A Visit to Criccieth Castle in Wales

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One of the great things about Britain is it's sheer number of castles, so it would have been a crime to visit Wales without taking one in...

This April I ended up in Wales when I went to a writing retreat at Ty Newydd. The last time I was in the country had been in 2012 when I attended the Student Role Playing Nationals in Cardiff and, to my regret, I saw nothing of the town but the inside of cardiff uni and a (very tasty) noodle bar. I was determined to actually see Wales this time, so I grouped up with a couple of ladies and hiked across the farmer's tracks and pebble beach to the seaside town of Criccieth. We were impressed to find the ruin of a castle sat atop a hill with its back to the sea and the town curled around below it.

The History to Criccieth Castle

Criccieth Castle lies in what was the old Welsh district of Eifionydd, which was part of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd. Gwynedd had risen up when the Romans left Britain in 410AD and, like many powers of the time, it was part of a network of independant princes and lords.

The foundations of Criccieth Castle were built by prince Llywelyn ab Lorwerth, ruler of Gwynedd in 1201. He had a mixed relationship with his English neighbours but on the whole managed to carve out a reasonable parlay: the English King John recognised Llywelyn's right to rule and even agreed to marry his illegitimate daughter to the Welsh prince. However as Llywelyn's ambitions increased and he asserted his supremacy of Wales through military pressure, John was quickly irritated and the two powers warred. Llywelyn pushed forward with successes and, in pushing against the English, he managed to unite many of the Welsh princes towards a common enemy. As hostilities ebbed he was shrewd in moving to make marriage alliances with the English lords on the Welsh March and he began building Criccieth Castle to cement his power and status visibly.

While we know of this activity in the early 1200s we don't actually find a written record on Criccieth Castle until 1239. Here there is a record of Dafydd  - Llywelyn ab Lorwerth's legitimate heir - imprisoning his half brother Gruffudd and nephew Owain at Criccieth. The castle would intermittently serve as a prison throughout its entire life. In the end, when Dafydd died Gruffudd took over as Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, and inherited Criccieth Castle with the title.

Llywelyn's greatest success came in 1267 and the Treaty of Montgomery with the English king Henry III. Here, the English king formally recognised Llywelyn as the prince of all of Wales....provided that he paid fealty to the king.
As is so often the case, peace didn't last long as Llywelyn pushed at the boundaries of these terms and 
Criccieth Castle served as a hub for many courtly negotiations. Llywelyn fell in 1282 when the then English King Edward I went to war with him and in the battle Criccieth Castle was captured by Edward.

Criccieth itself became a small borough in Wales that was under the control of Edward and his descendants and Edward heavily invested in building work on the castle, a large part of which was to repair the damage of attacking it in the first place. It is thought that Edward even installed a huge trebuchet war machine that sat on a platform on the castle walls. Criccieth Castle would remain under English control all the way until 1404 and the victory of Owain Glyndwr's Welsh rebellion.

Over the years insensitive English officials and excessive taxation sowed unrest in Wales that culminated in Owain Glyndwr proclaiming himself as prince of Wales. His rebels mounted an attack on the English garrisons throughout the country. Criccieth Castle was besieged and eventually defeated due to the mix of cutting off it's supplies from the land and the sea and through sheer military force. Badly damaged, Criccieth Castle fell to Owain Glyndwr and into Welsh control once more. It was never fully rebuilt and gradually faded into relative obscurity.

So what is it like nowadays?

For a tourist, Criccieth Castle isn't the most impressive castle in Britain in any sense, but it is well worth a look if you're in the area. The hill it's built upon offers stunning views across the sea, Criccieth town and out to the rolling mountains that surround the location, with Snowden in the distance.

The museum itself is small but nicely done, tracking the history of several Welsh castles, and there's a palpable pride that these are Welsh castles built by the Welsh rather than Norman castles that were imposed on the country. The exhibition is interesting because it focuses on telling a wider Welsh history through the eyes of Gerald of Wales who moved through the country and chronicled his impressions of the Welsh peoples and Princes. It offers a great traveller's view to the country and the people who set up the exhibition did so with care and a sense of humor, often putting conflicting descriptions together side by side: for example, having Gerald describe both the charitable, loyal welcoming and noble natures of the Welsh and the money-grabbing feckless natures of the Welsh that he described apparently without care for the contradictions. The exhibition boards are a striking mix of neon and gothic and there is a very entertaining cartoon about Gerald of Wales that plays which is great for children and surprisingly informative and approachable.

Finally, from the tourist perspective, everything is in dual languages - both Welsh and English - which is brilliant to see and very interesting to try to read for anyone unfamiliar with Welsh.

Overall I enjoyed my visit and I'd definitely recommend taking a look if you're close to Criccieth.

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Thank you to Cadw - the Welsh Government's Historic Environment Service, esp Richard Advent, for their detailed work on the Criccieth guidebook.

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