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Harlech Castle

in the village of Harlech, Gwynedd, north Wales

Map link for Harlech Castle

Photographs copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: view of the castle from the adjacent car park

Cadw Guidebook

s if its spectacular situation, foreboding might, and great power were not sufficient to ensure the fame of this magnificent castle, Harlech is also inseparably linked in Welsh myth with the tragic heroine of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, of the Mabinogion. Mythology aside, it is small wonder that this is one of the most familiar strongholds in Britain. Seen from the bluff of rock to the south of the town, the view of castle, sea and mountain panorama is truly breathtaking. But not only has it an unsurpassed natural setting, as a piece of castle-building Harlech is also unrivalled. Even after seven centuries, it remains a testament to a military architect of genius, Master James of St. George. Here he adapted the natural strength of the site to the defensive requirements of the age, and created a building which combines a marvellous sense of majesty with great beauty of line and form.

Harlech was begun during King Edward I's second campaign in north Wales. It was part of an "iron ring" of castles surrounding the coastal fringes of Snowdonia, eventually stretching from Flint around to Aberystwyth; a ring intended to prevent the region from ever again becoming a focal point of insurrection and a last bastion of resistance. Following the fall of the Welsh stronghold of Castell y Bere, King Edward's forces arrived at Harlech in April, 1283, and building work began almost immediately. Over the next six years an army of masons, quarriers, laborers and other craftsmen were busily engaged in construction. In 1286, with the work at its height, nearly 950 men were employed under the superintendence of Master James. The final result was a perfectly concentric castle, where one line of defenses is enclosed by another. Unfortunately, the outer wall is ruinous today and fails to convey the true 13th-century effect.

The natural strength of the castle rock and cliff face meant that only the east face was open to possible attack. Here the gatehouse still offers an insolent display of power. The gate-passage itself was protected by a succession of no less than seven obstacles, including three portcullises. On either side of the passage were guardrooms, and the upper floors of the gatehouse provided the main private accommodation at Harlech. The first floor must have been for the constable, or governor, who from 1290-93 was none other than Master James himself. The comfortable rooms on the top floor probably served as a suite for visiting dignitaries, including the king.

The inner ward is surprisingly small and, as the foundations show, a great deal of room was originally taken up by the surrounding ranges of domestic buildings. To the rear lay the great hall and kitchen. Against the north wall were a chapel and bakehouse, and to the south a granary and a second hall. The corner towers provided further accommodation, and today the visitor may care to climb one of the sets of steps to the wall-walks from which there are superb views in all directions.

Harlech Castle played a key role in the national uprising led by Owain Glyndwr. After a long siege, it fell to his forces in 1404. The castle became Glyndwr's residence and headquarters, and one of the two places to which he is believed to have summoned parliaments of his supporters. It was only after a further long siege in 1408 that Harlech was retaken by English forces under Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V.

Sixty years later, during the War of the Roses, the castle was held for the Lancastrians until taken by Lord Herbert of Raglan for the Yorkist side. It was this prolonged siege which traditionally gave rise to the song Men of Harlech.

Wales - Castles and Historic Places, by CADW, Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff CF2 1UY, 1990.

Jeff Thomas, 1995 (part of my 1994 England/Wales travel essay)

We left Dolwyddelan and headed southwest on the A470, then the A496 thru Blaenau Ffestiniog, and finally the B4573 to reach Harlech, a short trip of less than an hour. We had visited Harlech on our first trip to Britain with my parents in 1992 and I was anxious to get back explore the castle further. So much has been written about Harlech that it's difficult to know where to begin. Harlech is yet another concentric castle built by King Edward I (boo!) that could be supplied by the sea. Unlike Conwy and Caernarfon, Harlech is far more remote. The castle sits on a rocky knoll close to the Irish Sea. Construction began in 1282 during the Second Welsh War of independence. Harlech also played a part in several additional wars, including the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn between 1294 and 1295, and fell to Owain Glyn Dwr in 1404 before being retaken by the English in 1409. In the 15th century it was involved in the struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York during The Wars of The Roses, and was occupied by Royalist forces during the English Civil was in the 1640s.

We pulled into in the parking lot in front of the castle. We decided to first have lunch (and the mandatory pint) at the Castle Hotel next to the car park. Some of the tables here provide nice views of the castle. Afterwards we paid our admission at the gift shop and headed for the castle. Harlech's gatehouse is massive, its large round towers fronted by smaller twin corbelled towers. Before entering we took a look at Harlech's much-reduced curtain wall that stretches all the way around the castle. These certainly would have been impressive when complete. We passed through the portcullis gates and under the murder holes directly above our heads. Not much chance of getting through alive here. The gatehouse complex at Harlech is massive, something that is better appreciated from the castle courtyard looking back towards the rear of the gatehouse. The gatehouse has two upper floors with various rooms, windows and fireplaces. We spent time in the inner ward admiring the four large circular tall towers protecting it. We explored the remains of the Chapel and the West Range before exiting the castle via a rear gate to see Harlech's "way to the sea". The gate brings you to an area outside the main castle but still protected by the curtain wall. A passage through the wall leads to series of stone steps that at one time led down to the sea, the castle's means of resupply. Next it was up to the top of the castle to view the surrounding countryside from Harlech's wall-walks. This time we took the interior tower stairs rather than the external staircase. A lot of visitors to Harlech don't explore this part of the castle. It does take some effort to climb the stairs and there are basically no handrails along the low walls at the top (see below). We were OK with both and were again rewarded with some of the best castle-top views in Wales. Up here you can really appreciate the remote location of the castle enjoys. (If you can ignore he caravan park.) We spent some time here before climbing back down. We explored a bit more of the castle, the exhibit room and the area between the castle and curtain wall before getting back in the car and heading for St Davids. We had visited two remarkable, but very different castles providing very different experiences. Both were rewarding and we would revisit both on subsequent trips.  


 Additional photographs of Harlech Castle

Below: two views of the magnificent outer gate at Harlech Castle.



 Below: views of the rear gatehouse complex from the castle wall walks.




Below (2): view chapel & west range of the inner courtyard of the castle.



The castle's other remarkable feature is the defended "Way from the sea," a gated and fortified stairway plunging almost 200 ft down to the foot of the castle rock. Once, this gave access to supplies from the sea, but the tide level has since receded, leaving Harlech somewhat isolated upon its rock. During Madog ap Llywelyn's uprising of 1294-95, this maritime lifeline proved the savior of the garrison, which was supplied and victualled by ships from Ireland.

Below (2): view of the North West and (ruined) North East Towers from the castle wall walk



Below: western exterior of the castle, the "way to the sea"


View of the corbelled latrine turret on the south wall of the outer ward


Interior view of the great chambers on the southern side of the gatehouse


View of the inner gate passage at Harlech Castle fom (1) ground level, and (2) above the passage



View of the outer curtain wall


View of the top of the gatehouse from the Wall-walk





Several views of the inner ward from the wall-walk




View of the castle's information boards tracing the history of Harlech Castle


View of the castle car park and town of Harlech from the castle



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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas