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Beaumaris Castle

in the town of Beaumaris, Anglesey, north Wales.

Map link for Beaumaris Castle


Aerial photograph above copyright © by Jan Kohl and castlegraphics.com
All other photographs copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Below: the picturesque outer curtain wall and moat at Beaumaris.

Beaumaris, begun in 1295, was the last and largest of the castles to be built by King Edward I in Wales. Raised on an entirely new site, without earlier buildings to fetter its designer's creative genius, it is possibly the most sophisticated example of medieval military architecture in Britain.

This is undoubtedly the ultimate "concentric" castle, built with an almost geometric symmetry. Conceived as an integral whole, a high inner ring of defenses is surrounded by a lower outer circuit of walls, combining an almost unprecedented level of strength and firepower. Before the age of cannon, the attacker would surely have been faced with an impregnable fortress. Yet, ironically, the work of construction was never fully completed, and the castle saw little action apart from the Civil War in the 17th century.

A castle was almost certainly planned when King Edward visited Anglesey in 1283 and designated the Welsh town of Llanfaes to be its seat of government. At the time, resources were already stretched and any such scheme was postponed. Then, in 1294-95, the Welsh rose in revolt under Madog ap Llywelyn. The rebels were crushed after an arduous winter campaign, and the decision was taken to proceed with a new castle in April 1295. The extent of English power is demonstrated by the fact that the entire native population of Llanfaes was forced to move to a newly established settlement, named Newborough. The castle itself was begun on the "fair marsh," and was given the Norman-French name Beau Mareys. Building progressed at an astonishing speed, with some 2,600 men engaged in the work during the first year.

Below (2): views of the Gate next to Sea, the modern entrance to the castle.



In sole charge of the operation was Master James of St. George, already with many years of experience in castle-building, both in Wales and on the Continent. Even after 700 years it is not difficult to appreciate the tremendous sophistication in his elaborate design at Beaumaris. The first line of defense was provided by a water-filled moat, some 18ft wide. At the southern end was a tidal dock for shipping, where vessels of 40 tons laden weight could sail right up to the main gate. The dock was protected by the shooting deck on Gunner's Walk.

Across the moat is the low curtain wall of the outer ward, its circuit punctuated by 16 towers and two gates. On the northern side, the Llanfaes gate was probably never completed. The gate next to the sea, on the other hand, preserves evidence of its stout wooden doors and gruesome "murder holes" above. Once through, an attacker would still have to face 11 further obstacles before entering the heart of the castle. These included the barbican, further "murder holes," three portcullises and several sets of doors. If the daunting prospect of the gate-passage proved too much, the would-be attacker caught hesitating between the inner and outer walls could not have survived for long. A rain of heavy crossfire would have poured down from all directions.

Below (2): view of the rear of the North Gatehouse from the Inner Ward &view of the Chapel Tower from the castle wall walk.



The striking thing about the inner ward is its great size. Covering about 3/4 of an acre, it was surrounded by a further six towers and the two great gatehouses. Within, it is clear that there was an intention to provide lavish suites of accommodation. Both gatehouses were planned to have grand arrangements of state rooms at their rear, much as those completed at Harlech. The north gate, on the far side, was only raised as far as its hall level and the projected second storey was never built. Even as it now stands, with its five great window openings, it dominates the courtyard. Another block, of equal size, was planned for the south gate, but this was never to rise further than its footings. Around the edges of the ward further buildings were planned and must have included a hall, kitchens, stables and perhaps a granary. Although there is some evidence of their existence in the face of the curtain wall, it is not certain they were ever completed.

Visitors should not miss the little chapel situated in the tower of that name. It's vaulted ceiling and pointed windows make it one of the highlights of the castle. Also in this tower there is a fascinating exhibition on the "Castles of Edward I in Wales, and this provides much background to the building of Beaumaris itself.

The visitor may well be left wondering why all the lavish accommodation was contemplated. In short, it was to provide the necessary apartments for the king and, if he should marry again, his queen. Moreover, his son, the Prince of Wales was fast approaching marriageable age. Considering the size of both households, plus the need to accommodate royal officers, the constable, and even the sheriff of Anglesey, the scale of these domestic arrangements is put into perspective.

