King England and his Castle Building Scheme

King Edward I of England and his Castle Building Scheme

The reign of King Edward I (1272-1307) was marked by almost constant military activity in the British Isles and France. Edward’s policy of expansion and conquest in Scotland and Wales was aggressive and, broadly, successful. Among the notable characteristics of Edward’s warlike policies was the construction of a large number of castles, above all in Wales, as centers of military and civilian administration in conquered territories. The programme of Edwardian castle-building was second only to that which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066, and in terms of the size and complexity of the structures themselves it is without parallel in British history.

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The first part of Edward’s reign was dominated by war in Wales, which lasted (with interruptions) from 1276 to 1284; the second part, from 1290-1, by war in France and Scotland. These campaigns arose from Edward’s determination to reinforce the English crown’s position in France and to enforce English claims to overlordship within the British Isles. Such policies were not in themselves an innovation of Edward’s reign – English claims to supremacy over Wales and Ireland, for example, had been intensified and pursued militarily during the 1240s and 1250s – but they reached a new intensity once Edward succeeded Henry III on the throne. In Wales, the rebellion of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd between 1258 and 1265 had undermined English authority in Wales; Edward was determined not to allow such a disturbance to succeed again, and when Llywelyn and his brother Dafydd rebelled again in 1282 they were ruthlessly dealt with. The English conquest of North Wales was successful, and the stable and enduring integration of Wales into the English political system was one of Edward I’s most enduring legacies. In Scotland it was the succession crisis provoked by the death of King Alexander II and his heiress, his seven-year-old grand-daughter Margaret, that brought about English intervention. Edward’s unreasonable demands of John Balliol, the king he had placed on the Scottish throne, and Scotland’s alliance with France (with which England was also at war) in 1296 opened the way to prolonged and indecisive fighting. Unlike in Wales, Edward was unable to bequeath a settled Anglo-Scottish situation to his son, Edward II, when he died in 1307.

All of Edward I’s military adventures in France, Wales and Scotland involved castles to some degree: castles newly built, rebuilt, besieged, captured, destroyed. It is in Wales, however, that he achieved most as a castle builder, with no fewer than ten new royal castles, incorporating the latest thinking in military engineering, being constructed between 1277 and the end of his reign; six of these castles – Flint, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Beaumaris – rank among the most significant contemporary castles in Europe in their size and sophistication. Not for nothing has Edward’s castle-building campaign in Wales has been described as ‘the most ambitious and costly ever known in British history.’ It is also in Wales that the role of castles within Edwardian military and civil policy as a whole can most clearly be seen, and accordingly it is with the Welsh castles that this essay is chiefly concerned.

Edward I became king in 1272, but was away on crusade at the time and did not return to England until 1274. Once returned and with the reins of government firmly in his hands, he wasted no time in dealing with the threatening instability and tumult of Wales. The first of Edward’s Welsh wars lasted from 1276 to 1277, and his first programme of castle-building dates from the end of this war. There were already several important castles in Wales, such as Caerphilly, a great baronial castle in the south, which was under construction as Edward succeeded to the throne, the castles at Chepstow and Pembroke which dated from the eleventh century, and the native Welsh princes’ strongholds such as Dolwyddelan and Ewloe. The Edwardian castles, however, were very different from preceding Welsh castles in structure and purpose. Whereas baronial castles such as Caerphilly and Chepstow were associated with local lordships and extensive landholdings, King Edward’s castles were not the strongholds of particular lords, nor the center of large estates; and while the Welsh castles such as Ewloe were built in inaccessible locations and were intended to serve as defensive refuges, the English castles were designed ‘to be easily supplied, to serve as bases for the operation of large armies, [and] to act as administrative headquarters.’ The purpose of Edward’s castles was not to serve as boltholes against besieging enemies, nor as bases for further conquest; their role was to provide an infrastructure, both civilian and military, once conquest was complete, through which continued English dominance could be assured. This role was crystallized in the close relationship between castle construction and the plantation of new towns during this period. As a recent historian of Edward’s reign has written:

English domination [of Wales] was not confined to alien laws and administration. Following the victory of 1277, Edward embarked upon his famous programme of castle building… These huge projects were designed not only to ensure English supremacy, but to function as secure bases for merchants and royal officials. They also became a focus for new town plantation in a country largely unfamiliar with towns.

