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HARLECH CASTLE

Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2020. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 93729

Map Reference SH53SE

Grid Reference SH5809531245

Unitary (Local) Authority Gwynedd

Old County Merioneth

Community Harlech

Type of Site CASTLE

Broad Class DEFENCE

Period Medieval

Site Description Harlech Castle is a spectacular castle, with its picturesque setting enhanced by being based on a rocky crag overlooking the sea with the Snowdonia Mountains in the background. Harlech Castle was one of a series of castles established in north Wales by Edward I after the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282. Building work began a year later in May 1283, and was raised in two main building phases. In order to adapt to the restricted space of the rocky outcrop, the building is based on the concentric walls within walls. The castle is designed in symmetrical fashion, with four corner towers and an impressive gatehouse. Originally, its unique position was chosen as it was eminently defensible and was built to take full advantage of its seaside location. By 1289, the castle was largely completed.

The castle was strengthened in 1295 and again in 1323 and came to prominence during the Welsh rebellion led by Owain Glyn Dwr, when in 1404 the castle became occupied by Glyn Dwr’s court and family until 1409, the year it was retaken by the English. There were to be another two sieges, the first being in the War of the Roses when it was taken by Yorkist forces in 1468. It is argued that the famous song ‘Men of Harlech’ originated during the siege at Harlech during the War of the Roses in 1468.The second during the Civil War when it was surrounded by parliamentarian forces in 1647. Sections of the castle were rendered untenable after these sieges, fortunately however the order to demolish the castle were never carried out.

Source: Taylor, A. 2002. Harlech Castle: CADW

M. Lloyd Davies, RCAHMW, 22 October 2008.

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Harlech Castle perches on top of a high cliff, affording one of the best views across the northern half of Cardigan Bay and large sections of Snowdonia on the landward side. According to Welsh mythology, the ruins of the present castle were built on top of a fortress that once belonged to the giant Bendigeidfran (the blessed Brân), who lived here with his sister Branwen, after whom one of the towers is named. However, archaeologists have found no evidence for a Welsh fortified structure predating Edward I’s castle.

Edward I commissioned the construction in 1283 as part of his great ‘Iron Ring’ of castles along the Welsh coast to subject the indigenous population to his rule. At that time, it was still possible to supply Harlech by boat as the sea reached all the way up to the cliffs. When Owain Glyndŵr laid the castle under siege in 1404, the garrison stationed there was grossly understaffed and surrendered themselves. As a result, Glyndŵr established his home seat and military headquarters here for the next four years. The most famous siege, however, occurred during the Wars of the Roses from 1461 to 1468. This siege, the longest in British history, is said to have inspired the song ‘Men of Harlech’.

Ever since the Romantic period, many tourists have been drawn to this remote part of Wales thanks to the combination of Harlech Castle’s picturesque situation and its exciting history. The German journalist Francis Brömel further delighted in the local tales of ghosts and will-o’-the-wisps hovering all over the marshland that had appeared by the natural build-up of silt over the centuries.

Record updated as part of the AHRC-funded project 'Journey to the Past: Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany'.
R. Singer (Bangor University) and S. Fielding (RCAHMW), 2017.

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