Despite being planned on such a grand scale, by 1298 the funds for building Beaumaris had dried up. The king was increasingly involved with works in Gascony and Scotland. Although there were minor building works in later times, the castle is in many ways a blueprint which was never fully realized.

Jeff Thomas 1995

Our second and final day in north Wales was spent visiting additional castles in north Wales built by Edward I, Beaumaris and Caernarfon. Beaumaris was first. From Conwy we hopped on the A55 and sped across north Wales opting to cross over to Anglesey via the Menai Bridge rather than the bridge further west. We stooped in the town of Menai Bridge just briefly to stretch our legs and browse some of the shops along the high street. Then it was back in the car for the short ride to Beaumaris via the A545.

The town of Beaumaris is a lovely seaside town with pretty colored buildings, shops, pubs, and restaurants,  nice public park, and, oh yes, the ruins of a 13th century castle. We parked our car in the large car park close to the castle next to the shore. Beaumaris is a handsome castle with almost perfect symmetry. The image most people associate with Beaumaris is one of swans swimming peacefully in the castle moat, framed by the castle's handsome checkered-stone exterior towers. This is the first striking aspect of Beaumaris: the castle's exterior beauty. Although never completed to their planned height, Beaumaris' large towers are impressive. Most of the castle is surrounded by a moat, next to park and playground complete with picnic tables. Families of ducks and swans swimming peacefully in the castle most add to the attractive setting. So, much of Beaumaris' beauty can actually be appreciated even before setting foot inside the castle. Construction of Beaumaris began in 1295 and a substantial workforce was employed in the initial years under the direction of James of St George. Beaumaris was never completed as planned, partly because funds for its construction were diverted to Edward's Scottish campaign.

We entered the castle via a wooden bridge and a substantial gatehouse complete with murder holes. The castles exterior towers are quite large but Beaumaris' six inner ward towers are even larger. Once inside the gatehouse the dimensions of these towers become apparent, if not a bit confusing. Confusing, because the concentric design of the castle means that one set of walls and towers looks exactly like the others as you make your way around the ward. After exploring the large inner ward we entered one of the towers and began exploring the castle's fascinating interior passageways running inside the walls of the castle. Beaumaris and Caernarfon are practically the only two Welsh castles that afford visitors an opportunity to explore significant sections of inner wall passageways. Although Caernarfon's are more extensive, the passageways at Beaumaris are darker, a bit rougher around the edges, and therefore more atmospheric (or a little bit scarier). These passageways were intended to allow members of the castle to move between the towers, accessing the guardrooms, sleeping chambers and the castle latrines. We worked our way along the passageway which eventually brightened and led to the Chapel Tower, one of two of the inner ward's large D-towers. We continued our exploration of the castle's passageways including the latrine chutes stationed along the way that emptied into the moat. Then it was back outside to explore the Outer Ward  including the large towers and battlemented curtain wall. From this vantage point the Chapel and Middle towers are even more impressive, tall, stout structures that dominate the outer ward. This area of the castle also leads to the Llanfaes Gate, the dock that was used to resupply the castle from the water.  

We also enjoyed the wonderful views afforded across the Menai Straight to the Snowdonia Mountains beyond; breathtaking scenery that can be enjoyed from within or outside the castle. Although Beaumaris lacks the spectacular siting of some of Edward's other north Wales castles, the beauty of the castle and surrounding countryside is undeniable. Beaumaris has been designated a "World Heritage Site" because it represents a significant accomplishment in the art of medieval castle-building. We lingered at the castle and in the town for quite a while, enjoying our usual pub lunch and a pint at the "Ye Olde Bull's Head on the high street, before returning to the car and heading back to the mainland and our final castle of the day, Caernarfon.

Additional photographs of Beaumaris Castle

After being closed for many years the castle wall walks at Beaumaris were finally reopened to the public in May of 2006 . The wall walks at Beaumaris represent a fascinating aspect of the castle not seen for many years, and affords visitors perspectives of the castle and surrounding countryside that are both interesting and beautiful. 










Additional photos of Beaumaris Castle
Follow this link to read a letter from 1296 concerning the building of Beaumaris.

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas