When Edward I built Conwy he was into shock and awe. It was the mid 1280’s, he’d just won great battles and he was, by all he held dear, going to hold North Wales. In four years – four years! – he built this enormous castle and the huge city walls on the banks of the eponymous river. He put a lot of modern stuff into it, though he retained the basics of thick walls and a well.
The castle had its own moorings, two keeps, one inside the other and security in depth, splendid royal apartments, big windows and big fires, and a massive field of firepower if anyone did manage to creep up close. He abandoned the older fortified site on the other side of the river, which straddled two camel-humped hills but with a poorer view of the estuary. He kicked out the monks, sending them to Aberconwy, though their clock tower still stands proud in the town. He didn’t stay there much though, and indeed only he, the next Edward and Richard II ever did sleep in the place.
The only time the castle was taken it was not brute force but guile. The castle garrison were all at off at mass one day in 1401 when two Welsh men, pretending to be carpenters (and presumably godless with it), rocked up at the gates with ready tongues and disguised weapons. The only two guards let them in and were killed for their troubles. The rebels, well fed up with their Anglo-Norman overlords by then and under the inspired leadership of Owain Glyndwr,, held Conwy Castle for 15 weeks before being overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower.
The whole place, even in ruins, has the unmistakable stamp of authority, the white-hot urgency of new technology and brute force of the mailed fist. You can even tell its power in the pouring rain, as I know to my cost. Its plastered white walls must have shone for miles to tell the locals who ran the place now. It is a very fine example of the military architecture of its time and is a deserved World Heritage site.
Nonetheless, it cost the king the equivalent of £45m in today’s money and left him too strapped to finish Beaumaris or Harlech. Think on this, as we push for infrastructure investment.