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Saturday
Feb252012

The Conwy Connection

This article was first published in Medelai.

A five minute stroll from my home takes me to the estuary of the river Dee. Facing me across the marshy wasteland is the North Wales town of Flint. Planted at the edge of the river are the ruins of Flint Castle, its solid towers reflecting the morning sun but dwarfed by the Welsh Hills behind them. Our story will end at Flint but begins 30 miles further round the Welsh coast.

In 1283, King Edward the First of England completed his conquest of North Wales by the defeat of the Princes Llywelyn and Dafydd. Almost at once Edward put into effect his plan to retain control of the principality by building a series of strongholds close to the shoreline. The first of these was to be built at Conwy. On the west bank of the river Conwy a Cistercian Abbey had been built under the patronage of Llywelyn the Great, overlooked by a rocky promentary between the rivers Conwy and Gyffin. In March 1283, Edward’s Master Mason James Saint George was brought to this site and developed an audacious plan for Conwy Castle. The Cistercian Abbey was compelled to move further up the river. The Abbey church became the Parish church of an English borough in North Wales. Over the next four years, James erected a stone defensive wall provided with twenty-one towers and three major gateways to protect the infant colony. 

But his real work lay on that rocky promentary. With a work force of around fifteen hundred, the promentary was shaped to accommodate the first of his innovative designs. He built a castle with no central keep or outer bailey. Seen from above, Conwy resembles a rectangle about 350 feet long and 120 feet wide. The length runs from west to east. The north and south walls each have four cylindrical towers, at equal intervals. But the south wall bows outward to fit the lie of the land. At the west and east end the castle entrances were protected by barbicans and turrets. The west barbican gave immediate access to the town itself by means of a drawbridge over a ditch. At the east end was constructed a jetty allowing the King to land outside the town and enter his castle privately. Internally, the castle was divided into two wards. The west ward accommodated the garrison and contained, on the south side, a beautiful Great Hall and Chapel built over a long, narrow cellar. Only the foundations of the buildings to north and west survive since these were predominantly made of timber. 

The east ward of the castle was divided from the west by a solid wall running north to south with its own gate and drawbridge spanning a narrow, deep chasm cut into the rock. This ward is roughly square with towers at each corner. Each tower carried a high turret giving commanding views of its surroundings. On the south side of this ward James built apartments for Edward and his household. They are still the finest example of royal apartments surviving from the Thirteenth Century. Connected to them at the east end was the Great Hall which gave direct access to the King’s own private Chapel in the north-west corner of the castle.

Of all the towers the Chapel tower has been the scene of careful reconstruction. Not only does the spiral staircase now climb to the top of the turret (70 feet above the east ward) but wooden floors have been rebuilt, allowing visitors access to the Chapel itself. This is a room nineteen feet in diameter with a Chancel cut into its east end within the thickness of the stone wall. This is shaped into seven ornate recesses. Lancet windows pierce the wall above the central three. The room is light and airy and is being lovingly restored in our computer reconstruction of Conwy. The altar for the church, located in that recess, was the scene of one of the great acts of perjury of English history.

After its heyday in the reign of King Edward the First, Conwy entered the long sleep of decay. In 1343 it was inherited by that great military leader Edward the Black Prince, who carried out a detailed survey and embarked on a major series  of modifications and restoration. But the dampness of the Welsh climate continued to take its toll on the wooden floors, both in towers and hall. By 1399, Conwy’s glory days were well behind it.

And it was within the protective walls of Conwy that King Richard the Second took refuge from his enemies in 1399. Much has been written to the detriment of this young man by authors both ancient and modern. But a less one-sided judgment has been emerging in recent years. Richard has fallen victim to the “spin” placed upon his character and actions by those who sought to justify the revolution which they initiated in 1399. The King was in Ireland when he learned that his exiled cousin, Henry Bollingbroke, had returned to England from France, ostensibly to claim his inheritance as Duke of Lancaster. This was an illegal act since Henry had been banished by Richard some years earlier. Henry and his co-conspirators swiftly took control of the levers of power and the “nobility” rallied to his cause. Richard and his army moved across the Irish sea to South Wales only to find that the opposition against them was too strong. Richard was advised to take flight to North Wales and hence to Chester. The principality of Chester had been much favoured by the King and it was argued that there was no safer place for him to be. 

Richard arrived at Conwy (some 50 miles from Chester) with a small entourage and lodged himself in the castle’s royal apartments. Miserable though he must have been, he was safe there. When the castle was newly built it only needed a garrison of thirty men to hold it! As long as he remained within its walls, he was untouchable. With uncharacteristic energy, Henry moved swiftly to entrap the King. From Chester, he dispatched the Earl of Northumberland to visit Richard in Conwy. The Earl, a Percy, was allowed admittance to the castle. He promised the King that his Majesty could meet with Henry without fear for himself or his position. Having consulted his advisers, Richard recalled Northumberland and asked him to sware an oath as to the good faith of the terms offered. This Northumberland did on the altar of the Chapel Royal. Relying on Northumberland’s fidelity, Richard left Conwy and began the journey to Chester. No sooner had they moved out of sight of the castle than Northumberland’s armed men emerged from the cover of the trees, taking the King into custody. The captured monarch was taken the 10 miles to Rhuddlan Castle and then on to Flint, where Henry Bollingbroke was waiting. The doom of the King’s reign can be immediately laid at the door of Percy’s treachery, a treachery which his descendent repeated at Bosworth Field.

Historians like to refer to the events that followed as the abdication of Richard the Second. Occasionally a braver one will call it his deposition. I call it the usurpation of Henry Bollingbroke. For though it had the trappings of legitimacy it is more properly a coup d’etat. A lawfully anointed and crowned monarch was deprived of his throne by one of his subjects with the conspiracy of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. This revolution undermined the sanctity of all oaths and it is worth taking note that such perjury became common-place in the Fifteenth Century. For example, when Edward the Fourth returned from exile in 1471, he, like Bollingbroke, took an oath outside the city of York that he meant no harm to the then King, but only came for his ducal privileges.

The cold walls of Conwy have nothing to say about such treachery. The cylindrical Keep at Flint bears no testimony to the tears of Richard the Second. But their continued existence in the modern world enables us to realise that the events recorded on the pages of our history books are more than mere words, rather they give us a glimpse of the lives and tragedy of men and women such as ourselves. 

John Fox

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