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Exploring Wales, the castle capital of the world

Wales might have acquired its popular image as the ‘Land of Song’ due to the eisteddfod tradition and rousing choir singing but the ruins and standing castles reveal the turbulent history of medieval times, and the fragmentation of power that led to their construction, writes Teja Lele.
Last Updated : 07 July 2024, 05:20 IST

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Teja Lele

Cardiff Castle isn’t easy to put into a box. A Roman stronghold, a Norman bastion, and a Victorian Gothic fantasy palace, it offers “2,000 years of history in the heart of Wales’ capital city”, according to the guide showing us around the magnificent structure.

“The Romans built the first fort in the 1st century AD. In the 11th century, the Normans constructed the keep that dominates the city skyline. Much later, in the 19th century, the Bute family transformed the structure into an opulent Victorian Gothic home,” he says. We marvel at the spectacular Victorian medieval dream world architect William Burges created for the 3rd Marquess of Bute: opulent interiors rich in gilding and embellishments, elaborate wood carvings, large murals, and stained glass that appear like bursts of colour.

The lavish interiors have come in for plentiful praise. In the words of historian Megan Aldrich, they’re “the most magnificent that the Gothic revival ever achieved”, while architectural historian J Mordaunt Crook wrote they are “three-dimensional passports to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold”.

The awe-inspiring Cardiff Castle, with its summer smoking room, Arab room, and clock tower, is one of the many castles that dot the rugged landscapes of Wales. With more than 600 castles spread across 8.192 square miles, more per square mile than anywhere else, the ‘Land of Song’ is the castle capital of the world. The ruins and standing castles reveal the turbulent history of medieval Wales and the fragmentation of power that led to their construction. Castles weren’t just strategic constructions on significant sites like hilltops or overlooking the sea or river; they were built to proclaim authority and defend the land in a period dominated by recurrent, often localised, warfare.

The landscape, scattered with Iron Age hill forts, Roman ruins, and castles built by Medieval Welsh princes and English kings, stands tall today as a reminder of a tempestuous time when English kings and Welsh princes vied for power. In The Culture of Castles in Tudor England and Wales, Audrey M Thorstad focuses on the fact that a castle was an imposing architectural landmark in late medieval and early modern England and Wales. “Castles were much more than lordly residences…These structures were political, symbolic, residential, and military, and shaped the ways in which people consumed the landscape and interacted with the local communities around them,” she writes.

Some of the finest castles in Wales were built by King Edward I, who led two military campaigns in Wales (1276–77 and 1282–83) to bring the country under English rule. The castles built under him — Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech — are the finest surviving examples of late 13th-century military architecture in Europe. The four magnificent castles, along with two sets of town walls, were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986 as the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd World Heritage Site.

All the castles in Wales give an architectural account of a storied past, a longstanding history — Caernarfon Castle, said to be the most spectacular castle in Wales; Cardiff Castle, originally a Roman fort and now a big calm cube right in the city centre; Conwy Castle, one of the most magnificent medieval fortresses in Europe; or Harlech Castle, which stands on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

The foundation of the formidable Caerphilly Castle was laid alongside the rise of the
powerful Prince of Wales. Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare decided he needed an intimidating fortress, and constructed the biggest castle in Wales — second only to Windsor in the whole of Britain. I keep an eye out for the most looked-for feature: Wales’ leaning tower, even more lopsided than that of Pisa! Perusing a book on castles in the gift shop, I glean an informative nugget: The single tower of Cwm Camlais near Brecon stakes claim to be the smallest castle in Wales’ title.

Other important fortifications include Raglan Castle, one of the last medieval castles to be built in England and Wales; Beaumaris, with four concentric rings of formidable defences and a water-filled moat; Penrhyn, more like a French château than a real castle; Pembroke Castle, surrounded by water on three sides and impregnable for four centuries; and Abergavenny Castle, one of the earliest Norman castles in Wales and dating to 1087.

Interestingly, the Normans used the motte-and-bailey castle, easy and quick to construct, to subjugate the people of Wales. In time, the Welsh adopted this building technique and, like the Normans, soon began buttressing their castles with stone, the guide says.

Welsh-built castles, such as Dolbadarn (built by Llywelyn the Great during the 13th century), Dolwyddelan, and Dinas Brân, are typically less lavish and overbearing, owing to the scarcity of money and unavailability of craftsmen. However, they used the inhospitable terrain of the Welsh countryside as their primary line of defence, perching their castles on high rocky outcrops, shielded by sheer cliffs and secured by deep ditches. Over centuries, as the sporadic wars died down, castles evolved from formidable fortresses to lavish stately homes. Today, the castles of Wales, an integral part of the landscape, stand tall — they’re history in stone.

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Published 07 July 2024, 05:20 IST

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