As the second smallest country in the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland is the smallest), Wales packs a punch despite its compact size. Castles form a significant part of Welsh history as well as landscape. There are well over 400 castles in Wales making it the country with most castles per square mile than any other country in the world.
Interestingly, most castles in Wales aren’t Welsh, as some would think but rather English as they were built with the purpose to not only overlook and protect the lands but also keep the Welsh subjugated.
Wales fell into England’s hands after Dafydd, the last Prince of Wales, was executed in 1283. Edward I of England had total control over Wales afterward and to ensure that people of Wales would be faithful to the English rule, he commanded the building of castles, many of them enormous stone structures so typical of Medieval architecture.
1. Raglan Castle
Raglan Castle located in south-east Wales is a late Medieval castle that dates back to 1430, when the construction began. The building of the castle was commissioned by Sir William ap Thomas, the Blue Knight of Gwent.
In the late 16th century the castle underwent noteworthy construction works, when additions like a new hammer-beam roof were built.
The sandstone castle wasn’t built for defensive purposes and its main goal was to portray and showcase powerful influence and wealth.
One of the main visual features of the castle are the polygonal structures, which make this castle rather unique in the overall Welsh castle landscape. Majority of other castles consist of a square or round structures rather than the six-sided gatehouse and towers featured in Raglan Castle. The castle also features a moat around the Yellow Tower of Gwent.
2. Caernarfon Castle
Located in the North west of Wales, Caernarfon Castle is a medieval fortress built in the late 13th century to replace an earlier motte-and-bailey castle that stood there from the 11th century. It is also one of the most widely-recognised Welsh castles.
The grand and mammoth appearance of the castle is directly linked to the fact that the town of Caernarfon served as the administrative center of North Wales during the reign of King Edward I of England.
Caernarfon Castle was besieged several times and after Tudors came to power and the relationship between England and Wales became more steady, many of Welsh castles lost their importance and Caernarfon Castle was one of the castles that slowly started falling into despair. It was neglected until the 19th century, when repair work finally began.
The castle features several polygonal towers, battlements, two entrances – one from the town and the other allowing entrance without having to go through the town. Unfortunately, the castle was never finished the way it was intended.
3. Conwy Castle
Another Welsh castle dating back to the time of King Edward I of England is the Conwy Castle which lies on the northern shores of Wales. The castle dates back to the late 13th century and it played an important role in forming the town of Conwy. The castle was also amid several wars undergoing sieges.
The castle is an impressive example of Welsh medieval defensive architecture – its defensive wall with massive round towers is instantly recognisable. Not only is the castle a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it has also been classified by the organisation as one of the finest military architecture examples of that time period in Europe.
The castle’s rectangular plan includes inner and outer wards and altogether eight towers. The inner ward included all the master chambers while the outer ward was dedicated to kitchens, stables, prison, and garrison.
4. Cardiff Castle
Located in the capital of Wales, Cardiff Castle was originally built in the 11th century as a motte and bailey castle atop an older Roman fort dating back to the 3rd century. A century later, the castle was slowly rebuilt into a stone structure with the additions of a shell keep and defensive walls. Over the next centuries, the castle underwent gradual changes, additions, and redesigns.
Just as other castles during the English Civil War, Cardiff Castle was also affected by it – first being taken by Parliamentary forces and then reclaimed by Royalist supporters.
In the mid-18th century the castle was transformed into a Georgian mansion and later redesigned in Gothic revival style. Since the renovations were done under the watchful eye of William Burges, the interiors were considered greatly accurate and exceptional examples of gothic revival. The lush interiors included beautiful murals, stained glass elements, delicate wood carvings, and marble.
During the Second World War the castle was turned into an air raid shelter.
5. Pembroke Castle
Pembroke Castle is famously known as the birthplace of Henry VII and recently the castle came into attention again as archeologists found even more precise information about the first Tudor king’s birthplace.
The original castle was built at the very end of the 11th century and was rebuilt in stone a century later thus making it one of the most impressive examples of Norman stone castles in the country.
Pembroke Castle is built above Wogan’s Cavern or Wogan Cave. The cave is known to have been used by humans as far back as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. In the 13th century the cave became a part of Pembroke Castle’s defences.
Oliver Cromwell’s forces attacked the castle in 1648 during the English Civil War and Cromwell was personally present during the taking of the castle after a 7-week siege.
6. Chirk Castle
Many of the impressive Welsh castles were built during the reign of Edward I and Chirk Castle is no exception. Completed in 1310, the castle held a strategic position overlooking the entry point to the Ceiriog Valley. Since it is located on the Welsh and English borders in the North of the country, it always had an important role in keeping the Welsh under English rule. Chirk Castle is the only castle from Edward I’s time that is still inhabited to this day.
Originally built as a military fortress, castle’s signature round drum towers were perfectly suited for archers who needed to be able to overlook and defend a wide area. The towers’ walls are 5 meters thick which made them impregnable.
Today the visitors can not only admire the impressive castle but also 5 acres of pristine gardens with awe-inspiring roses and manicured lawns.
7. Caerphilly Castle
Caerphilly Castle in South Wales, not far from the Welsh capital Cardiff, was built as a defensive castle against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, who was the last prince of a united Wales before Edward I’s reign took over the country. The castle site measures approximately 30 acres making it the second largest in Britain.
