The History of Harlech
Harlech is known to many through the words of a famous historic song. The ‘Men of Harlech’ is said to have been written about the historic defence of the town and castle against a siege from Edward of York. The Lancastrians had made a desperate last stand, protecting Henry VI ’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou, within the castle during the long and fierce resistance. The origins of the town of Harlech seem largely to be tied up with the creation of the castle in the late 13th century.
The town is a small, picturesque seaside resort, which overlooks the beautiful Cardigan Bay . It is quite possible that settlements in the area predate the castle by some considerable time, the area is mentioned in the legendary medieval tales known as ‘Mabinogion’; it is where Branwen, daughter of Lyr, lives and features heavily in that part of the tale. These stories were written in medieval times but draw on Celtic legends and may be based upon settlements in the area from long before the building of the castle. The supposed grave of Branwen, Bedd Branwen, can be found at Llandeusant in Anglesey . If the story is true, it would date from around 1650BC to 1400BC, during the Bronze Age.
The building of the castle itself started in 1283. The castle was to form part of Edward I ’s defences during his first Welsh campaign. The castle was designed, like most of the castles Edward had built in the area, by James of St. George (otherwise known as Jacques de St. Georges d’Espéranche, an architect from Savoy. It was built to a concentric design, meaning that each line of defence was enclosed by another. The Castle was first besieged by Madoc ap Llywelyn, who led an uprising which razed several towns in the area. The townsfolk of Harlech were fortunate enough to be able to seek refuge in the castle. They were then able to hold out for the entire winter until the siege was lifted. The castle was originally built right next to the sea, giving those in the castle an extra supply line that proved vital many times in the castle’s history. Geological changes over time to the coastline have meant that the castle is now on a cliff edge about a mile inland.
Just over a century later, however, the castle fell to Owain Glyndŵr . The brave garrison succumbed to the attackers only after many had starved to death and they were down to just 21 men. Glyndŵr then made the castle his home and held parliament there for about four years, until the castle was finally retaken by Prince Henry (later to become Henry V ) and his army led by John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, the fearsome Hundred Years War general. Shortly after this the castle became a Lancastrian stronghold during the Wars of the Roses . Henry VII fled to Harlech whilst an infant and escaped via Harlech to Scotland. Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI and Queen consort, fled with the young prince and guided the Lancastrian armies. Henry VI was given to frequent bouts of insanity and therefore the Queen consort had to run the armies and largely the country itself. It was she who called a Great Council which excluded the House of York, the main catalyst which sparked the Wars of the Roses. The siege of Harlech Castle was the Lancastrians’ last stand in Wales and lasted for seven years; making it the longest siege in the history of the British Isles. Despite the setbacks in Wales, the Lancastrians were ultimately victorious in the Wars of the Roses. Harlech was under siege again in the mid 17th century. It was the last Loyalist stronghold and held out against Parliamentary forces for a year after King Charles himself had been captured. After taking the castle the Parliamentarians then set about dismantling some of its defensive capabilities, a process known as slighting. It was a regular practice after taking a Royalist stronghold, as Armies that had the popular support of the ‘ordinary folk’ believed that it was in their interests to dismantle the structures of the more military based powers.
Today the town of Harlech is a very small settlement by modern standards, with a population of just 1264; almost two-thirds of whom are Welsh-speaking. The town is served by the Cambrian Railway Line and has several other attractions in addition to the castle. These include the sand-dunes and the beach , the famous Royal St. David’s Golf Club and the Rhinogydd Mountains which can be found to the east of the town. Harlech is a popular base for those exploring the mountains of Snowdonia . According the legend, visitors to Harlech always find themselves returning; drawn back to a land full of mountains, myths and magic.
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