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Wales: Castles, English Imperialism, and Medieval Life

Conwy, Wales

The Welsh towns of Conwy and Caernarfon both host massive castles, built by the English in the 13th century to control the feisty Welsh. Conwy’s Plas Mawr, a rare house from 1580, shows us a slice of 16th century life.

Complete Video Script

But in the fortified castle town of Conwy, just a few miles away, we learn that the English weren't always so welcome.

Eight centuries ago, those English were invaders, sent here by their king to help establish a foothold in a land he wanted to incorporate into his realm.

These English garrison towns — with awe-inspiring walls and state-of-the-art castles — created what was known as the ring of stone and iron around the land of the Welsh.

They say Wales has more castles per square mile than any place in Europe. And most of them are English castles, built here in the 13th century by the King Edward to establish English rule here and subdue the feisty Welsh.

The greatest of Edward's castles — like Conwy Castle — were masterpieces of medieval engineering. Their towers were round — tougher to break through with no corners to knock off. The castle-within-a-castle defense gave defenders a place to retreat and wreak havoc on the advancing enemy… or just wait for reinforcements. And with sea access they could be restocked safely from England.

Conwy Castle has an interesting story and local guides — who hang out at the entrance ready to take you on an inexpensive impromptu tour — tell the story well. Neville Hortop brings this castle to life with gusto.

Neville: …and it's a wonderful castle because it's two castles in one. We're going through into the soldier's part of the castle. We have this lovely great courtyard here.
Rick: This was a practical place where the military stayed then?
Neville: The military stayed here, because it was simply military castle with an adjunct for the King really. This was here for the military. This is the banquet hall for everybody. There was wonder in the evenings here… a winters evening with a massive fire, and a massive fire there, and the lovely smell of the meat, the odor of the wine, and the music from the minstrels. And all these people, the King, his people from London, the soldiers, all intermingled in here and this is the life of the castle.
Here's your thick wall. Here's your 10-foot wall which is cutting you off from the soldiers castle and bringing you right into the King's part.
Rick: OK, so enemy comes, raise the drawbridge, into the Kings zone.
Neville: So now, we're in the Kings part of the castle. This is a luxury part. These are the Royal chambers all the way around here. This of course is the open courtyard for fresh air, a small food store there. The servants of the castle would be in these lower rooms. And these are the royal rooms.
And as we get out here, we really see the fulfillment of Edwards's idea. Whenever he built a castle he's got to have a water exit, he's got to be able to supply from the river, he's got to have an escape by the river and this was in all Edwards planning, every castle he built had to have this water designed entry and exit for him.
Rick: So, the Welsh could be controlling all the land and the English would still be fine here because they've got the water access.
Neville: They've got the water, they've got the supplies and they've got this magnificent castle of course.

A stroll along the best medieval walls in Britain rewards you with grand and evocative views. This garrison town was a kind of 13th century Green Zone or safe base for the English invaders as they tried and tried to put down the angry Welsh insurgency.

You can still see the original checker board street plan the English came up with when they built the castle and the ramparts.

This grid plan of streets dates from about 1280 when Edward built Conwy and filled it with English settlers. Even though he nearly bankrupted the country with his extravagant castle building, many consider Edward to be England's finest monarch. He established and consolidated the United Kingdom in other words added Wales and Scotland to England, in order to create a realm big enough to compete with the rising European powers of the age.

Conwy's charming High Street leads down to the harbor which permitted Edward to safely restock his castle. Wander downhill, enjoying the slice-of-Welsh-life scene.

Plas Mawr, a rare surviving Elizabethan house dates from 1580. It was the first great Welsh home to be built within Conwy's walls. Stepping into the house, visitors are wowed by the heraldry over the fireplace repainted in its original bright colors. It proclaims the rich family's princely lineage.

Billed as the finest Elizabethan house in Wales, Plas Mawr offers a delightful peek into 16th-century domestic life. An excellent audio guide explains each room. The kitchen came with all the latest circa 1600 refinements: a hanging bread cage to keep food away from wandering critters; hay on the floor to add a little warmth and soak up the spillage… and a good supply of fresh meat in the pantry.

The lady of the house's bedroom doubled as a sitting room — with a foot warmer by the chair and a finely carved four-poster bed. The curtains were drawn at night to keep out the bugs and keep in the warmth.

The Great Chamber was for hearty feasting followed by boisterous gaming, dancing, and music. All this extravagant entertainment under a ceiling full of more heraldry reflecting important — if dubious — family connections left a powerful impact on guests.

Conwy's harbor — once vital for military purposes and then a busy industrial port — is now a laid-back zone that locals treat like a town square. It's Saturday night and the action is on the quay. The scene is mellow, multigenerational, and perfectly Welsh.

It's a small town and everyone's here: enjoying the local cuisine… chatting on the pier… spilling out of the pub… and savoring that great Welsh pastime… of torturing little crabs.

The next English castle town over is Caernarfon. Like Conwy, it originated as one of King Edward's garrison towns. It still spreads out from its protective castle following Edward's original grid plan laid within its still-impressive ramparts.

Caernarfon was the most expensive castle an English king ever built. Constructed as a key fortress in Edward's iron ring of castles, its sheer immensity was designed to prompt humility.

It's famous for its physical grandeur and for its association with the Prince of Wales. In modern times, to give the Welsh a sense of belonging to Britain, the Prince of Wales has been given his title here. It was here that, in 1969, Queen Elizabeth crowned her son Charles, Prince of Wales.

My friend and fellow tour guide, Martin de Lewandowicz, helps me with all this history.

Rick: So, why here on this desolate windy North coast of Wales would Edward build such an incredible castle?
Martin: Edward had to conquer Wales and once he started to move West, he did what John Wayne did many years later… he moved West, he built forts, in the forts he put soldiers, the garrison of soldiers was safe, nobody else was safe, therefore the fort controls the area. It’s how any castle worked.
Rick: So, it was an English toehold with an angry insurgency all around.
Martin: That's right and when you think about the walled town of Caernfon, think about those settlers moving in from back east called England, they are really pioneer settlers sheltering in fear behind the town wall. This castle alone one of 13 cost nearly a year’s income for Edward I, it was the expensive castle ever built by a king of England.
Rick: It's fancy.
Martin: It's one of the few castles I think that manages to achieve both architecture, art and defensibility at the same time. It works as a castle and it works as a piece of art at the same time.
Rick: Nice.

And you can re-live a medieval moment or two by watching a metal thumping reenactment.

Rick: So, with all these incredible castles, were the English able to keep the Welsh down?
Martin: Well, politically yes, but culturally no. this is still the land of the Welsh language where we compose poetry and we sing songs in Welsh.
Rick: So, poetry is a big deal?
Martin: Ah, poetry's huge. It's a manly thing to recite your recently composed poem to your workmates in work on a Monday morning.
Rick: Really?
Martin: Oh, yeah.
Rick: Now, what is the state of the language today?
Martin: Well, today it is fantastic in that if you go to a primary school, a standard state primary school everything is taught in Welsh.
Rick: So, why is the Welsh language so important to you?
Martin: Rick, I don't think you can even conceive of Wales without the Welsh language. By that I mean the words to explain Wales only exist in Welsh (speaks Welsh).
Rick: What's that?
Martin: It's a blessing, it's a privilege to be a Welshman who speaks Welsh.

[Welsh language spoken by locals]