Conwy Castle

Fourteenth Stop: Conwy

Conwy Castle in all of its glory

At last we arrived in Conwy for Friday night and had a milkshake thrown at our heads. Not the kind of greeting I had expected but I took it as it was. Young partiers were driving their fancy cars down through the ancient gates of this walled town, vibrating over cobblestone streets and nearly scraping historical buildings along the way. Just as it was in the Middle Ages, the town of Conwy is contained within relatively intact fortifications and overlooked by yet another Edwardian castle placed dramatically on a hill. We set up our tent on the outskirts of town for the night (in some kind of hobo-bush), and the next morning we eagerly invaded Conwy’s defences, taking time to walk around the whole village along the battlements. After meandering through town (and spending a moment to get a picture beside the smallest house in Britain) we arrived at the castle gates, and stood captivated by its lofty spires and daunting barbican.

Just like all the other castles in Northern Wales, Conwy was built by King Edward I to help maintain English control over the conquered Welsh. A Welsh Abbey named Aberconwy once existed on the site of Conwy, and when Edward I marched into North Wales in 1283 he captured and relocated the abbey. The act of building a settlement upon such a high status Welsh site was a symbolic demonstration of English supremacy by Edward (not to mention it was pretty mean). The plan of building Conwy’s town walls and castle commenced immediately, and only four years after the invasion, Conwy’s defenses were complete. Unlike its brothers at Beaumaris and Caernafon, Conwy was prepared for the Welsh rebellion in 1294 and withstood the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn. During the second Welsh revolution in 1400, under the leadership of Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh used their wits rather than sole force to capture Conwy. Owain’s cousins, Rhys ap Tudur and his brother Gwilym, pretended to be carpenters working on repairing the castle. The trick worked; the watchmen on duty naively allowed their entry into the stronghold and the brothers proceeded to kill the guards, seizing the castle. Welsh rebels consequently attacked and captured the rest of the walled town. The brothers held out there for three months before negotiating a surrender, and as part of this agreement the pair were granted a royal pardon. In 1642 the English Civil War broke out, and just as with Beaumaris and Caernafon castle, Conwy was garrisoned by Royalists loyal to King Charles. John Williams, the Archbishop of York, took charge of the castle on behalf of the king, and set about repairing and garrisoning it at his own expense. A few years later, a Sir John Owen was appointed governor of the castle instead of Archbishop Williams despite all of his hard work, leading to a bitter dispute between the two men. Feeling unappreciated, the Archbishop defected to Parliament, and the town of Conwy fell in August 1646 to Parliamentarian forces. Conwy castle encountered no more battles, but over time the castle had been left to rot and fell into ruin, leaving only the stone fortifications behind.

Conwy Castle hugs a rocky, coastal ridge overlooking what was once an important crossing point over the river Conwy. The castle has a rectangular plan and is divided into an Inner and Outer Ward, with four 70-foot tall towers on each side. The main entrance to the castle is through the western barbican, an exterior defence in front of the main gate, and leads into the Outer Ward. The Inner Ward, which would have contained chambers for the royal household, was originally separated from the Outer Ward by an internal wall, a drawbridge and a gate. The Inner Ward was designed so that in times of emergency it would be sealed off from the rest of the castle and supplied from the eastern gate by sea almost indefinitely. When building a castle, its location and the strategy of its defences are paramount, and could even decide the rise and fall of ruling powers!

Conwy castle design

Another popular attraction within the heart of Conwy is ‘Plas Mawr’, a great hall built between 1576 and 1585 for the influential Welsh merchant, Robert Wynn. Plas Mawr is a beautiful and ornate townhouse left behind from the Elizabethan era, an architectural gem that reflects Robert’s wealth and status amidst the Welsh gentry. As successful as he was, there is a tragic story of Robert Wynn’s pregnant wife Dorthy and his young son. One night, after watching from the tower awaiting Robert’s return, Dorthy accidentally slipped down the spiral, stone steps while carrying her son, severely injuring them both. The servants of the house hastily carried them to Dorthy’s bedroom and called the family doctor. Unfortunately, their usual doctor was otherwise engaged, so a more junior doctor was sent to examine them both. When the junior doctor saw just how badly Dorthy and her son were wounded, he panicked—frightened that he didn’t have enough experience to treat them. When he attempted to leave the servants grew angry and locked the doctor in the room, forcing him stay with the wife and child. When Robert Wynn finally arrived home and was told of the disaster, he rushed to the bedroom only to find that the doctor had escaped and his wife, premature baby, and child were dead. Filled with rage at the careless doctor for abandoning his family, he vowed to hunt him down. The bereaved husband search was fruitless and eventually he went mad with grief, killing himself. It is said that Robert’s spirit still seeks the missing doctor in the room where his pregnant wife and child died.

The haunted Plas Mawr, Conwy, Wales

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