Harlech Castle

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Harlech Castle; Besieged through the ages – Echoed in song

Welcome to the Welsh Castle Projects castle study on Harlech Castle, A castle rich in history and celebrated in song.

In this article you will find out all about this impressive fortress;

  • location and how to get there
  • features of the castle
  • history of the castle, and more…

Harlech Castle was the 77th Castle that the Welsh Castle project visited and reviewed.

Harlech Castle architectural model showing the terrain and defenses of the Castle in detail.
Harlech Castle architectural model showing the terrain and defenses of the Castle in detail

Harlech Castle Fact File

Name: Harlech Castle (Welsh: Castell Harlech)

  • Postcode: LL46 2YH
  • What3words: limbs.feast.barrel
  • Coordinates: 52°51’34.668″ N 4°6’32.4″ W
  • Grid Reference: SH581312

Visited: October 2021

Architect/s: Built in just seven years under the guidance of gifted architect Master James of St George. James of St George was also responsible for designing the other big northern boarder castles for Edward II.

Owner: Cadw

Architectural Style: ‘Tonbridge’ style of Medieval Gothic architecture

Area: 15,500 m² (165,000 ft²) just under 4 acres including the watergate and ‘Harlech Dome’ rock the castle sits on.

Built: 1283-1289

Destroyed/abandoned: Not repaired after the siege of 1468 and it became neglected.

Key events:

Revolt of Madog ap Llwelyn (1294–95)
Revolt of Owain Glyndŵr (1400–09)
War of the Roses (1460–68)
English Civil War (1642–47)

How to get there:

The castle is accessible by car, taking only a few minutes from the centre of Harlech via the Stryd Fawr/B4573 and Twtil roads.

Paid car parking is available on site. It is possible to reach the site by foot, but be warned; it’s very steep!

Cost to visit:

If you have Cadw membership then Harlech Castle, along with 130 historic sites, is free!

If however, you don’t have Cadw membership (we really recommend you do!) then you can purchase your tickets here.

Map of the Castle:
Map of Harlech Castle with colour-coded details of construction through the ages.
Map of Harlech Castle with colour-coded details of construction through the ages.

Did you know the origin of the song Men of Harlech is in dispute?

Harlech Castle has been the site of several sieges over the years, from Welsh rebellion in the late 13th and early 14th Century, again during the War of the Roses in the fifteenth Century, and then yet again during the English Civil War in the 1600’s.

Harlech has been fought over and defended so many times over the centuries, it’s not certain which siege the rousing welsh anthem refers to.

"Hark I hear the foe advancing
Barbed steeds are proudly prancing,
Helmets in the sunbeams glancing
Symru fo am byth
Men of Harlech lie ye dreaming?
See ye not their falchions gleaming,
While their penons gaily streaming
Cymru fo am byth.
From the rocks rebounding
Let the war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria's Call
The haughty for surrounding
Men of Harlech on to glory
See your banner famed in story,
Waves these burning words before ye,
Cymru fo am byth!
Men of Harlech! In the Hollow,
Do ye hear like rushing billow
Wave on wave that surging follow
Battle's distant sound?
Tis the tramp of Saxon foemen,
Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen,
Be they knights or hinds or yeomen,
They shall bite the ground!
Loose the folds asunder,
Flag we conquer under!
The placid sky now bright on high,
Shall launch its bolts in thunder!
Onward! 'tis the country needs us,
He is bravest, he who leads us
Honor's self now proudly heads us,
Freedom, God and Right!
Wales will not yield."
Harlech Castles main entrance now accessed by a modern 'floating' bridge
Modern bridge into the imposing gatehouse of Harlech Castle

Features of the Castle:

Easily one of the most impressive and oppressive of Welsh castles perched at top the cliffs, steeped in legend and history.

As well as the high imposing walls and towers and it’s dramatic siting on the clifftops overlooking the town and distant sea, Harlech boasts some interesting features:

Harlech is a concentric and symmetrical building, consisting of two lines of defensive walls on a quadrangle plan, built of grey-green sandstone. Yellow sandstone was used in finishing and decorative elements.

Windy wet rampart walk along the tall walls.

Slippery steps down to the water gate which saved the occupants when under siege.

