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Harlech is a 13th-century castle which acts as a physical reminder of the long battle for power and control in Wales. What began as an English fortress in Northern Wales, became a symbol of resistance for many people, in many conflicts.

Not only did it feature heavily in the Welsh pursuit of independence in the Middle Ages, but it also featured in the War of the Roses and the English Civil Wars.

Who Built Harlech Castle?

Harlech Castle was built by King Edward I, who was King of England from 1239-1307. The Castle was constructed in just seven years as part of his attempt to fortify the north of Wales and gain power there1 (source: CADW).

The work on the Castle was supervised by Edward’s main architect, James of Saint George. James in turn managed 546 builders.

What Type of Castle is Harlech?

Harlech Caste is a concentric castle. This type of castle is essentially made up of a castle within a castle. The inner part of the castle, where its residents would live, was surrounded by two walls.

This meant that the structure was easy to defend because those inside were able to fire arrows over the heads of the soldiers standing on the lower, outside wall in order to reach the attackers below. The inner defensive walls of the Castle are a staggering three metres thick and are separated by a courtyard which spans 39 metres.

In the inner ward of the Castle, there were once seven rooms. There was a gallery, kitchen, buttery and pantry, a great hall, chapel, bakehouse and Ystumgwern Hall. Four towers further reinforced the castle on each corner. The outer defensive wall repeated the inner layout however, it was much thinner and lower2 (source: V. Huxley, World Heritage Sites of Great Britain and Ireland, 2009, P.147).

The main access point to the Castle was from the east, across a drawbridge which covered a dry moat of rock. There were two gates, one in the outer wall and one in the inner wall. There were arrow-slits flanking the entryway which were accessed through the side rooms in the gate towers3 (source: Wikipedia).

History of Harlech Castle

Here’s a timeline detailing the main events at Harlech Castle since it was built:

  • In 1283 Edward began the construction of Harlech Castle as he attempts to invade Wales for the second time. The process was overseen by the architect James of Saint George.
  • By the end of 1289, most of the Castle was completed and cost more than £8,000. This is equivalent to almost £9 million in today’s money4 (source: Bank of England Inflation Calculator).
  • In 1294 a rebel named Madog ap Llywelyn started an uprising against English rule. During this uprising, many Welsh castles, Harlech included, were besieged. However, because there was access to the Castle via the sea to the moat, shipments from Ireland allowed the defenders to suppress the rebellion.
  • Between 1323 and 1324 work was done on the Castle and the rest of the fourteenth century was relatively peaceful. Sir Walter Manny, an extremely able and trusted soldier of King Edward II was made constable from 1332 to 1372.
  • In 1400 another Welsh rebellion occurred. This was led by Owain Glyndŵr and until 1403 only a handful of English-held castles, Harlech included, resisted the attackers. However, the next year the Castle fell to the Welsh.
  • Until 1409 the Castle was used as a base for Owain Glyndŵr. It is thought that another siege in 1408 is what destroyed the southern and eastern parts of the outer walls.
  • During the fifteenth century, the Castle was involved in the War of the Roses and in 1468 it came under siege again. After this, the Castle was not repaired and fell into neglect.
  • In 1642, the English Civil War broke out. The war was between the Royalists who were supporters of Charles I and Parliament. During this period the Castle was occupied by the royal army, commanded by Colonel William Owen who ordered the repair of its fortifications.
  • The Castle was once again under siege from June 1646 to March 1647. Eventually, the garrison of 44 men was forced to surrender to the parliamentarian army, commanded by Thomas Mytton. In order to prevent the Castle from being used again by Royalists, its destruction was ordered. Luckily, however, this order was only partially carried out.
  • From the seventeenth century, the Castle steadily fell into disrepair. Despite this, it was a source of inspiration for artists like J.M.W Turner.
  • Restoration work began on the Castle in the twentieth century under the supervision of the Office of Works.
  • In 1986 the Castle was listed as a World Heritage site, along with three other Welsh castles5 (source: UNESCO).

The Siege of Harlech Castle in 1468

Harlech Castle featured heavily in the War of the Roses. This was a war which broke out between rival families, the Lancasters and the Yorks, who both claimed the throne of England.

Between 1461 and 1468 the castle was staffed by supporters of the Lancasters under the command of Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Einion.

Because of its close proximity to the sea, the castle was extremely easy to defend and supply during a siege. It, therefore, eventually became the last main stronghold under Lancastrian control.

Despite this, in 1468 Edward IV ordered Wilhelm Herbert to build an army (which was possibly as big as 7,000 to 10,000 men) to take back the Castle. The Castle was under siege for a month and the small garrison was eventually forced to surrender the castle to the Yorks6 (source: A.R. Brondarbit, Medieval Warfare, Vol. 8, No.5, pp.36-41, 2018).

Harlech Castle Today

Today Harlech Castle is one of the best-known castles in North Wales. It has been declared a World Heritage site along with three other Welsh castles.

Harlech and Beaumaris Castle were specifically chosen because, according to the UNESCO, of their “unique artistic achievements for the way they combine characteristic 13th-century double-wall structures with a central plan, and for the beauty of their proportions and masonry.

Some parts of the stronghold, unfortunately, did not survive, these include some of the inner buildings and two external gatehouses. The outer defensive wall is lower than it originally was and the sea is now further away from the Castle than it would have been because the sea has receded several hundred metres.

The Castle is open today and looked after by Cadw, the Historic Environment department of the Welsh Government. Find out more about the castle today in our full guide to visiting Harlech Castle.

Molly is Wales Guidebook's expert on castles. She has a master's degree in history and studied at Swansea University where she learnt about Welsh history and it's many castles. Molly loves to get out and explore historical buildings in person, with Oystermouth, Cardiff, and Caerphilly Castles among her favourites. When not geeking out on castles, Molly likes to spend her time reading, exploring the countryside or in the gym.