The Welsh like to tell you that there have 427 castles in Wales—and while many are in ruins, set amidst the country's dramatic landscapes, there are still more than 200 that are well-preserved and perfect for exploration.
Most castles in Wales are either Norman, belonging to Welsh princes, or date back to the reign of Edward I. The Normans, under William the Conqueror introduced castles as we know them to Britain. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he gave land to his loyal nobles to build fortresses to secure his conquest. His motte and bailey castles—mounds, surrounded by wood fenced courtyards and earthworks—went up fast, mostly in South Wales. Later, wealthy Normans added stone keeps and strong defensive walls. Meanwhile, the strongholds of the early princes of Wales mainly were primitive earthworks and stone structures. But they placed them in the most dramatic and well-defended locations in the Welsh landscape. Most have disappeared under the buildings of successive waves of victors. What distinguishes them, besides their positions, are the central towers that are often all that is left of them. Edward I of England led two military campaigns against the Welsh in the late 13th century. Eventually, he surrounded the North Wales province of Gwynedd with castles to subdue the locals. Those that remain today are the fairytale castles of Wales, some of the most famous and well-preserved castles in all of the U.K. Four of them—Conwy, Caernarvon, Harlech, and Beaumaris—make up the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Caerphilly is the second largest castle in Britain. Only Windsor is bigger. It was built by a Norman lord, Gilbert de Clare, to protect himself from the powerful Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (who did his best to knock it down). The castle covers more than 30 acres. During the English Civil War, a gunpowder explosion damaged the southeast tower, leaving it at a precarious angle that remains the castle’s most popular feature. Before World War II, the Marquess of Bute restored it in the most thorough and authentic castle restoration project ever undertaken in Britain.
The Normans took 250 years to subdue the Welsh. Kidwelly was often at the center of the conflict. Maurice de Londres was lord of the castle when it was attacked by a Welsh army led by the almost legendary warrior Princess. Gwenllian. She was the only woman to lead a medieval Welsh army into battle. She lost and was beheaded for treason (and her headless ghost haunts the place, of course), but her example prompted an uprising that ultimately drove the English out of West Wales. The castle featured in the opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Sitting on a high bluff in the westernmost corner of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Carreg Cennan has impressive defenses. Instead of a simple drawbridge, the castle was protected by a series of spike-lined pits crossed by narrow bridges that made abrupt turns to slow attackers. At any time, the bridge supports could be drawn away, plunging attackers to their deaths. The pits are still there, but safe walkways have replaced the fearsome bridges. The earliest record of this castle was in the 13th century when Rhys Fychan, great-grandson of the original castle builder, won it back for his family. His own mother, who disliked him, had treacherously handed it over to the English.
The 50-foot high round tower of Dolbadarn sits above a lake in Snowdonia, Llyn Padarn. Surrounded by what is left of its curtain wall of unmortared slate slabs, it once defended the ancient Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. They were a quarrelsome lot, the early Welsh princes. One of them, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, locked up his brother in the tower for twenty years! Today, go for the views over the lake and the upper Conwy Valley. The tower itself is quite photogenic too.
Before the arrival of the Normans, the Welsh princes did not build many castles, preferring a nomadic lifestyle instead. As a result, there are only about 40 castles associated them left. Dolwyddelan is one. It guarded a vital pass through the mountains of Snowdonia National Park and was probably built as a visible statement of power by Llywelyn the Great, who ruled the area for almost 40 years. In the 19th century, the castle was fancifully restored in a medieval-style by a local lord. The join between the original castle of Llywelyn and the later additions are visible. Landscape artists going back hundreds of years, including J.M.W. Turner, have painted Dolwyddelan.
When Edward I set out to ruthlessly subdue the Welsh once and for all, in the late 13th century, he created a ring of castles around the rebellious province of Gwynedd, destroying villages and uprooting whole communities to plant those loyal to him. Despite their brutal origins, Edward’s castles, designed by his architect, Master James of St George, are among the most beautiful in Wales. Harlech sits atop a steep slope facing the sea. Reachable across a drawbridge from the landside or hundreds of very steep, narrow steps from the beach, it overlooks beautiful ridges of dunes. At one time, the sea lapped the base of the rocky crag it sits on. Here you can climb the battlements and towers to enjoy the views or explore the exhibition in the barbican. The recently completed “floating” footbridge allows you to enter Harlech Castle as initially intended for the first time in 600 years.
If you visit only one castle in Wales, Conwy should be it. Edward I and Master James of St George created this fantastic castle and its walled village in only four years. You can safely walk a full circuit of the 8-towered battlements or the still intact 1,400-yard town walls. The castle also has the most complete set of medieval royal residential rooms anywhere in England and Wales. Approach the castle across the hundred-meter-long, Grade I Conwy Suspension Bridge. Designed by Thomas Telford in 1822, it was one of the world’s first road suspension bridges.
The investiture ceremony for the current Prince Wales, Prince Charles, took place here in 1969. The crown he wore has recently been added to the Crown Jewels exhibit in the Tower of London. It's no surprise that this mighty castle, built on an epic scale, was chosen for this globally televised royal ceremony. It was designed as more than a fortress but as an awe-inspiring symbol bringing ancient legends to life. It recalls the Welsh myth of the dream of a fort at the mouth of a river—"The fairest that man ever saw." Edward II, the first English Prince of Wales, was born in the unfinished castle in 1301, inheriting all the income from the Crown's Welsh domains. It was England's final imperial act in subduing the Welsh.
UNESCO says this castle is one of "the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe". The castle, in Anglesey, is composed of a pair of symmetrical, concentric fortifications: a moated outer ward with 12 towers and two gatehouses, and a walled inner ward with two large D-shaped gatehouses. The popular town and thriving port of Llanfaes, supported by Llywelyn the Great, was ruthlessly demolished by Edward I to build it. As impressive as it is, Beaumaris was never finished. The king was sidetracked by Scottish wars and ran out of money.
Dylan Thomas, who lived in Laugharne, wrote "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog" while living in this castle's summer house. Built in 1116 as part of a line of defensive Norman castles on the south and west coasts of Wales, it was regularly demolished by Welsh forces. It was restored by an Elizabethan courtier, Sir Joh Perrot, who built a gentleman's Tudor mansion behind the castle's massive twin towers. He ended up in another tower, the Tower of London, where he died while awaiting execution for treason. It was finally destroyed in the English Civil War, but the scenic ruin is popular with artists.