Romantic Castles and Palaces

Conway Castle Wales

Grant Allen


To call the town at the mouth of the Conway plain Conway is as absurd as if we were to call the town at the mouth of the Tyne plain Tyne instead of Tynemouth.

By whatever name we call it, however, Conway town itself is equally interesting and equally beautiful. It still presents perhaps the best specimen yet remaining in Britain of a mediaeval borough, begirt (encompass) to this day with its Thirteenth Century walls, and overlooked by the towers of its strong castle-fortress. Even Telford's graceful suspension-bridge, in admirable harmony of tone and plan with the surrounding buildings, hardly detracts at all from the old-world character of the familiar scene; nay, I am not sure that it does not even add somewhat to its picturesqueness. As much cannot be said for the huge iron boxes of Stephenson's tubular bridge which carries the London and North-Western line across the river on its way to Holyhead.

But taken as a whole, the mouth of the Conway, with its town and castle, has hardly an equal perhaps in Britain, save, the mouth of the Dart in the equally Celtic Devonian uplands.

Yet to the Welshman, the towers of Conway, beautiful as they are from every point of view, must long have seemed a badge of servitude. We forget too often in looking at these picturesque relics of the lawless days how stern and business-like they must once have appeared, how suggestive of none but purely military and aggressive associations. Time has softened the murderoas effect of keep and bastion, and left us nothing but the graceful tinge of poetic mediævalism. But when Edward I. impressed into his service the unpaid labour of the conquered Welsh to raise his great castles around the disaffected mountain land, he did it with the distinct and deliberate purpose of holding in check for the future all wild aspirations of the native race after Cymric independence. The great triangle formed by the three strong castles of Harlech, Caernavon, and Conway (like the famous Austrian quadrilateral in North Italy) was a standing menace to the national movement and an effectual curb upon the national desire to rise in revolt. The three proud strongholds occupy the keys to the three chief routes into the heart of Snowdonia. Harlech blocks the way by the Vale of Festiniog or the Pass of Aberglaslyn: Caernavon guards the bare ravine of Llanberis: Conway frowns down upon the Bettws road and stops the coast path by Penmaenmawr and Bangor. Dominated and daunted by these three imposing fortresses, so vastly superior in design and construction to the little tower keeps of her native princelings, the mountain heart of Gwynedd lay still for centuries, only galvanized for a moment once into spasmodic life, during the troublous times of civil commotion in England, by the adventurous spirit of that Deeside chief whose name Englishmen travesty into Owen Glendower.

Nowhere is the genius of Edward's great architect, Henry of Elreton, more conspicuous than in this noble pile at Conway. Half castle, half palace — for Edward meant to be king as well as conqueror — it combined the military solidity of Anglo-Norman work with the domestic magnificence of later Tudor mansions. Its great hall, in particular, must have formed, when perfect, one of the most regal and splendid reception-rooms then existing in any part of England. The remaining lancet windows of the royal private apartments, and the beautiful early-decorated workmanship of Queen Eleanor's oratory, survive to show with what royal state Edward kept his court both here and at Caernavon. For it is quite a mistake to regard the greatest of Plantagenets as a mere savage conqueror — the "ruthless king" of Gray's immortal calumny. If Edward repressed sternly, he meant to reign peacefully. The "massacre of the bards" and all the other poetical rubbish with which Welsh legend has clouded the history of the national defeat, must be relegated to the limbo of exploded fable. The plain truth is that, when once Llewelyn and Dafydd were dead, Edward's whole policy in the Welsh question was a policy of conciliation. His object was to pacify and Anglicize the disaffected uplands, to make communications safe through what had once been the stronghold of Taffy, that typical robber outlaw, and to reorganize the broken Celtic community on the familiar model of the English kingdom. It was not in mere play, therefore, that he presented to the Welsh his own eldest son, born by deliberate arrangement an indigenous Welshman in Caernavon Castle, as the first Prince of Wales of a new and more powerful line, or that he built and decorated those great royal reception rooms in his Cambrian palaces, where the chieftains of Gwynedd and the rude lords of Anglesey might for the first time see and be duly impressed by the splendour and the glitter of Anglo-Norman chivalry.

