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Criccieth Castle

On a hill overlooking the town, Gwynedd, northwest Wales

Map link for Criccieth Castle

Article copyright © 1996 by Lise Hull

Aerial photograph above copyright © by Jan Kohl and castlegraphics.com
All other photographs copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Below: the castle viewed from the beach below the town.

he Welsh castle at Criccieth is a marvelous sight to behold, sitting as it does so high and majestic atop a rocky promontory which juts dramatically out into Tremadog Bay. Yet, the site has also stirred up controversy over the years. A combination of Welsh and English remains, there has been much speculation as to which areas of the castle belong to which building periods. Was the inner or outer bailey the original stronghold? Did the Welsh or the English build the castle's most recognizable and dominating feature: the massive twin-towered gatehouse? And did the Welsh or the English construct the fascinating Engine Tower, near the gatehouse, to be used as a powerful platform of death? The dilemma is understandable if one considers the actual structural features at the site relative to its history, a history that encompassed a relatively short time frame but included some very formidable personalities.

Apparently, Criccieth's castle was built at the beginning of the 13th century, a rather late date for initiating a castle at a particular site in Wales. The earliest mention of a stronghold on the craggy outcrop is to be found in the Welsh chronicles, the Brut y Tywysogyon, in the year 1239, when Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (son of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or "the Great") was imprisoned in the castle by his half-brother, Dafydd. Most likely, Llywelyn the Great began the stone fortress just a few years before his sons' quarrel.

It seems unusual that there are no records or physical indications of an earth and timber castle at the site, or at the very least that the rocky headland had once been worked into a hillfort by Iron Age people, who did populate the region. Indeed, several hillforts still dot the Lleyn Peninsula around Criccieth. So, we must conclude that, for some reason, the promontory increased in value to the Welsh during the early 13th century. Perhaps Llywelyn wanted to augment his power base in North Wales, acknowledging the imminent encroachment of the English into his territory. The placement of a castle at this location would have allowed a Welsh garrison access to supplies by sea, and the fortress could have also served as an early warning post. On a bright, cloudless day, anyone standing on the hilltop could see as far as Snowdonia to the north, along the entire Lleyn Peninsula to the west, and even make out the form of neighboring Harlech Castle to the southeast, across Tremadog Bay. In fact, the view from Criccieth's peak remains spectacular to this day and clearly demonstrates the strategic benefit of the castle's towering position.

The drive to the castle can itself be somewhat confusing, depending on how you enter the village. But as you travel the A497 into Criccieth, you most surely will experience the thrill of viewing the castle for the first time, as it towers over the deep blue waters of the bay at its feet. Entering farther into the village, you probably will lose sight of the structure, but do not lose heart, for if you keep heading in the direction of the castle you will soon encounter it. If you venture too far and reach the sandy beaches to the south of the castle, do not despair, for the roadway curves around to the base of the castle and actually gives you an interesting perspective which you might otherwise miss! The entrance to Criccieth Castle is now somewhat obscured by homes which line the narrow approach road, however, CADW has built an entry facility which is helpful in orienting you as you prepare to climb the short but steep path to the monumental gatehouse.

Advancing toward the castle, you may get a sudden lilliputian feeling of diminishment, for the twin towers of the great gatehouse loom almost directly over you! Undoubtedly, they would have given any attackers pause to contemplate the wisdom of venturing up the steep hillside to breach those foreboding walls. And all the time, the castle's defenders would have had them in clear view and pummelled the invaders with arrows or heavy missiles! Thankfully, we don't have to worry about such an onslaught today, but we still have to climb the short, challenging trek upwards to gain entry.

The twin-towered gatehouse is obviously Criccieth Castle's most dominating feature, one which has stimulated some dispute over its origins. Most scholars now believe that this portion of the castle, the inner ward and its gatehouse, comprise the original stronghold of Llywelyn the Great and date to about 1230. Others have contended that the gatehouse belongs to Edward I's renovations at the castle. Nevertheless, CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, the agency who maintains the castle, appears to have no doubts that the gatehouse is indeed of Welsh origins.


Below (2): Criccieth's twin-towered gatehouse, exterior & interior view.



What makes CADW's contention so significant is that this massive round towered gateway is rare among Welsh-built castles, most of which had much simpler gatehouses. Additionally, the monumental nature of the gatehouse seems much more an English innovation (since the English had more resources at their disposal and the need to construct powerful fortresses of domination), so it is not too surprising that the structure has been attributed to the time of Edward I's occupation, in the late 1200's. The twin- towered masterpiece is indeed reminiscent of the massive Edwardian gatehouses, particularly the one at Rhuddlan, which was built during Edward's initial foray into North Wales in the 1270's.

Nonetheless, the gatehouse has many similarities to that at Beeston Castle, just over the Welsh borderland southeast of Chester, and to Montgomery Castle on the mid-eastern borders of Wales. Beeston's mighty fortress was built on the summit of a sheer-faced ridge, much more formidable but not unlike that at Criccieth, in about 1220 by an ally of Llywelyn the Great, Ranulf de Blundeville; the elongated fortress at Montgomery was built by Henry III from about 1223 to 1227.

CADW contends that, as Llywelyn sought to expand his sphere of influence, it would have been likely that he would borrow more sophisticated building techniques from his neighbors along the Welsh borders, like Ranulf. So, it is feasible that the strongholds of the Earl of Chester or the King of England inspired Llywelyn to try his hand at erecting a more intimidating face on his new venture. These gatehouse towers do possess typical Welsh features, particularly their semi-circular plan. In fact, the D- shaped tower is characteristically Welsh, and can be found at many other Welsh castles, including Castell-y-Bere, Dinas Bran and Ewloe.

