Harlech Castle

Has been described as a Certain Masonry Castle, and also as a Certain Palace (Other)

There are major building remains

NameHarlech Castle
Alternative NamesArlech; Hardelowe
Historic CountryMerioneth
Modern AuthorityGwynedd
1974 AuthorityGwynedd

Harlech Castle is a spectacular castle, with its picturesque setting enhanced by being based on a rocky crag overlooking the sea with the Snowdonia Mountains in the background. Harlech Castle was one of a series of castles established in north Wales by Edward I after the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282. Building work began a year later in May 1283, and was raised in two main building phases. In order to adapt to the restricted space of the rocky outcrop, the building is based on the concentric walls within walls. The castle is designed in symmetrical fashion, with four corner towers and an impressive gatehouse. Originally, its unique position was chosen as it was eminently defensible and was built to take full advantage of its seaside location. By 1289, the castle was largely completed. The castle was strengthened in 1295 and again in 1323 and came to prominence during the Welsh rebellion led by Owain Glyn Dwr, when in 1404 the castle became occupied by Glyn Dwr’s court and family until 1409, the year it was retaken by the English. There were to be another two sieges, the first being in the War of the Roses when it was taken by Yorkist forces in 1468. It is argued that the famous song ‘Men of Harlech’ originated during the siege at Harlech during the War of the Roses in 1468.The second during the Civil War when it was surrounded by parliamentarian forces in 1647. Sections of the castle were rendered untenable after these sieges, fortunately however the order to demolish the castle were never carried out. (Coflein–M. Lloyd Davies, RCAHMW, 22 October 2008)

Imposingly sited in the centre of the town with dramatic views across Tremadog Bay and towards Snowdonia.

Harlech castle is regarded as one of the most important medieval castles in Wales and is a textbook example of concentric castle design

It was built by the English King Edward I following his conquest of Wales, the main work being constructed between 1283 and 1289 with additions of c1295 and 1323-4; the overall cost is recorded as around £9,500 (in the region of £9.5 million in current terms). Harlech belongs to a series of Royal castles designed by Edward's chief military engineer, the Savoyard Master James of St. George, which rank amongst the most highly sophisticated and innovative examples of military engineering in contemporary Europe. Master James was himself created its first constable in 1290, and received a salary of 100 marks a year. Historically the castle has seen significant action: in 1294 the English garrison withstood a siege by the Welsh under Madog; in the Spring of1404 Owain Glyndwr and his forces took the castle which, for the next five years became his court and capital; during the Wars of the Roses the castle was held by the Welsh Lancastrians before surrendering to the besieging Yorkists (as immortalised in the song 'Men of Harlech'). The castle's last action was in the Civil War. In 1647 the Royalist garrison under Colonel William Owen surrendered to the Parliamentarians; it was the last mainland British castle to hold out for King Charles I.

Masonry castle, now roofless; of limestone and granite construction faced with roughly-squared and coursed blocks; sandstone dressings to the openings; rock foundations. The castle is of the concentric type and occupies a tight, restricted site on a natural rock outcrop. The main defences consist of a four round towers placed at the corners of a roughly rectangular high-walled inner ward, with a lower-walled outer ward forming a narrow secondary line of defence. The latter broadly follows the line of the inner ward, though its walls have been reduced in height. In the centre of the inner ward's eastern (town-facing) wall is a large square gatehouse block. This consists of a pair of high D-shaped drum towers to the front, and a pair of narrower stair towers to the rear, the latter rising up two stages above the inner ward's corner towers and one stage above the paired front towers. The hall, chapel, service and storage buildings were ranged around the N, S and W sides, with the well located against the N wall. Of these buildings, only the walls of the gabled chapel stand to any height; the remainder is reduced to foundation level. The gatehouse housed the principal rooms, arranged as lavishly-appointed suites, one on each of the upper floors. The first-floor apartment probably served as the constable's quarters, whilst the upper floor rooms, of rather finer quality of detail, would have been reserved for important visitors such as the King and his circle. Access to these apartments was from the inner ward. Here an external stone stair, arranged in three straight flights, leads to a round-arched entrance off-centre to the L on the gatehouse's 3-window inner elevation. The windows to the upper apartments have finely-cut hollow-chamfered jambs and segmental heads, formerly with Decorated tracery lights, typical of the Edwardian Court Style. Various fragmentary fireplaces survive, mostly with stone hoods with decorative corbels. The gatehouse was conceived as an independently defensible unit, and correspondingly could withstand assault from the inner ward, should this be taken. The main approach is in the form of a tunnel entrance between the front towers. This leads through to the inner ward via a system of defences including portcullises, gates and murderholes. The portcullises were operated from the first floor and were therefore under the constable's direct control. The outer ward has a postern gate, comprising a gateway between small turrets, corbelled-out from the wall; a complex bridge system with further gates and a large drawbridge no longer survives. On the N side is a postern gate with small D-shaped drum towers. This gives access to 'Castle Rock', the rocky plateau which provides the site. A wall runs north-eastwards and curves around and down to protect the rock on this side. At the foot of the rock, at the north-western point, is the 'Gate-Next-the-Sea', where supplies were landed by ship. This gateway had its own drawbridge and portcullis system and was further covered by two rock-cut engine platforms above. It was linked to the main castle by a walled and defended track, known as the 'Way From the Sea', which winds its way up along the E and S sides of the rock. (Listed Building Report)

