7 Mar 2014

Tales in time: Criccieth Castle

By Marie Powell (Photos by L. L. Melton)

I love castle hopping, and Wales is one of the best places to explore ruins from bygone days. With some 400 castles in about 20,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles), there's a lot to explore.

Last year I had the chance to see Criccieth Castle, located at the top of a rocky hill overlooking Cardigan Bay, North Wales. According to the Cadw's Criccieth Castle guidebook, the earliest records of the castle date from the 1230s, when Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) made it a main seat of power in North Wales.

He built the inner ward of the castle, including the twin towers, using a mix of angular stones from the rock around the castle, glacial boulders, with grey mortar made from beach gravel. The D-shaped towers are typical of Welsh native castles, but these twin gatehouses may have also been influenced by castles of the Marcher lords at Cheshire and Montgomery.

The various princes and kings who owned and controlled Criccieth had a hand in adding to its architecture. Although determining the date of a castle ruin might seem straightforward, there is a controversy over who built what part of Criccieth. Experts turn to structural evidence in the ruins to develop their theories and time estimates.

For example, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last) added an outer ward to the castle. The mortar used in his time is more gravelly, with stones and boulders brought to the site (rather than quarried from the castle rock) along with blue-grey slate. Experts believe the square holes about eight feet from the top mark the height of the towers during the time of the Welsh princes.

Arrow slits that can be seen at the ground level of the towers, as well as at strategic positions throughout the castle, offered a protected spot for archers guarding the castle from attack. Criccieth had several other buildings and towers as well, including one thought to have housed a trebuchet (a machine to throw stones) or a catapult for warding off enemy attacks.

Criccieth fell to Kind Edward I of England in March 1283, and was later held by Edward II (1307-1327) as well. They built up the top of the towers to the height we see today. The square holes held horizontal beams for a fighting platform (or "hourd") projecting from the wall. The English also used castle rock again, but the mortar from this period contains more shells.

Edward II spent over £250 on repairs and refurbishing, according to the guidebook. The castle was finally destroyed in about 1404, during the time of Owain Glyndwr, and was never rebuilt.

A small museum and gift shop at Criccieth tells more of the history and architecture of the castle, with colourful floor plans such as this one.

Another useful resource is the Castles of Wales website, which includes a discussion of the history, geography, architecture, and archaeology of this and other Welsh castles. As well as the guidebook, Welsh Castles by Adrian Pettifer also offers discussion of Criccieth and other castles by area.

Marie Powell is the author of seven books for children, including Dragonflies are Amazing (Scholastic Canada) and a six-book Word Families series (Amicus Publishing). Her second six-book series is expected this fall.

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