The great gatehouse is most impressive for its sheer massiveness and its towering presence on the hilltop. Like other great gatehouses, the one here at Criccieth was protected with arrowslits and battlements (which probably supported timber hoarding). The gate passage contained a portcullis and barred gate, and murder holes opened down on the passageway from above, ready to spew forth liquids or missiles on some unsuspecting victim! Unfortunately, nothing much remains of the interior rooms of the gate towers, except the shells of guardrooms on the lowest level and large residential quarters on the two upper floors. The discovery of a 13th century crucifix inside one of the upper story rooms indicates that a chapel may have filled one of the chambers.

Passing through the gatehouse into the inner ward, you may be stunned by the simplicity and compactness of the castle. With such huge gatetowers, you certainly expect an equally monumental interior here at Criccieth, but this was never the case. The remainder of Llywelyn the Great's castle consisted of a fairly basic diamond-shaped inner ward, created from stone curtain walling which traced the shape of the uppermost part of the promontory. The simplicity of these walls remains a stark contrast to the complexity of the great gatehouse; perhaps Llywelyn felt no need for massive defenses along the portions of the castle which faced out to sea. There was a need for stronger defenses at the landward side of the peninsula, and that would have necessitated Llywelyn's most immediate attention.

The second building phase at Criccieth Castle was undertaken by Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (also known as "the Last") probably in the 1260's. Llywelyn the Last's contribution was a curtain wall, which encompassed the entire promontory and formed the outer ward. It had a simple gateway on the south face and a large rectangular tower at the southwest corner, now known as the Montfort Tower (most likely a residential structure, which may have served as the keep). Interestingly, he essentially created a "concentric castle", the design most often associated with Edward I. Today the outer curtain wall is ruinous, but the Montfort Tower stands to much of its original height, thanks to the work of Edward I during the castle's third building period.

One other rectangular tower from this central building phase sits along the curtain wall, on the north face of the castle near the gatehouse. Once again, there is some dispute as to the exact date of this structure, for some sources claim this building originated in the mid-phase of construction, while others place it in the Edwardian phase that followed. And again, there is merit to argue both viewpoints. A review of the general plan of the castle indicates that the tower (now called the Engine Tower) coherently follows Llywelyn's curtain wall and appears at least to some degree to have been an integral part of the expanding castle. Forde-Johnson (1981) speculates that the Welsh used this tower as additional protection on the landward side, perhaps as a platform from which to throw missiles on advancing attackers. Yet, this theory seems weak to this author. While there indeed may have been some sort of observation tower built by the Welsh on this point, it seems more likely that this Engine Tower either originated with Edward I's building effort at Criccieth, or was constructed by Llywelyn the Last and then heightened and refortified by Edward. Most sources (including CADW) seem to favor the latter proposition.

The third building period at Criccieth took place from about 1283 to 1292. Llywelyn the Last lost control of the castle early in 1283, a victim of King Edward I's second Welsh campaign. Edward carried out extensive renovation of the fortress, spending some L500 (a considerable sum in those days) to add another tower to the wall of the inner ward (the Leyburn Tower), heighten the two gatehouse towers, and strengthen the Engine Tower. This last tower had an interesting function: it served as a foundation for the siege engine, or catapult, a powerful innovation which made medieval warfare so much more deadly. Today you can also spot the remains of two latrine shafts in the side of the Engine Tower (one has to wonder why they were located here - perhaps this tower also housed some of the garrison?).

Sadly, Criccieth Castle had a brief lifespan, suffering from repeated assaults by the Welsh. Just two years after its completion in 1292, the English stronghold withstood its first siege, from Welsh rebels led by Madog ap Llywelyn. The castle's strategic seaside placement played a key role in the garrison's endurance, allowing access by ships from Ireland which carried vital supplies (including 6000 herrings, 550 large salt fish, 30 quarters of wheat, 27 quarters of beans, 20 pounds of twine for the crossbows, 50 stockings and 45 pairs of shoes, as well as 24 salted pigs and 18 cheeses; references: Robinson, 1989 and Thomas, 1982). The garrison held out for several months, certainly not wanting for sustenance! By the late 1340's the English appointed Sir Hywel ap Gruffydd (also known as Howel of the Battleaxe, for his decisive actions in the service of Edward, the Black Prince, on the field of Crecy) as constable of their castle in Criccieth. This was a great honor for the Welshman, who died in 1381, and for a time quieted the Welsh rebellion.

Twenty three years later, Criccieth Castle was abruptly brought down, never again to be used as a stronghold, when Owain Glyndwr led the last major Welsh rebellion against the English. This time replenishment from the sea was useless, for Glyndwr had the active support of the French navy, which stationed itself in the Irish Sea and prevented the approach of Irish ships. The garrison at Criccieth had no alternative but to surrender. Glyndwr's men tore down the stone walls and burned the castle. Today, remnants of the devastation may be spotted, not only the crumbled towers and curtain wall, but the fire-scarred rock as well.

 Surprisingly, the castle may have been used as a residence for some time, after Glyndwr's devastation (Warner, 1981). At any rate, possession of the site remained with Lord Harlech until 1933, when it was turned over to the State for conservation and maintenance. The site has been excavated to some extent. Today Criccieth Castle is in the hands of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, which continues to preserve it for our education and exploration. It is an exhilarating sight!

Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.


 Additional Photographs of Criccieth Castle

Below: the ruined remains of the southwest tower.



Below (2): view of the curtain wall and Outer Gatehouse from the outer ward.



Below: view of the ruined North Tower, which at one time housed a stone-throwing trebuchet or catapult.


Below: spectacular view of Cardigan Bay from the Outer Ward of Criccieth Castle.











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