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Castle of the Week 122- Beaumaris Castle, United Kingdom

Beaumaris Castle represents the epitome of Edward I’s program of castle construction in Wales to consolidate his conquest after defeating a Welsh revolt in 1294-95 led by Madog ap Llyweln, the last Welsh Prince of Wales. It projects the power and impregnability of English domination over the Welsh countryside.

Beumaris Castle Panorama

Early History

Edward I needed a castle on Wales' biggest island, Anglesey. To build his hold on the island, the king hired the master engineer, Joseph of St. George. He was possibly the most educated and experienced castle engineer of his day. Joseph had studied the best castles in Europe and the Middle East and had the veteran experiences of architecting and managing the construction of at least 12 out of 17 of Edward I’s great Welsh castles already. The castle was built on an original, new site in a swamp ("beau mareys" means "fair marsh" in Norman French). Its location strategically allowed for access from the sea by means of a tidal dock. A channel was dug to link the moat to the Menai Strait and a walled dock was built as part of the outer curtain in front of the southern gatehouse. This dock allowed the shipping of supplies and reinforcements directly to the castle and prevented them from being ambushed in the Welsh countryside.

North GatehouseAnother demonstration of English power was the exodus of the entire local Welsh population of Llanfaes to the recently chartered town of Newborough on the far side of island to make room for the 2600 workmen brought in who lived in and added to the town around the castle site. During the first few years of construction, Edward I invested over £7,000 and the castle was being built at an excellent pace. Joseph of St. George, directed the work of the laborers who hauled in tons of stone, timber, charcoal, lead, and tools to tackle the project. However, the pace of the building effort slowed to a standstill by the year of 1300, but construction began afresh after Constable John de Metfield complained of defensive weakness in 1306. Building continued until about 1331, when funds ran out and the monarch’s attention shifted to other priorities such as the campaign against the Scots and increasing hostilities in France. Never rising to its full height, the castle seems squat and low-lying.

Structure: Impregnable Walls

Arial View of BeumarisThis is undoubtedly the ultimate concentric castle, built with an almost geometric symmetry. The first line of defense is the moat that prevents easy access to the walls. The main line of defenses are the two towered walls, one embedded within the other and positioned so that defenders on the inner wall could fire at attackers without striking comrades on the outer walls. If a besieger took the first wall, the hulking inner walls would confine them in a narrow, grassy killing ground.

Beumaris Outer GatehouseThe 15-foot (4.6m) thick quadrangular inner curtain wall is defended at each corner with four massive round towers with D-shaped towers planted midway along the east and west walls and two immense twin-towered gatehouses fronting the north and south sides. Here, I must mention one of the inner wall’s more peculiar, innovative features. The wall had a series of back-to-back latrine units. The units had individual doors for privacy, wooden seats for convenience, and were fitted with ventilation shafts rising from basement-level pits, which allowed air to circulate and also opened into channels underneath the outer bailey. Accessed periodically along the wall-walk, the latrines offered considerable comfort in an otherwise stark environment.

Ground PlanThe inner curtain surrounds ¾ of an acre which included a hall, kitchens, stables, a chapel in one of the towers, and a granary. The North Gatehouse was only raised to its hall level, but was intended to also house excellent accommodations fit for the new Prince of Wales. The southern gatehouse, though smaller, was intended to be the same size and contain some staterooms, but these were never built beyond the footers.

Arched CorridorThe outer curtain was angled slightly to form a more hexagonal shape to improve the angle of fire from multiple arrow slits in the walls from the sixteen evenly spaced towers. Joseph of St. George positioned the gatehouses in a staggered position that would require the attacker to expose a side of his body to half a wall of arrow fire while proceeding to the next gate. Other features of the gatehouses on both curtains were barbicans and murder holes to increase their resistance to enemy forces in the incidence they were breached.

Edward I died before the building stopped, but his son Edward II kept the unfinished castle garrisoned with one hundred foot soldiers, twenty archers and ten men-at-arms. The garrison size varied through history, and the castle was not ever put to test of a siege until the English Civil War during which the castle had a royalist garrison that surrendered in 1648 at the sight of cannons. An exception to the usual slighting to prevent a fortification from ever being used again, Beaumaris was spared by parliamentarian forces.

The Castle Today

The castle and town is surrounded by scenic beauty and is a tourist attraction not visited enough. Beamaris has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it reflects a significant accomplishment in the medieval art of castle building and is now in the care of Cadw, the guardian of designated Welsh heritage buildings. The sea has retreated from Beaumaris, but the shining waters of its broad moat reflect the past, when tides ebbed and flowed and safeguarded the fortress.

Write-up by Sir Hugh.

Special thanks to:
Pictures from Castles of the World and CastleXplorer
Ground Plan from Castles of the World

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*) denotes a former staff member.