Criccieth Castle


On a hill overlooking the town, Gywnedd, northwest Wales

Follow this link to view a larger photo of the castle (29k jpg)
(photo right provided by Jeff Matthews, Australia)

Criccieth Castle - Llywelyn's Idea and Edward's Success
copyright by Daniel Mersey

A first look at Criccieth Castle may suggest that the castle remains now standing ruined over Tremadog Bay are of English build - maybe an early castle of Edward I.

It is true that the twin D-shaped towers guarding the castle's inner ward suggest this, as does the coastal location (all of Edward's new castles had sea access). However, Criccieth was built by the native Welsh - Llywelyn ab Iorwerth started the castle, and it was continued by Llywelyn ap Gryffydd (albeit with later additions by the Edwards).

Criccieth has three main building phases, plus several other periods of restructuring. Although there is a lack of precise documentation (making it unclear exactly whom built what), the basic building history of the castle should not remain as complicated and mysterious as some writers make it seem. Despite the difficulties in telling individual Welsh building periods apart (a problem at many native Welsh castles), at least partly due to poor construction techniques and materials throughout the period, some basic styles and theories of defence can be attributed individually between Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gryffydd. English construction can generally be defined after these (notably at Dolforwyn Castle amongst others).

Before the masonry castle, a motte and bailey stood at Criccieth - but not at the site of the later castle. It's existence was documented, but when the masonry castle was built, it was on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea.

Probably the earliest part of the masonry castle now stands as the inner ward; it is small and very strong, and probably constructed by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in the 1230s (when it was probably not the inner ward - but the ONLY ward!). The inner ward incorporated the latest developments in English military architecture - which suggests that Llywelyn ab Iorwerth did not rely on native masons for it's construction (whereas most Welsh castle builders did), but hired experts familiar with the newest fortifications of the English barons. The inner ward's protruding twin towered gateway has no parallel amongst Llywelyn ab Iorwerth's other castles (but later his grandson utilised them at Dinas Bran), and in all probability it was copied from either Beeston (Cheshire), or Montgomery - the latter which Llywelyn besieged. The entranceway was protected by a gate and portcullis, with murder holes in the passage, and three outward facing arrowslits in each tower. The two towers of the gatehouse provided accommodation and their height was later raised (most probably by Edward I and II) - as can be seen by the filled in battlements. The castles important water supply was also in the gatehouse passage - a spring fed cistern.

Below: an artist's conception how Criccieth appeared during the reign of Llywelyn ap Gryffydd

Llywelyn ap Gryffydd was responsible for the second building phase, in the 1260s or 1270s. He added the outer ward, including the new gateway and large rectangular tower (paralleled at Dolforwyn and Dolwyddelan). The tower probably consisted of two or three floors, and excavations revealed some very fine stonework. The gateway was not as strong as the inner ward's one, nut protection was provided by the wall walks and towers (an idea used by Llywelyn at Dolforwyn, and used in England in the early C13th - Scarborough being a good example of a tower defending an entrance). The positioning of this outer gate was also strongly defensive - the entire outer ward would have to be crossed to reach the inner ward's entrance (a classic defense, although a little outmoded by this period). The castle was not therefore actually concentric in the true sense, but instead, it's layout owed much more to the "bailey" defences of earlier castles (preserved in later castles, as here, in the inner and outer wards) - where a series of courtyards would have to be entered before reaching the innermost areas.

Despite Llywelyn ap Gryffydd's additional work, Criccieth fell to Edward I in his second war (1282-83), and he spent a considerable sum to refortify it (one Pipe Roll lists 332 spent on Criccieth). A further rectangular tower was added to the north of the castle - it's name The Engine Tower suggesting that it housed a catapult on it's roof. Latrine shafts prove that it had at least two storeys, and it was connected to the rest of the castle by a curtain wall. Edward I heightened the gatehouse, and repaired the SE and SW towers built by the Welsh. He also added an outer barbican for added defence.

At it's peak, accommodation was provided in the gatehouse, SE tower (on the upper level), and the principal residence during the Welsh occupation was in the SW tower. Additional internal buildings probably existed, these being timber lean-to constructions (which were cheaper than masonry).

Criccieth was created as one of Edward I's conquering boroughs in 1284, and was entrusted to William Leyburn, along with 100 and 30 men. An Exchequer Account of 1283 records a payment of 809 to Criccieth's infantry garrison (Morris, 1905)..

Madog's rebellion of 1295 saw Criccieth under siege. As with Edward's own castles, supplies were brought in by sea (from Ireland in Criccieth's case); amongst the supplies known to have been delivered were new shoes for the garrison! Before a relief voyage set out, Harlech and Criccieth were both in danger due to their distance from the other English strongholds. Their garrisons were boosted by the English settlers in the boroughs, and by a patrol of 6 Irish and 9 loyal Welsh horsemen; Robert Hachet was Criccieth's sub-constable during the siege. Richard Havering conducted the relief expedition by sea, with a force of 18 crossbowmen and 3 archers (backed up by his sailors). They discharged goods at Criccieth on 3rd and 11th April 1295, and shared out 2,500 crossbow bolts between Criccieth and Harlech. It was noted that beyond the new supplies, Criccieth had 30 beef carcasses and 109 mutton carcasses stored (Morris, 1905).

Edward II partially rebuilt the gatehouse (heightening it again?), and the King's Hall was also refurbished during his reign: as mentioned above, Welsh construction was generally quite poor, and Edward may have been strengthening the hall.

A notable later constable of Criccieth was Hywel ap Gryffd - Sir Howel of the Battle-Axe - who fought for Edward III at Crecy in 1346. At this period, the constable was probably accommodated in the Leyburn Tower (the SE tower). 1404 saw Criccieth captured by the welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr, who sacked and burned the castle, ending it's interesting and varied history of military use.

Hopefully the title of this piece speaks for itself - the Welsh Llywelyn's started the idea of Criccieth, but it fell to Edward I's superior army; the weaker Welsh army were unable to recapture the site (apart from during Glyndwr's revolt - by which time Criccieth's defences were outdated), and Edward and his successors founded an English outpost at the site earlier founded by the Welsh. Truly salt in the wound for the fiercely independent north Welsh!

  • More articles by Dan Mersey
  • Lise Hull's comments on Criccieth Castle
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