CASTLES, Cathedrals, Abbeys and Stately Homes 



As if its spectacular situation, foreboding might, and great power were not sufficient to ensure the fame of this magnificent castle, Harlech is also inseparably linked in Welsh myth with the tragic heroine of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, of the Mabinogion. Mythology aside, it is small wonder that this is one of the most familiar strongholds in Britain. Seen from the bluff of rock to the south of the town, the view of castle, sea and mountain panorama is truly breathtaking. But not only has it an unsurpassed natural setting, as a piece of castle-building Harlech is also unrivalled. Even after seven centuries, it remains a testament to a military architect of genius, Master James of St. George. Here he adapted the natural strength of the site to the defensive requirements of the age, and created a building which combines a marvellous sense of majesty with great beauty of line and form.

Harlech was begun during King Edward I's second campaign in north Wales. It was part of an "iron ring" of castles surrounding the coastal fringes of Snowdonia, eventually stretching from Flint around to Aberystwyth; a ring intended to prevent the region from ever again becoming a focal point of insurrection and a last bastion of resistance. Following the fall of the Welsh stronghold of Castell y Bere, King Edward's forces arrived at Harlech in April, 1283, and building work began almost immediately. Over the next six years an army of masons, quarriers, laborers and other craftsmen were busily engaged in construction. In 1286, with the work at its height, nearly 950 men were employed under the superintendence of Master James. The final result was a perfectly concentric castle, where one line of defenses is enclosed by another. Unfortunately, the outer wall is ruinous today and fails to convey the true 13th-century effect.

The natural strength of the castle rock and cliff face meant that only the east face was open to possible attack. Here the gatehouse still offers an insolent display of power. The gate-passage itself was protected by a succession of no less than seven obstacles, including three portcullises. On either side of the passage were guardrooms, and the upper floors of the gatehouse provided the main private accommodation at Harlech. The first floor must have been for the constable, or governor, who from 1290-93 was none other than Master James himself. The comfortable rooms on the top floor probably served as a suite for visiting dignitaries, including the king.

The inner ward is surprisingly small and, as the foundations show, a great deal of room was originally taken up by the surrounding ranges of domestic buildings. To the rear lay the great hall and kitchen. Against the north wall were a chapel and bakehouse, and to the south a granary and a second hall. The corner towers provided further accommodation, and today the visitor may care to climb one of the sets of steps to the wall-walks from which there are superb views in all directions.

The castle's other remarkable feature is the defended "Way from the sea," a gated and fortified stairway plunging almost 200 ft down to the foot of the castle rock. Once, this gave access to supplies from the sea, but the tide level has since receded, leaving Harlech somewhat isolated upon its rock. During Madog ap Llywelyn's uprising of 1294-95, this maritime lifeline proved the savior of the garrison, which was supplied and victualled by ships from Ireland.

Harlech Castle played a key role in the national uprising led by Owain Glyndwr. After a long siege, it fell to his forces in 1404. The castle became Glyndwr's residence and headquarters, and one of the two places to which he is believed to have summoned parliaments of his supporters. It was only after a further long siege in 1408 that Harlech was retaken by English forces under Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V.

Sixty years later, during the War of the Roses, the castle was held for the Lancastrians until taken by Lord Herbert of Raglan for the Yorkist side. It was this prolonged siege which traditionally gave rise to the song Men of Harlech.

Wales - Castles and Historic Places, by CADW, Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff CF2 1UY, 1990.



Tintern Abbey is set against the green wooded valley of the River Wye. It was this arresting scene that inspired Wordsworth's famous romantic poem. The abbey was founded in 1131 for Cistercian monks by the order of the Norman Lord of Chepstow, Walter de Clare. The great abbey church seen today was rebuilt in the late 13th century under patronage of Roger Bigod (sic). At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 Tintern was the richest abbey in Wales and this is reflected in its majestic archways and elegant windows.

"Tintern's beauty is timeless, and, standing amid the peaceful ruins, it is easy to sense the spirit which drew the very first community of monks over 850 years ago."
D.M. Robinson and Roger S. Thomas - "Wales, Castles and Historic Places". 



Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross) takes its name from from Eliseg's Pillar nearby, which would already have stood for nearly four centuries when the abbey was established in 1201. The new foundation was a Cistercian house, a 'daughter' of Strata Marcella, near Welshpool; its patron was Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, ruler of northern Powys. So that the abbey could enjoy solitude required by the order, the existing settlement of Llangwestl was removed to Stansty, north-west of Wrexham.

The layout of the abbey largely followed the standard Cistercian plan. The abbey church accommodated both the choir monks, who spent their time in prayer and contemplation, and the lay brethren who undertook more mundane duties, such as agricultural work, enabling the community, at least in its early years, to remain largely self-sufficient. The monks observed their daily offices in the choir, beneath the crossing of the church, separated by a screen from the lay brethren who worshipped in the nave. The choir monks would also say mass individually in the transept chapels at other times.

The 40 or so lay brethren would have been accommodated in the range to the west of the cloister. This has undergone later alterations (the number of lay brethren declined sharply in the 14th century, partly due to the Black Death in 1349), but would originally have contained a cellar at the north end, a central day room and a refectory on the south, now lost. Upstairs would have been a dormitory similar to the choir monks' in the eastern range opposite. The refectory, which would had shared the adjoining kitchen with the choir monks' refectory beyond it in the south range, was later replaced by an office for the cellarer.

The choir monks' accommodations, built for about 20, lay on the east and south of the cloister. Access from the church would have been by a day stair, later removed, and a night stair, leading directly to the first-floor dormitory. Below this, next to the church, lay the sacristy, housing vestments and plate for the services; alongside this was the chapter house, with a book-cupboard in the thickness of the wall. Daily meetings of the choir monks took place here; a chapter from the rule of the order would be read and business discussed. The normal Cistercian plan would have continued with a parlour, and possibly accommodation for novices, but at Valle Crucis a passage ran south of the chapter house (right), perhaps to a separate infirmary; beyond it the range finishes with the lower level of the latrine block serving the dormitory above. Traces of a longer range beneath the present later 14th or early 15th century plan, suggest that the missing rooms were relocated in the now under-used accommodation on the west.

The abbey suffered a serious fire soon after its founder's death in 1236; traces of burning are visible on the lower stonework of the church and the south range. Substantial rebuilding (distinguished by putlog holes for the ends of the wooden scaffolding) had already taken place when the abbey found itself on the losing side during Edward I's Welsh campaigns in 1276-7 and 1282-3, although subsequent compensation enabled it to flourish for much of the following century. Repairs to the church, notably the reconstruction of the magnificent western gable end, commemorated by the inscription above the rose window, were carried out under Abbot Adam in the early 14th century (below right). Whether this was restoration of damage in the Welsh campaigns or in some later episode is not clear. After the Black Death, numbers declined, not only of lay brethren but probably of choir monks; late in the century the screen behind the choir stalls was moved eastwards from its original position one bay into the nave to the crossing arch where it can be seen today.

It was perhaps after the alleged damage during the early 15th-century Glyndwr rising that the east range rebuilding was completed. The superb vaulted chapter house is an especially well preserved feature and dates from this time. The wealth of the abbey certainly increased, and by the end of the century poets praised the hospitality of its abbots. About this time, part of the first-floor east range dormitory, together with an adjoining room, was made into a comfortable suite for the abbot, while the rest was converted into lodgings for the abbots guests. The few remaining monks may now have slept in the west range, in accommodation no longer required for lay brethren.

This prosperity was limited by comparison with many English abbeys, however, and Valle Crucis was dissolved in 1537 as one of the lesser houses. After the Dissolution the buildings rapidly fell into disrepair; in the late 16th century the eastern range was converted into a house with a new roof-line, although this roof had gone by the early 18th century. Many of the ruins were roofed again later in the century and used as a farm. Excavations and clearance of the ruins were carried out in the mid to late 19th century.

A very fine collection of medieval memorial sculpture is preserved in the dormitory, and there is a small exhibition revealing more of Valle Crucis and the Cistercian monastic life.

Valle Crucis is located in the fantastic surrounds of Horseshoe Pass.



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