The History of Beaumaris
Long before the town of Beaumaris was created by Edward I a settlement in roughly the same spot had been founded not by the Welsh but the Vikings . This took the name Porth y Wygyr, or Viking Port, one of the places where the Norsemen put down some local roots, but also used as a base for raids, its sheltered position in the Menai Strait offering their boats safe moorings and easy access to the mainland. Though they didn’t know it, the Vikings were establishing a tradition, as in medieval times and even later there were pirates aplenty who operated from the same moorings, some it is said living quite openly thanks to the protection that wealth – and perhaps a reputation for violence – can bring.
After the Vikings a Welsh royal manor, Llanfaes, grew up on the land now occupied by Beaumaris Castle . Llanfaes was in fact of some consequence, having a Franciscan Friary, a market that made it an economic centre for Anglesey, and a thriving port that served both fishing boats – herring their main catch - and trading vessels importing among other goods fine wines from the continent, and exporting that staple of the Welsh economy wool. Such was the significance of Llanfaes that it was granted charters to hold two annual fairs, making it in medieval terms a rather cosmopolitan place.
To modern eyes Beaumaris is a peaceful and picturesque place, but the story of its foundation is anything but peaceful. After the revolt of the Welsh rebel Madog ap Llywelyn in the autumn of 1294 Edward I needed to take strong action to prevent further uprisings. On April 11 1295 Edward crossed the Menai Strait , leaving his stronghold at Bangor to stay in Llanfaes. He already had a plan in mind to sever the rebellious Snowdonia from the Welsh grain-basket of Anglesey: during his stay in Llanfaes he ordered that a great castle be built on the site of the town. The Welsh residents of Llanfaes were to be resettled, with some exceptions, in Newborough some distance away; their houses, though, provided building material for a new town, to be populated with English incomers. This was to be Beaumaris.
Edward put his plan into action with vigour and a considerable portion of the royal purse: he employed master mason James of St George from Savoy to design and build the great fortress. Beaumaris castle was not only a vast fortification, it was a symbol of English occupation, and as it was given a charter as soon as 1296 perhaps was intended to demonstrate the economic benefits of English rule. Its Welsh residents, however, were denied civic rights and barred from holding office in the new town.
The inner ring of the fortress was soon complete, its walls 20 feet high or more, and the lower parts of its towers in place. Around 900 craftsmen were employed on the building, supported by twice that number of labourers. The outer ring was then commenced, and much of it finished but a combination of cost and a reduction in the perceived threat of the Welsh meant it was never totally completed, building work ending in 1330. In fact the castle never saw action in its heyday, though it witnessed the last battle of the English Civil War , lost of course by the already doomed Royalists – Beaumaris as perhaps befits a place created by the Crown stuck by the Crown in that conflict, only falling after a bloody siege by the Roundheads in 1648.
In the late medieval era the town prospered, and several buildings from this period remain to be seen, most notably the Tudor Rose which dates from the 14th century, and The Bull’s Head Inn which was constructed in 1472.
For a while Beaumaris was to become the most significant port in Wales, just as in the Viking days the sheltered mooring being of great value. On the West Coast protected from the worst of the weather Beaumaris became a regular unloading point for ships plying the Atlantic trade in the 18th century, bringing rum, molasses, sugar, ginger, and tobacco from the colonies in the Caribbean and America. Notoriously not all the goods arriving in Beaumaris troubled the excise men with the task of imposing duties – it was a great smuggling haunt in spite of also being the administrative centre of Anglesey.
With Thomas Telford ’s completion of the Menai Bridge in 1826 Beaumaris lost its role as the best ferry route to the mainland, and very soon its economic power was eroded. In 1846 the town had a pier built, acting as a landing point for steamers and something of a visitor attraction. The town became a watering hole for the Victorians , with a hotel provision in accordance with this new trade.
WWII interrupted that tourism role, and Beaumaris instead welcomed a relocated factory engaged in aircraft production, something that made the town a target for bombing raids. But after the war tourism began anew, the castle, pier, half-timbered buildings along the High Street, and the attractions of boating on the Menai Strait bringing hordes of visitors every year.