Harlech Castle was built by the Frenchman, James of St George, as part of Edward I’s campaign to conquer the Welsh Principality of Gwynedd during the Middle Ages. The process of building the castle was begun in 1283, during Edward I’s second campaign against the Gwynedd Principality, and was completed in 1289. In 1286, during the building work, 950 workers were employed at the Harlech Castle site.
Harlech Castle (© Kevin Richardson)
James of St George is known as one of the most prominent architects and military engineers of his time and it seems that he was the intellectual force behind the process of building Edward I’s castles in Wales during the final years of the C13. The architectural excellence of these castles re-enforced Edward I’s power and underlined his victory over one of the English crown’s main enemies: Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Such was the sense of pride in James of St George’s work in Harlech, he was appointed constable of Harlech Castle in 1290, by Edward I, and the Castle became his home.
The purpose of building Edward I’s castles was to re-enforce the crown’s might in areas taken from the Welsh Princes. Eryri was the Princes’ stronghold, and therefore, winning battles in this area was highly important. Edward I lead two campaigns against the Princes: the first being in 1276-77 and the second in 1282-83. Edward I’s castles were therefore built at strategic positions, near rivers or the coast, in order to be able to supply castles with food and arms, by ship and their designs were truly innovative.
Harlech Castle was threatened several times over the years: during the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294-5, the Glyndŵr rebellion (Glyndŵr’s Parliament was held at Harlech between 1404 and 1408) but by 1409, the castle was once again in the hands of the English crown. In 1468, the castle was the site of one of the battles of the War of the Roses. The constable of Harlech Castle supported the Lancastrian cause, causing the Yorkist king, Edward IV to send an army under the leadership of Lord William Herbert, to Harlech Castle, to try to reclaim the castle. The battle lasted for less than a month and tradition has it that this battle inspired the song, ‘Gwŷr Harlech’ (‘Men of Harlech). In the years following this battle, the castle’s status slowly deteriorated, until the reign of Elizabeth I, when the castle was used as a court of law.
During the English Civil War in the C17, Harlech Castle was attacked by Oliver Cromwell’s army, as the castle supported the king, Charles I. Harlech Castle was the last of the king’s supporters’ strongholds to fall to the Parliamentarians.
By the C18-19, Harlech Castle was a popular site among artists, and by 1914, it was transferred from the Crown’s hands, to be the property of the state.
In 1987, Harlech Castle was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).