It is almost impossible to narrow down a “top ten” list of Welsh castles. Each has it’s own unique history, setting and architecture. However, there are certain castles that show up again and again on top lists, and those are included here. Most also have a bit of interesting trivia attached – like the castle used in the opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or the one featured in an episode of Dr. Who.
Contact us today and we’ll set up an custom itinerary with as many castles as you want, or a fully guided tour of Wales!
Why so many castles in Wales? A quick bit of history will explain.
In the 1200’s, King Edward I of England, waged a full-scale war to conquer Wales and bring it under English control. Edward’s idea was to build an “Iron Ring” of massive stone castles around Wales to subdue the Welsh population. HIs campaign was not popular with the locals, as you can imagine. The native Welsh were and are obviously a formidable group of people, to require such massive castles to conquer. As well, the fact that the distinct language and culture of Wales survives today, 800 years later, is testament to their resilience!
All the castles listed here are open to the public. Check websites for hours.
Castles in North Wales
(Norman-French: “fair marsh”) One of Edward’s Iron Ring castles, this one took longer than expected to build. When work stopped in 1330, over £15,000 had been spent, a huge sum for the period, but the castle remained incomplete – it was not quite as tall as Edward had wanted (although one would never know from looking at this majestic castle!). Interesting fact: UNESCO considers Beaumaris, known as a “concentric castle” for its design, to be one of “the finest examples of 13th -14th century military architecture in Europe”, and is named a World Heritage site.
Built near the site of an ancient Roman fort, Caernarfon, with it’s unusual polygonal towers, is magnificently located right on the water, at the southern end of the Menai Strait between north Wales and Anglesey. It is a also World Heritage site. Interesting fact: The castle’s builder had ‘visions of grandeur’ and wanted Caernarfon to “echo the walls of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome and the dream castle, the fairest that ever man saw.”
3. Conwy Castle
800-year old Conwy Castle sits on a massive ridge of sandstone and limestone jutting into the sea. Much of the stone from which it was built was taken from the rock on which it sits. Interesting fact: Yet another of the Iron Ring castles, this castle was later used by Richard II as a stronghold when evading his rival Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) – remember your Shakespeare?
Castles in South Wales
Built as one of the Iron Ring castles, Caerphilly was caught up in local and country-wide civil wars over the centuries. Interesting fact 1: Caerphilly sits in a basin of the Rhymney Valley, on the Rhymney River, and when built, featured a sophisticated network of moats, lakes and dams, considered to be among “the most elaborate water defenses in all of Britain”. Interesting fact 2: Caerphilly was featured in the BBC series Merlin.
The ruins of Oystermouth Castle sit high on a hill in the village of Mumbles overlooking Swansea Bay. The first castle was built around 1105, but was destroyed in wars over the following centuries. The castle ruin was restored only in the last 20 years, and is now open to the public. Interesting fact: Remnants of an ornate medieval painting dating back to the 14th century were found in the chapel. The painting, spotted during recent conservation work, is thought to be over 700 years old.
Kidwelly Castle overlooks the River Gwendraeth and the town of Kidwelly. The present ruins of the castle date from about 1200 to 1475. Kidwelly was involved in battles between the Welsh and English over the centuries. Interesting fact 1: The surrounding countryside is reputedly haunted by the ghost of the strikingly beautiful warrior princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffydd). She lead her countrymen to battle against the English but was captured and beheaded in 1136. (The Welsh Braveheart, anyone?) According to legend, for centuries after her death, the Welsh cried “Revenge for Gwenllian!” when going to battle. Interesting fact 2: Kidwelly Castle appeared in the first scene after the titles in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail“,
Located on the estuary of the River Tâf, this castle was originally built in 1116 by the Normans. It became a fortified manor house in the Tudor era (16th century), and excavations have revealed the remains of the Tudor cobbled courtyard and pitched stone kitchen floor. Interesting fact: The nearby quaint and walkable town of Laugharne was home to beloved Welsh poet Dylan Thomas from 1949 until his death in 1953. Thomas was said to have worked in the ruin of the castle on his “autobiographical” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
The Marches, near the English border
Considered the oldest castle in Wales (construction started in 1097!), Chepstow was commissioned by William the Conqueror when he declared himself King of England in the years after the Battle of Hastings. Perched high above the River Wye, Chepstow stands guard over a strategic crossing from Wales into England. Interesting fact: The castle doors (now on display) are the oldest continuously-used castle doors in Europe (used until 1962 – almost 900 years!). Chestow’s architecture has evolved over the years so much that you can see the evolution of medieval architecture from “start to finish.”
One of the “most recent” castles built in Britain (1435), Raglan was built to “make a (15th century) statement with comfort and convenience in mind”. Interesting fact: However, it was also apparently well-built for sieges, as its battlements withstood one of the longest, and last, sieges of the civil war in the 1600’s. After falling to the Parliamentarians, they dredged the castle moat in search of treasure, emptied the fishponds of valuable carp, and looted the castle’s library, including an important collection of Welsh documents. But yet it stands today for you to visit, testament to the architectural skill of its builder!
10. Skenfrith Castle
Skenfrith is one of three “fortress-castles”, along with White Castle and Grosmont, built in the 12th century along the Welsh border to protect trade routes between Wales & England. Largely a scenic ruin now, 3 of the 4 corner towers still stand, as does the curtain wall fortification, and the round keep. Interesting fact: For time travel fans, the castle once hosted an episode of Dr. Who.
Which castles would you like to see? Contact Dragon in Your Pocket today and we’ll set up an custom itinerary with as many castles as you want, or a fully guided tour of Wales!
NOTE: Stunning castle photos courtesy of CADW, which protects the history of Wales.