As someone born and raised in the U.S. of A., my experience with Things Medieval tends to be mostly fanciful, and not much based in reality.
And yet, there we were, in North Wales, where medieval history is front and center.
Following a series of invasions beginning shortly after their conquest of England in 1066, the Normans seized much of Wales and established quasi-independent Marcher lordships, owing allegiance to the English crown. However, Welsh principalities such as Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth survived and from the end of the 11th century, the Welsh began pushing back the Norman advance. Over the following century the Welsh recovery fluctuated and the English kings, notably Henry II, several times sought to conquer or establish suzerainty over the native Welsh principalities. Nevertheless, by the end of the 12th century the Marcher lordships were reduced to the south and south east of the country.
In 1274, tension between Llywelyn and Edward increased when Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys and Llywelyn's younger brother Dafydd ap Gruffydd defected to the English and sought Edward's protection. Because of the continuing conflict with the Marcher Lords and Edward's harbouring of defectors, when Edward demanded that Llywelyn come to Chester in 1275 to do homage to him, Llywelyn refused.
War broke out again in 1282, as a result of a rebellion by Llywelyn's brother Dafydd, who was discontented with the reward he had received from Edward in 1277. Dafydd launched a series of attacks co-ordinated with the Welsh rulers in Deheubarth and North Powys, who had been Llywelyn's vassals until 1277 and were now Edward's vassals. Llywelyn and the other Welsh leaders, including those in the south, joined in and it soon assumed a very different character from the 1277 campaign. It became a national struggle enjoying wide support among the Welsh, who were provoked particularly by Edward's attempts to impose English law on the Welsh. Edward, however, soon began to see it as a war of conquest rather than just a punitive expedition to put down a rebellion.
Edward divided the territory of the Welsh principalities between himself (that is, retained under direct royal control) and his supporters through feudal grants, which in practice became new Marcher lordships. The lordships created were mainly grants to Anglo-Normans such as the Earl of Lincoln who received the lordship of Denbigh. But additionally, Edward's Welsh allies received back their own lands, but on a feudal basis; for instance, Owain ap Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, of the princely house of Powys Wenwynwyn, received his ancestral lands as the lordship of Powys and became known as Owen de la Pole (or "Poole").
Lands retained under direct royal control were organised under the Statute of Rhuddlan of 1284, which declared that they were "annexed and united" to the English crown, although they did not become part of the Kingdom of England. They were the King's personal fief and in 1301, they were bestowed on Edward's son, Edward of Caernarfon (the future Edward II), with the title "Prince of Wales" and thereafter the lands and title became the customary endowment of the heir to the throne.
Well, anyway, there we were in North Wales, and the weather was beautiful, and called for a spot of traveling, and we had hired this brand new Ford Zuga which was just a joy to drive, so off we went to see some CASTLES!!
We didn't have to go very far to get started, as we could see the first castle from out our bedroom window! Our hotel was just across the River Conwy from the walled town of Conwy, so that was our first stop. There's a nice car park just south of the city walls, so we parked the car and spent a lovely hour walking the narrow medieval streets, stopping for a cappuccino and a scone, and poking our noses into the various shops.
This isn't the only castle at the mouth of the river Conwy, as it turns out: from our hotel room, we could see the site of Castel Deganwy, the ancient fortress of the King of Gwynedd in the 500's. Although we didn't make it up to that site, it was interesting to contemplate the varied choices made by the different kings in the different times: mountain top, or river mouth?
I wished we had found the time to explore Castell Conwy, which is said to be one of the best-preserved 750-year-old buildings you'll ever see, but such was not to be, as we had got a late start that morning and had other things to do.
Nonetheless, it was a beautiful building to walk around, and it made for a lovely view from our hotel room, high upon the hills above.
But, really, enough of this nattering on about castles we didn't visit; what about the castles that we DID vist?!
One fine sunny morning, we headed out in the auto and made our way to Caernarfon, which is about as far north and west as you can get and still be in mainland Wales (Anglesey Island is farther north and west, but then, it's an island).
Caernarfon is the 800 pound gorilla of Welsh castles, not just for its historical and cultural significance, but for its overall entertainment value: this is a GIANT castle.
The castle towers stretch nearly 10 stories into the air, the castle walls are solid and nearly 5 stories tall themselves, and the interior of the castle keep is an immense expanse of lawn (of course, when originally occupied, the interior of the castle was packed with stores and barracks and production facilities and courts and all of the other Machinery of the State; for now, you just have to see that all in your imagination).
In addition to clambering around on the castle walls, the various interior spaces of the castle are filled with exhibits and displays, so there was lots to see and learn about.
I found myself a bit disappointed by the museums, because they mostly focused on the military history of the castle, and I wished I could have learned more about the other roles it played in the life of late-medieval Wales (trade, education, agricultural and industrial development, etc.), but since the castle was largely a military fortress, perhaps the museum's focus was appropriate.
Still, I always find myself wondering about the most mundane things when I'm wandering around a castle: "where did they keep the pigs and chickens?" "how did they make beer in the castle?" "where did people go to do their laundry?"
But, did I mention the part about clambering around on the castle walls?
We could have stayed at Caernarfon all day, but I was impatient, so we popped back into the auto and drove out onto Anglesey Island, up to the small town of Beaumaris.
Beaumaris Castle is often referred to as "the greatest castle never built," a nice tag line which cleanly encapsulates the very interesting story of the castle. By the time that construction on the castle was begun, in 1296, King Edward I and his master castle builder, James of St. George, were at the peak of their power, their skills, and their ambition, and so the plans and scope of Beaumaris Castle were extravagant in the extreme.
Although the castle was never finished, it is so beautifully located, and what was actually built is so beautiful, that it is a joy to wander about and contemplate.
Of particular interest, when we were there, was the work of a team of modern stonemasons, hard at work on repair a section of the main keep walls, using historically-accurate tools, techniques, and materials. As we walked about the castle, the "ting! ting! ting!" of their mallets and chisels upon the stone wall lent a fascinating sense of realism, making it almost possible to imagine being a craftsman hard at work inside the castle as it was under construction.
By this point, after all this hard work touring castles and keeps, we were tired and hungry, so we repaired to a friendly cafe on the waterfront and sat at the outdoor table and enjoyed Welsh Rarebit sandwiches and Jacket Potatoes with a view of the Snowdonia mountains in the distance.
And we declared the day a perfect success.