Several large intact towers. The South-west tower reached a height of 15.8 meters, while the north-west reached 15.1 meters. These towers were crowned with additional cylindrical towers, 5.8 meters high.

Harlech Castle rests upon part of the ‘Harlech Dome’, a spur of rock almost 200 feet (61m) high; the land falls away sharply on the north and west.

Another of James of Saint George’ brilliant fortresses.

Harlech Castle is relatively small covering an area of under 4 acres. The majority of the castles footprint is taken up by the huge rock it sits upon, the ‘Harlech Dome’. Compare this to Wales’ biggest; Caerphilly Castle at 30acres shows Harlech whilst tough, is pretty small.

The tall tower has 144 steps.

In 1343, Harlech Castles towers were named: Le Prisontour, Turris Ultra Gardinium, Le Wedercoktour and Le Chapeltour. However, they were renamed in 1564 to; the tower of Debtors, Mortimer, Bronwen and Armourers.

The sea gate: When completely cut off by the rebellion of Madog ap Llewelyn the castle held out – thanks to the ‘Way from the Sea’. This path of 108 steps rising steeply up the rock face allowed the besieged defenders to be fed and watered by ship.

Contemporary records give us a great snapshot of the works carried out, including how many workers and how much money: James of St George was Edward II’s main architect, he managed 546 workers, 115 stonemasons, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters and 227 masonry, and the project cost almost 240 pounds per month during the seven year build of Harlech Castle.

Harlech was garrisoned by 36 people. This included 10 crossbowmen, a chaplain, blacksmith, carpenter and stonemason.

UNESCO pointed out that Harlech is one of the “finest examples of military architecture of the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century in Europe”.

Opposite the castle, across the modern bridge where once the drawbridge stood, is a modern cafe which serves home-made food and is well worth a visit after an afternoon walking around the castle’s extensive grounds and battlements.

The history of the castle through the ages is projected onto the walls of a little side room . There is also the standard Cadw gift shop.

The view of the high thick walls and imposing towers of Harlech Castle.
Tall sturdy towers and thick solid walls give a steadfast and formidable defense against it’s many besiegers through the ages.

Echoes from the past- ‘Men of Harlech’:

Even me, an Englishman, finds it hard not to be moved by ‘Men of Harlech’. Featured in one of my favourite films, the 1964 Michael Caine, Stanley Baker and Richard Burton film; Zulu.

The epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War, where only 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded, successfully held off a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech – Men of Harlech – Lyrics
Wele goelcerth wen yn fflamio
A thafodau tan yn bloeddio
Are I'are dewrion ddod I daro
Unwaith eto'n un
Gan fanllefau'are tywysogion
Llais gelynion trwst arfogoion
Craig are graig a grbn!
Arfon bth ni orgydd
Cenir yn dragywydd
Cymru fydd fel Cymru fu
Yn glodus ymysg gweldydd
'Nghwyn oleuni'are goelcerth acw
Tros wefusau Cyro'n marw
Annibyniaeth sydd yn galw
Am ei dewraf dyn
Hark I hear the foe advancing
Barbed steeds are proudly prancing
Helmets in the sunbeams glancing
Cymru fo am byth
From the rocks rebounding
Let the war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria's call
The haughty foe advancing
Men of Harlech on to glory
See your banner famed in story
Waves these burning words before ye
Cymru fo am byth!

‘Men of Harlech’ is thought to be about the longest siege in British history: The seven year siege between 1461 and 1468. This siege was between the occupying Lancastrians and attacking Yorkists as part of the War of the Roses.

Commanded by Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, the castle held out against the enemy for seven long years. “Through Seven Years” is an alternative name for the song.

William Herbert of Raglan commanded an immense Yorkist army that surrounded the Lancastrian-held castle.

The poet, Hywel Dafi, spoke of men being ‘shattered by the sound of guns’ with ‘seven thousand men shooting in every port, their bows made from every yew tree’.

‘Men of Harlech’ may also be associated with the earlier, siege of Harlech Castle in about 1408, which pitted the forces of Owain Glyndŵr against the future king Henry V of England.

Men of Harlech is widely used as a regimental march, especially by British Army regiments historically associated with Wales. Notably, it is the slow march of the Welsh Guards, and the quick march of the Royal Welsh.