The earliest reference to Harlech is in the Mabinogi but no evidence has ever been found for an early court or llys on the site. Work was begun on the castle in 1283 to the design of Master James of St George and it was completed by 1289. The strong position of the castle on its rock overlooking the sea is hard to appreciate today as the sea has been replaced by the extensive sand dunes of Morfa Harlech. It was supplied by sea in 1294 having been entirely cut off by land during the revolt of Madoc ap Llywelyn and thus was able to survive. In 1904, however, it fell to Owain Glydwr who held the castle for over four years before it was finally regained by the future king Henry V. Unlike other of Edward I's castles, Harlech continued to play a role and was the last Lancastrian stronghold to fall in 1468. The Gatehouse was used for meetings of the court of assizes during the 16th century and the castle was held by the Royalists during the Civil War, being again the last castle to fall. The defences were ordered to be demolished in 1660 but the order was never carried out and the shell of the castle remains to this day. The castle is concentric in design with a narrow out ward protected by a rock cut dry moat and an almost square inner ward with massive gatehouse. The Great Hall and kitchens were set against the curtain wall in the inner ward as was a building referred to as the Ystumgwern Hall which is thought to have been transported to the castle from nearby Ystumgwern. An English borough was founded along with the castle at Harlech but no traces of walls or a regular grid of streets survive. (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust HER)

Built between 1283 and 1289 by Master James of St George for King Edward I. Constructed of limestone and granite, with sandstone dressings. Of concentric design, comprising a rectangular, high-walled, inner ward with four round towers at the corners, and a lower-walled outer ward broadly following the same line. Large square gatehouse to the E wall of inner ward, which housed the principal rooms, and was designed to be independently defensible. The hall, chapel, service and storage buildings were located to the N, S, and W sides, although only the chapel remains above foundation height. Seized by Owain Glyn Dwr in 1404 and held successfully by him for four years.

Welsh tradition, which has been ignored, maintains that Harlech had early Welsh origins, and a history stretching back over 2000 years to the time of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, with whom the fortification on the rock has long been associated. (Paul Remfry)

World Heritage Site 374

Gatehouse Comments

Paul Remfry is suggesting that the castle originated as a welsh llys and C13 welsh castle before being converted into the Edwardian castle that remains. His interpretation of the documentary evidence is suggestive and worth considering. There are some flaws in his interpretation of the archaeological and building remains evidence and the polemic and apophatic nature of his text often works to the disadvantage of the interesting arguement he is making.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic Wales CADW listed database record number
The National Monument Record (Coflein) number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSH581312
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Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved
Photograph by Andrew Herrett. All rights reserved

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Guide Books

  • Taylor, A.J., 2002 (4edn), Harlech Castle (Cardiff: CADW)
  • Taylor, A.J., 1988 revised edn, reprinted with amendments, Harlech Castle (Cardiff: CADW)
  • Taylor, A.J., 1985 revised edn, Harlech Castle (Cardiff: CADW)
  • Taylor, A.J., 1980, Harlech Castle/Castell Harlech, Gwynedd (HMSO)
  • (Peers and Hemp), 1964 (2edn), Harlech Castle (HMSO)
  • (Peers and Hemp), 1934, Harlech Castle (HMSO)

Primary Sources

  • Jones, T., 1952, Brut y Tywysogion (Peniarth MS 20 version) (University of Wales, History and Law series 11) 1285-90
  • 'Annales of William of Worcester' in Stevenson, J. (ed), 1864, Letters and papers illustrative of the wars of the English in France (Rolls Series 22) Vol. 2.2 p. 791 online copy
  • Gairdner, J. (ed), 1876, Gregory's Chronicle (Camden Society) p. 237 online copy
  • Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 305-6
  • Phillips, J.R., 1874, Memoirs of the Civil War in Wales and the Marches (London) Vol. 1 p. 380 online copy
  • B.M. Add. Roll 7198 (Survey of 14 Edward II) British Library Reference
  • SP14/49/82 (Survey of 1609) The National Archives reference


  • Ryder, Charles, 2011, The spiral stair or vice: Its origins, role and meaning in medieval stone castles (PhD Thesis University of Liverpool) p. 215-221 Download via