Thursday, 1 October 2015

World Heritage in Wales - Beaumaris castle

 Wales is often described as a 'country of castles', with the remains of perhaps over 600 castles dotting the Welsh landscape. That reminds us the the Welsh were feisty, and pretty keen on defending the territory they held.

Not all Welsh castles were built by the Welsh. Many of the well known and best preserved castles in Wales were built by invaders to hold onto territory they had taken control of. The most famous invaders were the Normans, who built the first stone castle in Wales - Chepstow. They went on to build a number of castles across south east Wales, the remains of which are visible today.

However, Edward I, the King of England in the late 1200s, took castle building to a completely new level. He was so determined to subdue the Welsh, and bring them and their lands under his control, that he built a series of castles along the north and north west coast of Wales, all designed to be supplied by sea. Four of those castles, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy & Harlech, and the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy, were designated a world heritage site in 1986. The reason for this is that is that these are superb examples of castle design.

Beaumaris castle is perhaps the most perfect concentric castle design ever.  It's defences are impregnable. It's beautiful, but it was never finished - Edward I went off to fight the Scots, and ran out of money!

The stone it was built from was quarried locally, but the castle builders used two diferent colours to create a chequerboard design on the outer walls, as you can see in this photograph (click on the image to see a larger version):

The main entrance to the castle is pretty impressive. There was once a drawbridge here, and you can see the grooves where the portcullis once was, and several sets of murder holes in the ceiling. If that wasn't enough, there are arrowslits for the crossbowmen to shoot their bolts an unfriendly visitors!

If you got through the main castle entrance, you found that there was a castle within a castle, and this is the entrance way into the inner part of the castle - it's fearsome. There were several heavy wooden gates and portcullises, and many more murder holes. Imagine if you got into here and they shut the gates at both ends? Perfect killing zone.

And what were the defences protecting? These beautiful royal apartments. They may not look very grand now, but imagine large light airy rooms with window seats and huge fireplaces behind these huge windows. 

When the castle was built, most ordinary people lived in small one-roomed wattle and daub buildings with thatched roofs and no windows. This castle must have seemed the most fantastic place on earth to them. Edward I certainly intended it to impress, and also to be a massive symbol of his power. He moved a whole village to the other side of the island so that he could build this castle here - right in the centre of the view enjoyed by the Welsh Princes, at their home in Abergwyngregyn, across the Menai Straits.

Many of us don't appreciate the significance of religion in medieval Britain. Religion was all important. People paid 10% of their income to the church in tithes (taxes), their diet was determined by what the church decreed they could eat on any given day, they worshipped regularly, and dying without absolution was literally a fate worse than death, as it condemned people to purgatory, rather than going to heaven (if they had been good, or given enough money to the church) or hell.

In Beaumaris castle, they built a beautiful chapel, for the residents to worship in. The acoustics in the chapel are fantastic, it would have sounded amazing when hymns and chants were sung. It's also very ethereal, and it's the one place in the castle where you can begin to imagine the beauty of the architectural detail. A peaceful haven.

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