Castle hopping in Wales

Edward I (1272 to 1307), King of England, was a hard man – vain, intolerant and short-tempered. Nonetheless, a fearless leader in peace and war, with boundless energy and vision.More than 700 years ago, Edward I and his armies hammered the Welsh into final submission, tore away the last shreds of their freedom and made plans to subjugate them forever. However, the Welsh are having the last laugh – all the way to the bank – as they cash-in on tourists coming to view Edward’s legacy, the Castles of Wales.Since the days of the Romans, the Welsh had battled all-comers in a tenacious struggle for freedom. Then, in December 1282, Edward’s forces killed the Welsh leader Llywelyn, a self-styled Prince of Wales, and the centuries-old Welsh cause for independence collapsed.

This tiny, beautiful country on the southwestern side of Great Britain is the birthplace of many fascinating myths and legends, and was for centuries a prickly thorn in the side of whoever happened to be ruling England.

No great rivers or mountain separate England and Wales. A ditch here, maybe a stone fence there, that is all. The Normans built fortified castles and strongholds along the bder but that didn’t stop the Welsh from raiding and pillaging English villages. The solution – conquer the entire country, a feat that took over 200 years to accomplish.

Edward knew the Welsh well – that from their mountains and valleys a new leader would soon sally forth to continue battle. He took no chances, developing a castle-building program covering the entire country.

No wonder there are more castles per square mile in Wales than any other country in the world. Fourteen were built in Edward’s reign, massive bulwarks of defence. Aberystwyth, Builth, Flint, Ruthin, Caergwrie and Rhuddlan were constructed in 1277; Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy were begun in 1283; Denbigh, Hawarden, Holt and Chirk erected a year later while Beaumaris was under construction in 1295. To complete the lineup Dolwyddelan, Criccieth and Castell y Bere were repaired and rebuilt starting in 1283.

Combined with the castles of the Norman nobles, such as Pembroke and Cardiff, the unhappy Welsh were shackled and surrounded by a wall of spears, swords and often oppressive English overlords.

It has taken time, but the Welsh are winning back their unquenchable identity. The language is gaining in popularity, particularly in the north, and local BBC radio carries a variety of Welsh-language programs. As you cross the border with England, the road signs are in both English and Welsh; with the English on top. As you drive further into Wales, Welsh gets top billing.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular Welsh castles. It’s impossible to list them all here – but the following is a sampling of the most interesting.

CAERNARFON: Many regard this fortress-palace as the finest in Britain. Edward I built it as the centre and seat of his government in North Wales. It’s the most popular on the tourist trail, attracting more than 200,000 visitors last year.

On July 1, 1969, the Queen invested her oldest son as the 21st Prince of Wales in a colorful ceremony televised around the world. Several exhibits in the castle recall this historic event.

There were princes in Wales long before there were English kings – even before Edward I’s ancestors crossed the sea from Normandy. The first English Prince of Wales was Edward, son of Edward I and Queen Eleanor of Castile. He was born at Caernarfon on April 25, 1284. A few days later the royal baby was proclaimed Prince of Wales – Edward had in fact carried out his promise to the Welsh “to appoint a prince who was a native of their own country, and whose native tongue was neither French nor English.”

Caernarfon is a magnificent place to visit, to wander along the battlements and through the medieval towers. Everything is wide open to view. Off in a corner, in one of the towers, is the inspiring Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, a historic regiment raised in 1689. On display are mementos of the regiment’s many battles – honors from Namur in 1695 to Burma in 1945, including a marvellous display of the 14 Victoria Crosses won by soldiers of the regiment, from the Crimea in 1854 to France in 1918.

CONWY: Similar in layout and design to Caernarfon, Conwy Castle is a splendid sight – a picturesque walled town dominated by the towers and battlements of this famous castle. Conwy is the second-most popular stop on the visitation list. The 22 towers and three original gateways take hours to explore, and make for an enjoyable way to spend a day. Don’t miss the great hall which measures 125 feet in length – some dinner party!

CARDIFF: A sprawling edifice ranked third in the 1995 popularity poll, located in the middle of Cardiff, Wales’ busy capital – undaunted by the rush of noisy traffic and surrounding office buildings and hotels. Cardiff stands on a site where the Romans built a fortification supposedly to subdue the unruly natives.

After the Norman invasion of 1066, a small fort was built on the south coast to keep the locals in check. The area was then regarded by the Normans as part of England. Over the centuries, Cardiff Castle was expanded and further developed. Fortifications were added and alterations made for the comfort of the residents.

POWYS: Originally the seat of the princes of Upper Powys in the 13th century, it was destroyed in 1275. However, following Edward’s conquest of Wales, the castle was rebuilt. In the reign of Elizabeth I it was refurbished for comfort rather than war. Today its rooms display countless treasures, including Flemish tapestries, antique furniture and priceless paintings.

PEMBROKE: Built in 1093 by the Normans, this magnificent structure in south Wales is one of only a handful of privately owned castles. Harri Tudor, who later became Henry VIII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, was born here on Jan. 28, 1457. The splendid circular great tower, which dominates the castle, was built about 1200. It’s open on Sundays all year and daily from May to Oct.

BEAUMARIS: A real jewel – probably the most sophisticated example of medieval military architecture in the British Isles – and a real treat to visit. This was the last of the castles built by Edward I and the most perfect in terms of design. It is also the most northerly, on the island of Anglesey overlooking the Menai Strait, which could be a reason Beaumaris ranks sixth in the number of visitors. However, if you are in the area, don’t pass it by. And bring your camera. Swans glide in the picturesque, 18-foot-wide moat while sheep graze in the surrounding fields. The castle has 16 towers and two gates, with 300 firing points for archers, plus a dramatic backdrop of the Snowdonian Mountains, making for picture-perfect scene.

HARLECH: Another of Edward’s castles, Harlech is awe-inspiring with its soaring walls, towers and the mountains of Snowdon behind it. Harlech is perched on a rocky promontory 200 feet above sea level. In the War of the Roses in the 15th century, the castle held out against the Yorkists for seven years, the longest seige in Britain. It was this seige that spawned the rousing Welsh nationalistic song Men of Harlech..