The first of Edward’s major castles, Flint and Rhuddlan in north-eastern Wales, which were begun after the end of the First Welsh War of 1276-7, were both closely associated with new towns, built for English settlers and intended to become the focuses of local administration and economic activity. Militarily they were designed to dominate the coastal plain of North Wales, and it is significant that they are both so placed that they can be supplied by sea, without any need to use vulnerable land routes of communication. In the case of Rhuddlan, the River Clwyd was diverted and improved to enable deep-water shipping to travel to new docks for the castle and the associated town – a clear example both of the integration of economic and military objectives in Edwardian castle-building, and of the scale of the construction and engineering required. As military strongholds both Flint and Rhuddlan are effective and up-to-date for their era, with well-sited round towers, concentric curtain walls, deep moats and carefully-planned fields of fire. Flint in particular shows the influence of French models of castle construction in its large tower-keep; these structures are the first for which Edward’s Savoyard master-mason, James of St. George, was responsible, and James was clearly well-informed about the latest developments in military architecture across western Europe and was able to incorporate them into the structures he built for Edward.

The next castles to be constructed were Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech, work beginning on all three in 1283 following Llewelyn ap Gruffydd’s rebellion. Each of these castles has different characteristics. Conwy has eight equal-sized drum towers with no strongly fortified gatehouse, Caernarfon follows Flint in having a tower keep, and the defensive scheme at Harlech revolves around its massive gatehouse. At Harlech there was no planned town, although a town developed around the castle while the latter was under construction, while at Conwy and Caernarfon the creation of a new town, its defenses integrated with its castle, was an essential part of the royal scheme. The idea of planned fortified town came from France, where the creation of town and stronghold as a single unit, known as a bastide, was well-established. These Edwardian urban foundations were islands of English settlement in Wales, surrounded by a hostile population. The fortifications and the castle were not merely for show but were a very real refuge in the event of attack. It is also notable that, as with Flint and Rhuddlan, the castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech are situated so that they can be supplied by sea, Harlech having a strongly-fortified pathway to the sea incorporated into the design. Harlech castle was re-victualled by sea during the rebellion of 1295, when the Welsh had cut it off entirely by land, vindicating the strategy adopted by Edward and his builders.

The castles built across Wales by Edward also possessed an immense symbolic value as ‘a most considerable symbol of the English conquest.’ In the cases of Conwy and Caernarfon the propaganda value of the castles as images of English domination is very clear. At Conwy the walls were originally whitewashed, which was of no military value but would have made it an even more impressive (and, for the local Welsh population, intimidating) sight. Caernarfon has polygonal (rather than round) towers and the walls are decorated with bands of colored stonework, consciously echoing the walls of Constantinople – a fitting symbol of imperial dominance, unchallengeable authority, and permanence.

The last of the great Edwardian royal castles in Wales is Beaumaris, begun during the third Welsh War of 1294-5. like Caernarfon, Beaumaris was never completed, but what remains is a vast and highly sophisticated structure, the most technically and militarily developed of Edward’s castles. Whereas at other sites such as Harlech and Caernarfon the site had offered defensive advantages, at Beaumaris the castle was constructed on a flat, largely featureless marsh, so it had to create all its defensive advantages itself. The result is a highly developed plan using concentric curtain walls, round and D-shaped towers, and two vast gatehouses. It followed the established pattern of having its own dock and access to the sea, and a town was to have been constructed within its own, integrated, defenses. The town was never founded and the castle never completed, the demands of wars, not only in Wales but also in Scotland and France, rendering the expense untenable.

