly yet another set of doors in front. The room directly over the gate passage was a chapel flanked either side by a vestry but it also received the two forward portsculli when raised; the third came up into the larger of the two rear rooms. The fact that this floor housed the winches for operating the portsculli suggests it was used by the constable. Above was another floor, a residential suite laid out the same way and presumably designed for the king or some persons of rank. The rear of each tower was provided with a stair turret and, additionally, a door on the first floor at the rear led on to a platform and thence to an external stair to ground level, allowing access when all the gates were shut.

Master James of St George probably designed the splendid triple-towered gatehouse at Denbigh; once past the twin towers at the front, a vaulted hall was entered (with a chamber on the floor above). The rear tower blocked further egress, forcing a right turn into the ward.

On the estuary of the River Dwyryd, on the site of a former Welsh fort, built by Master James of St George for Edward I, 1283–90, costing £9,500. The sea was closer then to the castle. It had a concentric plan with a wide moat on two sides. A massive twintowered gatehouse faces east. The inner curtain has round corner towers. The curtain to the narrow outer bailey is low, dominated by the inner bailey. Master James became constable of Harlech 1290–3. It was besieged by Welsh rebels in 1294 but relieved. Repairs were made in the 14th century. Harlech was besieged and taken in  1404 by Owen Glendower with French allies, to become his base, and recovered by Lord Talbot in 1408. In the Wars of the Roses Harlech was taken over in 1468 by Dafydd ap Ieuan, whose men were the original ‘Men of Harlech’. The castle was besieged and taken by Yorkists under the Earl of Pembroke. It was held for the royalists in the English Civil War.

In the late thirteenth century, King Edward I of England built a sequence of castles from Caernarfon to Conwy to Harlech to secure his conquests in the north of the principality of Wales. In so far as the inhabitants of the country were the direct descendants of the British population of Rome’s province of Britannia and the last unconquered region of the empire north of the Alps, it has been said that Edward’s victories there represented the final fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

The financial outlay on these “Edwardian” castles was huge (in the 1970s it was calculated that each fortress cost in modern terms the equivalent of a Concorde supersonic airliner) not least because the most up-to-date principles and techniques of fortification were used. The strength of these places was to be demonstrated years later when in 1404 the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr laid siege to Harlech. For weeks the place was held by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welshmen—when the castellan made overtures to surrender, the garrison locked him up. In fact, the great castle fell not to assault by its Welsh attackers but because, in the end, the skeleton force defending it decided to accept terms and were bought out. Some sixty years later, it was once more in rebel hands, holding for the House of Lancaster when, in 1461, Edward of York became king as Edward IV. These “Men of Harlech” held out for seven years, harrying the neighboring countryside until in August 1468, after a protracted siege, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, finally recovered the place for Edward. An indication of the effort involved and the obvious strength of the fortress is found in the Public Record Office, where the accounts show some £5,000 paid to the earl for his expenses.