Today I’m going to be talking about the castles of the Welsh kings and princes of Gwynedd.
The kingdoms of Wales existed as separate entities long before the arrival of the Normans in 1066. In those days however the Welsh did not build castles so much as administrative centers. Today these are known as llys which means ‘palace’. Only one, Llys Rhosyr on the island of Anglesey, has been excavated. Thus, while the rulers of the different kingdoms did lead armies against each other they were not based on Castle defenses. When the Welsh did build defensive structures, they tended to continue the iron age tradition of building forts, hence the word ‘caer’ which is in so many Welsh place names. These forts were built on high ground, and usually built out of wood rather than stone. A perfect example of this kind of castle is Dinas Emrys, which legend says began during the time of Vortigern in the 5th century, but was rebuilt in stone by the sons of Owain Gwynedd in the 12th.
With the arrival of the Normans and their Castle building endeavors, the Welsh needed to build castles in order to properly defend their territories. Thus Wales has the highest number of castles per square mile in Europe. Throughout Wales Norman castles and Welsh castles dot the landscape, but the way that those castles were built and their locations are very different. Because the Normans were invading a territory and were opposed by hostile citizens, they needed to build castles that they could ressupply from the sea or from a river. Thus King Edward’s “Iron Ring of Castles” circles the perimeter of Gwynedd, with every castle built on low lying lands.
When the Welsh started building castles, they built them in locations that were in the heart of their territory. This was to defend passes through mountains, trade routes, and cattle grazing lands. Castell y Bere near Cadair Idris, and Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan in Snowdonia are three of the preeminent castles in Gwynedd that are still standing. Criccieth, as a fourth, is one of the few castles of the Welsh princes built on the Llyn Peninsula. Though not in the mountains, it was built on a promontory overlooking the ocean, with a good view of any enemy vessels sailing towards Gwynedd.
Welsh castles were built to protect and defend. Norman castles were built to conquer.