In conclusion, it is important to stand back from the details of individual structures to consider the Edwardian castle-building scheme as a whole, and assess its costs, its consequences and its effectiveness. It is clear that Edward’s intention was to ring the natural fortress of North Wales, the mountainous region of Snowdonia, with impregnable modern castles that would provide bases for armies and guard English urban enclaves that would bring economic development and stability to what was, from the point-of-view of southern England, an undeveloped frontier region. It was an enormous undertaking with an enormous cost. At the height of the construction of Harlech nearly 1000 workers were involved in the work, while at Beaumaris in the 1290s over 2500 men were at work on the castle. These masons, smiths, carters, carpenters and labourers were brought from all over the King’s territories; from all over Wales from the English West Country, North and Midlands, and from France. These men and their families had to be paid and housed; many of them were skilled workers whose skills did not come cheap. Harlech castle, which took seven years to build, cost approximately £9,500; Caernarfon cost £20,000; Beaumaris over £14,000. Overall it seems that Edward spent over £80,000 on his Welsh castles. When this total is compared to the £360,000 Edward spent fighting the French in Gascony between 1294 and 1299 it seems relatively little, but of course when added to these expenditures ‘the resources of the crown were stretched to the limit.’

In the specific context of the conquest of Wales, was this expenditure justified? Edward himself clearly thought so as he pursued the policy of castle-building and town-foundation in Wales from the 1270s until his death, yet it could be said that his castles were over-elaborate for the threat they were supposedly built to contain. Castles such as Harlech and Conwy were equipped with state-of-the-art fortifications designed to resist large besieging armies with the most destructive weapons, but Edward’s opponents in Wales did not operate in that way. Relatively small forces engaging in guerrilla attacks were more typical of the fighting in Wales. Furthermore, the Welsh wars of the 1280s and 1290s showed clearly that if Edward’s intent was to cow the Welsh into submission with castles, he had not succeeded. However, it is also true that these rebellions were effectively suppressed, and that the castles the English had built played an important role. In the longer term the towns Edward founded beneath the protective shadow of his castles flourished and became, as he had intended, the focus for a new economic and social system in North Wales.

Also, once the castles were built, maintenance and garrisoning was a more economical policy than raising and keeping large armies in the field. In peacetime most castles were home to garrisons of 30-40 men; and even in wartime a relatively modest garrison of 100-200 was adequate. On balance it seems reasonable to conclude that Edward I’s castles performed their function effectively. Despite the recurrence of rebellion and the continuing tension between Welsh and English there was never, after Edward’s reign, any serious threat to the continuing overlordship of England over Wales, and the Principality remained firmly embedded in the English legal and administrative system. Edward’s wars in Scotland and France, by contrast, did not involve any such castle-building scheme, and ended (for many reasons) with no such permanent and beneficial settlement. Wales, however, ‘was brought decisively under English rule’ by Edward I. The mountains of North Wales never again became a redoubt for the Welsh to hold out against the English, and no expensive military conquest of the country was ever required subsequently. For this achievement Edward’s castles, a ring of stone around the heartland of Welsh independence, must take some of the credit.

Works Cited

Platt, Colin. The Castle in Medieval England and Wales. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

Pounds, N.J.G. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Prestwich, Michael. War Politics and Finance under Edward I. London: Faber, 1972

Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. London: Methuen, 1988.

Raban, Sandra. England under Edward I and Edward II, 1259-1327. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Ross, David. Edward I’s Castles in Wales. / edwardian-castles.htm

Thomas, Jeffrey L. Castles of Wales.


Brown, R. Allen. The Architecture of Castles. London: Batsford, 1984.

Platt, Colin. The Castle in Medieval England and Wales. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

Pounds, N.J.G. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Prestwich, Michael. War Politics and Finance under Edward I. London: Faber, 1972

Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. London: Methuen, 1988.

Prestwich, Michael. The Three Edwards: War and State in England 1272-1377. London: Routledge, 1992.

Raban, Sandra. England under Edward I and Edward II, 1259-1327. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Ross, David. Edward I’s Castles in Wales. / edwardian-castles.htm

Thomas, Jeffrey L. Castles of Wales.

Colin Platt, The Castle in Medieval England and Wales (London: Secker & Warburg, 1982), 62.

David Ross, Edward I’s Castles in Wales,

NJ.G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 172.

Michael Prestwich, Edward I (London: Methuen, 1988), 207.

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Prestwich, Edward I, 207.

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Prestwich, Edward I, 215.

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