The castle was built in the mid-to-late 13th century and to this day it is surrounded by an impressive fully-flooded moat. Caerphilly Castle featured a rather unique design for its time and it introduced concentric castle design to the rest of Britain’s castles.
The castle stood proudly for a couple of centuries and by the mid-16th century it was already described in writing as being in the state of ruin. Notably, the castle’s south-eastern tower is leaning by 10 degrees off its vertical axis.
8. Powis Castle
Rather unique among the medieval castles in Wales, Powis Castle stands out not only due to its red stone exterior but also as one of the few castles that have survived the test of time, never really falling into despair. The castle was built in the early 13th century and over time has undergone several improvements and alterations.
In the 17th century the impressive state bedroom was added to the castle as well as the terraced gardens that make this property so unique. While originally intended as a defensive castle, it quickly became what it is today – a beautiful royal manor with a splendid art collection, exquisite interiors, and artefacts from India.
The breathtaking Baroque gardens at Powis Castle are one of the finest in the whole of the United Kingdom displaying unique landscaping and centuries-old yew trees.
9. Roch Castle
Who wouldn’t love to stay in a 12th-century Norman castle and imagine what life was like in the medieval times? Roch Castle offers exactly that but in a modern upscale way since nowadays it has been turned into a luxury hotel with six rooms. The castle has a unique and dramatic appearance, extending and rising from a rock formation.
Originally Roch Castle served a defensive purpose protecting Flemish settlers from the independent Welsh in the North that were a threat to the anglicised part of the country.
The castle was a royalist stronghold during the English Civil War but was abandoned soon after thus leaving it forgotten and degrading until the 1900s, when it was rebuilt and brought back to its former glory.
10. Beaumaris Castle
The North Wales castle of Beaumaris is another remarkable example of the castles that were built during Edward I’s reign. The castle located on the Island of Anglesey was never finished due to lack of money and resources, yet its impressive exterior has stood through times as a majestic reminder of medieval architecture.
Beaumaris Castle has perfectly symmetric concentric walls and noteworthy round drum towers. Despite being a medieval stronghold with an impregnable appearance, the castle doesn’t have the typical menacing look that is so distinctive in quite a few other castles of the time. The castle sits harmoniously in the surrounding landscape and its architectonic precision cannot be overlooked.
11. Harlech Castle
Located in the north-west of the country, Harlech Castle is set amidst awe-inspiring landscape to which the concentric castle only contributes. The sandstone castle is yet another of King Edward I’s castles in Wales whose purpose was to establish the English rule. Funnily enough, in the 15th century a Welsh leader took over the castle for a brief moment until it was reclaimed by the English forces.
The castle was built in a way that took advantage of the natural landscape – making use of the sheer cliff as a natural barrier against attacks. On the other side dry moats were cut into the rock to add a defensive element.
The castle was besieged during the Wars of Roses in the 15th century and the damage caused during that time was never repaired. Two centuries later during the English Civil War the remaining parts of the castle were used for military purposes and after another siege, when the castle had served its purpose, the Parliamentary forces ordered the destruction of the castle, but these orders weren’t carried through fully and luckily parts of the castle have survived to modern times.
12. Castell Coch
While the majority of Welsh castles have a slightly daunting appearance due to their fortress origins, Castell Coch stands out with its fairytale-like appearance. The cylindrical turrets seen on Castell Coch are rather unusual not only for Welsh castles but for medieval castles in Britain altogether; it’s a sight you are more likely to see in mainland Europe.
The reason for this, however, is that the castle was built in Gothic revival style only in the 1870s during the Victorian times. It is known, however, that there was a previous Norman castle on the site dating back to the 11th century.
John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, hired the renowned architect William Burges to reconstruct a castle based on the medieval remains. The interiors feature High Victorian elements and have been celebrated by historians and architects as triumphs in Victorian composition.
13. Bodelwyddan Castle
Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales dates back to the 15th century. This castle, unlike many others in Wales, was never meant to serve a defensive purpose as it was built as a manor house for the Humphreys family of Anglesey. The castle that we see today was actually constructed during the 1830s when the previous manor house was extended.
Today the castle has been turned into a luxury hotel. During World War I the castle housed a hospital wing and in the 1980s it was home to a college.
14. Rhuddlan Castle
Rhuddlan Castle was built shortly after the First Welsh War and it was one of the many castles commissioned by King Edward I of England. The building of the castle took over ten years and it was completed in 1282.
The castle was planned as a concentric castle. It features a twin tower gatehouse and the outer ward is enclosed by a curtain wall. Currently the castle is in a state of legible ruin.
15. Penrhyn Castle
Upon first look, Penrhyn Castle looks like it could easily belong to an English landscape and it looks rather different than most Welsh castles the majority of which were fortresses or strongholds. Penrhyn Castle on the other hand was built as a medieval fortified manor house.
The original stone castle and tower house that stood on the property was built in the 15th century. It was reconstructed in the late 18th century but the current building dates back to the 19th century. The latter reconstruction completely transformed the building. Some features from the original building were incorporated in the last design and these include a vaulted basement and a spiral staircase.