Viewed from this wider standpoint, the beautiful chainbridge and the ugly boxes of Stephenson's iron monstrosity are themselves in a certain sort the direct heirs and truest modern representatives of Edward's wise and necessary policy. So seen, they cease to interfere with the unity of the view and merge into one with the great Plantagenet design of the palace-castle. For both these important works, with their still vaster and more wonderful sister-bridges over the Menai at Bangor, form to this day the outer and visible sign of that coalescence of the Celtic and Teutonic elements in Britain to which Edward devoted all his life and energy. The first great roads made by the first great road-makers in England were the roads that connected London, the centre of the empire, with the Irish packets at Holyhead; and both those roads, whether coastwise or internal, by Glan Ogwen or Penmaenmawr, led through the wildest parts of Wild Wales. The greatest life task of the greatest engineer before the railway period — Telford — was the Holyhead road: the greatest life task of the inventor of the locomotive and his still abler sons — George and Robert Stephenson — was the iron line from London to Holyhead, In these gigantic undertakings, Celt and Saxon were united for all, and the better day of fraternal friendship was inaugurated in full sight of Edward's threatening castle towers. Dr. Arnold loved to look at the railway engine, snorting steam across the midland acres, and think that feudalism was dead forever. It is pleasant in like manner to look even at Stephenson's hideous tubular bridge, and think, that ill as it contrasts in beauty with the Plantagenet turrets, it is nevertheless the symbol of that complete fellowship between Saxon and Celt in this land of Britain which forms the final goal and ideal of our national unity.

The vale of Conway does not stop abruptly at Conway town; it prolongs itself seaward by gentle degrees far into the shallow waters of Beaumaris Bay. On either side lie the wide tidal sandbanks, formed of material which the river has washed down from the peaks of Snowdon, Glyder, and the Carnedds, the very source from which they are derived being often traceable in the mineralogical peculiarities of the individual grains. About these sands the weird and melancholy Celtic fancy has woven a variation on the common mournful Celtic legend of the submerged country — the legend which meets us again under a hundred disguises in the story of Sythenin Cardigan Bay, the floods of Sarn Badrig, the lost land of Lyonesse, and the sunken city of Is on the coasts of Brittany.

Wherever the Cymric Celt remains, there these stories survive and accompany him. Perhaps they may inclose some true kernel of tradition about the terrific submergence which undoubtedly once took place round the coasts of the two Britains — the greater and the less — at the period when the forest-bed of post-glacial date was swallowed up by the devouring Atlantic. It seemed more probable, however, and it is certainly far more comforting to believe that the vast earth-movement took place so quietly, and was spread over so many peaceful centuries, that it was no more recognized by the men who lived during its gradual progress than the slow and gradual submergence of Scandinavia — an inch at a time — is noticed in our own day by the Norwegian peasant. Rather do these stories reflect and embody the gloomy fancy of a conquered people, whose traditions of glory all referred to a remote and unreal past, and who felt in their despair that the very elements themselves had wrested from them those fertile lands which their fathers had never really owned or cultivated.

Be this as it may, local legend declares that the Lavan sands — the very name in Welsh means Banks of Lamentation — represent the relics of a rich lowland hundred, engulfed by the sea at one wild swoop in the early part of the Middle Ages. About a fathom deep, off Y Foel Llus, lies a submarine bank still known as Llys Helig, or Helig's Palace. Here, according to tradition, stood the lofty castle of the Cymric lord who owned for miles around the fertile plain; and Welsh imagination still sees at low tide through the clear water of the bay the boundary stones of the ancient road that passed from the British stronghold at Rhuddlan to the fortress of Treganwy, now equally overwhelmed beneath the sands of Beaumaris. It is a little unfortunate for the truth of the tale that similar evidences of historical verity are always produced in favour of Caer Is and all the other Celtic buried cities — and that no Saxon eye has ever clearly beheld them.

Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901
Conway Castle, Wales, by Grant Allen. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.