Here is a classic Welsh male voice choir passionately singing the patriotic anthem of ‘Men of Harlech’

Welsh Castle Project Top Tip:

We went up to the ramparts on a blustery rainy day, and it was pretty wild and scary.

The castles high imposing walls are great but the narrow walkways and crumbling stairways do make adventuring in a storm a little treacherous.

Unless you’re feeling brave and sure of your footing, we recommend visiting Harlech Castle on a sunnier less windy day!

The wall walk battlements of Harlech Castle in the October wind and rain.
Braving the blustery wind and rain to walk the ramparts of Harlech Castle in slippery bad weather!

History of Harlech Castle:

1283– Harlech Castle building begins,

1289– Harlech Castle was effectively completed in just seven years.

3 July 1290- The famous architect; James of St George, was appointed Constable of Harlech Castle. James succeeded John de Bonvillars who had died in August 1287.

14 December 1293– James of St George steps down as constable of Harlech to continue working on Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, which he never completed.

1294- Madog ap Llywelyn began an uprising against English rule, which quickly spread to large areas of Wales. Several castles and towns, including Harlech, Criccieth and Aberystwyth, are besieged.

1323-1324 Edward II orders the building of additional fortifications on the outer bailey, from the castle to the sea.

1332 to 1372 – Harlech managed by constable Sir Walter Manny, one of the most trusted and able soldiers of King Edward II during a period of relative peace.

1403 – Owain Glyndŵr rebels against the English. despite its excellent defenses Harlech was not well equipped; The garrison had only three shields, eight helmets, six lances (four of them lacked heads), ten pairs of gloves and four firearms. 

1404After a long siege, Harlech fell into the hands of the Welsh. It became the headquarter of Owain Glyndŵr, who used it as his base for operations.

1408 – The English forces under the command of future king Henry V besieged Harlech and his commander, Edmund Mortimer. The bombardment of the guns probably destroyed the southern and eastern parts of the outer walls. The defeat was mainly due to the lack of supplies and exhaustion of the defenders, who surrendered in February 1409.

1460 – Harlech became the shelter of Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.

1461-1468 – Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Einion commands a Lancastrian garrison stationed at Harlech Castle. Harlech eventually became the last main stronghold under the control of the Lancaster’s.

1468 – Edward IV ordered Wilhelm Herbert to mobilize an army, possibly up 7,000 to 10,000 men, to finally capture the castle. After a month’s siege, a small garrison of Harlech surrendered to the forces of the Yorks.

1539 – Antiquarian survey reported that the buildings lacked residential and defensive equipment.

1564 – Another inspection stated that the interior of the towers was ruined, and the chapel and the hall were roofless.

1642- When the English Civil War broke out, between royalist supporters of Charles I and supporters of the Parliament, Harlech was occupied by the royal army under the command of William Owen, who ordered the repair of the fortifications.

June 1646 – a long siege began, lasting until March 1647. Eventually, the garrison of 44 soldiers surrendered to the forces of the Parliament, commanded by Thomas Mytton. The castle was the last royal continental stronghold that surrendered during the war.

Charles I ordered Harlech Castles destruction to prevent its use by enemies of the crown. Fortunately, this destruction was not very effective, as you can see from these photos.

Towers and crumbling walls of Harlech Castle looking down at the dunes and receded tidal plain below.
From the tall tower of Harlech Castle overlooking what was once the port and estuary below.

Our Final Thoughts on Harlech Castle:

So that was our article on Harlech Castle, just one of the hundreds of castles we’ve visited or are going to visit during the course of this epic quest to visit every castle in Wales.

It’s clear to see how all these interesting features and the expansive history of Harlech castles fortification through the ages make it so highly rated.

Have you been yet?

We really hope this article inspires you to visit!

Have we omitted anything about Harlech Castle that you wanted to know?

If you have any thoughts, theories, questions, comments or complaints please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Don’t forget to follow, like and share for more adventures exploring the rich history of Wales.

Old cannonballs left on the ground within the fortification of Harlech Castle.
Old discarded cannonballs within Harlech Castle

- Dom and Indigo

1 thought on “Harlech Castle”

  1. Love Castles and Love Zulu!
    Great reading about Harlech Castle, I’ve still not been even though I’ve lived in Wales for years!
    Will have to visit soon, thanks, look forward to more posts.

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