The Norman castles and fortifications of North Wales are one of the area’s major tourist attractions. And rightly so: the buildings are majestic and offer spectacular views of the Welsh countryside. But why were all these walled towns and fortifications necessary in the first place? And what can you see when you get there?
History of the Fortifications of North Wales
These castles and walled towns date back to the end of the 13th century. At this time King Edward I of England started to colonise Wales, following a series of invasions and skirmishes with Welsh princes. This led him to create permanent settlements in strategic locations.
Over time the new towns became important administrative centres. They were protected by castles and enclosed by strong walls. The residents were all English settlers; the original Welsh inhabitants were banned from the towns and forced to live elsewhere. Not surprisingly, this caused resentment, and there were frequent attacks from the Welsh.
Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd
The building of the new castles was a costly project and in fact some of them were never completed. And they were not entirely impregnable. Over the centuries the walled towns were attacked and besieged, and by the 20th century many were in ruins.
Attempts were made to preserve them from further decline and in 1986 the “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This included the fortresses and town walls of Conwy and Caernarfon, and the castles of Harlech and Beaumaris. UNESCO described the fortifications as the “finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”.
The grandeur of the buildings is attributable to Edward I. He based their design on Norman castles that he had seen in Europe (he also remodelled the Tower of London along the same lines). Of the four sites included in the UNESCO inscription, Caernarfon and Conwy are particularly attractive to visitors, with splendid castles as well as extensive town walls to walk around.
The Walled Town of Denbigh
Denbigh Castle and town walls were also the work of Edward I. They are not part of the World Heritage Site, possibly because the castle is small and the walls are incomplete. However it is fun to explore. You enter the walls through a locked gate (you have to borrow a key from the Castle Visitor Centre). If you are lucky – as we were – this can mean that you get the walls entirely to yourself. It was a short but pleasant walk with spring flowers and birdsong, and wonderful views across the Clwydian Hills.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like to patrol these walls in the Middle Ages. It is rather more peaceful now!