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Dramatic Castles in Wales

By Alex Boag-Wyllie, Marketing Assistant
More by Alex

Here Be Dragons

Wales offers visitors a rich history, immersive legends, and inspiring landscapes. Here, dramatic castles are a testament to the country’s enduring spirit and boundless beauty. In fact, Wales is home to more castles per square mile than any other country in the world. Each castle holds its own captivating story, with many as witnesses to the forging of this great nation.

With each step along towering battlements and among picturesque ruins, these castles reveal stories woven through centuries of conflict and transformation. Join us as we unveil the magic of the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Storm Straight To:

A Brief History of Wales

To truly appreciate the Welsh castles, a little understanding of the history that forms their backdrop goes a long way.

Humans have occupied the area known as Wales for at least 200,000 years. The Celts arrived from mainland Europe approximately 3,000 years ago. Their influence remains in the Welsh language and culture to this day. The same names seen in English history – the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans – appear in Welsh history too. It was the Normans, invading Britain in 1066, who brought south Wales under their rule at the end of the 11th century. They also introduced the concept of castle towns. This set the stage for the grand fortifications that would define the Welsh landscape.

King Edward I

King Edward I

Less than 200 years later, the English King Edward I conquered Wales. Seeking to consolidate his power, the king embarked on a campaign of castle building. The best-known of these – Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech – form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Welsh Princes

However, for much of history, the area we now know as Wales was divided into several kingdoms. Ruled by the Welsh princes, these medieval kingdoms were often at war, forming alliances and rivalries. One of the last independent princes before the conquest of Edward I was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native Prince of Wales. Llywelyn’s reign marked a period of relative unity among the Welsh principalities as he sought to resist English influence.

Later conflicts included the War of the Roses (1455–85) and the English Civil War (1642-51). These campaigns continued to use the strongholds their predecessors built. It wasn’t until 1536 that an Act of Union brought all of Wales under English administration.

Beaumaris Castle

On the beautiful Isle of Anglesey stands Beaumaris Castle, fondly known as the ‘greatest castle never built’. Beaumaris is the fourth of the castles in the ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’ UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, financial difficulties and the brewing trouble in Scotland led to the early halt of construction by the 1320s. This left the castle with short walls and squat towers. Yet the near-symmetrical design reveals the plans for this dramatic castle in Wales.

Edward I ordered the destruction of Llanfaes in 1295. This order was part of his relentless quest to assert authority over his newly conquered territories in Wales. The loss of this port town paved the way for Beaumaris Castle, and the new surrounding town became the most important on Anglesey.

Embodying the unfulfilled grandeur of Edward I’s Welsh campaign, Beaumaris is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Caernarfon Castle

On the banks of the River Seiont, Caernarfon Castle is a grand fortress. The most visited castle in Wales, Caernarfon Castle took an impressive 47 years to complete. Construction began in 1283 and cost a staggering £25,000 – just over £23.5 million today!

Caernarfon’s architecture is as defensive as it is poetic. The design, with its formidable Eagle Tower, boasts three turrets and walls 18 ft/5.5 meters thick. Here, Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, gave birth to Edward II. The young heir’s appointment as the first English Prince of Wales started a tradition that continues today.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Undoubtedly one of the most significant buildings of the Middle Ages, Caernarfon Castle forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’. Today, this proud fortress allows visitors to explore grand medieval corridors. One of the most dramatic castles in Wales, Caernarfon Castle is a must-visit in north Wales.

Discover Caernarfon on The Five Countries cycling tour.

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Criccieth Castle

Criccieth Castle commands a dramatic rocky headland between two golden beaches. The towering walls offer sweeping views across Cardigan Bay. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, one of the best-known Princes of Gwynedd, began work on Criccieth Castle in the early 1200s.

The Changing Hands of Criccieth Castle

On his sweeping conquest of Wales, Edward I captured the castle fifty years later. The king began an extensive remodelling of Criccieth to solidify his position of power. By the 14th century, the Welsh had recaptured the castle, and it was in the hands of Welsh knight Syr Hywel y Fw Yall.

With an extensive history of capture and recapture, Owain Glyndŵr destroyed Criccieth Castle at the beginning of the 15th century. Owain Glyndŵr led the last major attempt by the Welsh to escape English rule. Ultimately unsuccessful, Owain’s legacy remains across Wales.

An imposing ruin today, Criccieth Castle is a site with a long history of dispute. Its prominent position above the town of Criccieth makes it one of the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Conwy Castle

As you approach Conwy Castle, the craggy mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park rise in the distance. While the mountains provide a breathtaking backdrop, over 1.25 km/0.75 miles of unbroken town wall protects the streets of Conwy beneath the castle.

Building Conwy Castle

Construction for the magnificent Conwy Castle took just four years. Conwy was built between 1283 and 1287 on the orders of Edward I. One of four castles forming his UNESCO World Heritage Site, Conwy boasts the most extensive collection of medieval royal residential chambers found in England or Wales. Yet, despite its grandeur, the royal family only used the rooms of Conwy Castle a handful of times.

As you wander these historic halls, look for lime render on the walls. This hint at Conwy’s past reveals that the walls were once gleaming white, an imposing sight for anyone approaching.

With a history that has earned it a place as one of the most haunted castles in north Wales, Conwy Castle is also one of the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Discover Conwy Castle on our Highlights of Wales walking tour.

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Gwrych Castle

Gwrych Castle, built between 1812 and 1822, was designed to replicate medieval architecture. The castle initially boasted over 100 rooms, including a remarkable 52-step marble staircase. However, a combination of factors resulted in the interior being entirely stripped. These included the acquisition of the castle by the military during WWII, use as a medieval reenactment centre, and vandalism.

Gwrych Castle’s current state includes a few internal rooms and outbuildings that you can visit. An ongoing project seeks to restore the estate. This restoration work makes it one of Britain’s most significant conservation projects.

The castle recently gained fame as a filming location for “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here” in 2020 and 2021. Fans of the popular TV show can explore the main courtyard, featuring the famous telephone box, the lookout, and more.

With its towering facade and stark, expansive interior, Gwrych is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Harlech Castle

Perched on a rocky outcrop, Harlech Castle boasts a dramatic setting to stir the soul. The orders of Edward I saw the castle completed in just seven years. Originally much closer to the retreating sea, the castle would have been an intimidating sight for its contemporary foe. Harlech is another of the four great castles within the ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’ UNESCO World Heritage Site, alongside Caernarfon, Conwy, and Beaumaris.

Attacks on Harlech Castle

Despite its might, Harlech Castle is not impenetrable. In 1404, the castle fell to Welsh hero Owain Glyndŵr. Five years later, Harlech changed hands again when the forces of the future Henry V attacked. In the same century, an immense Yorkist army surrounded Lancastrian Harlech Castle during the War of the Roses. Two hundred years later, another epic siege marked the end of the English Civil War when this Royalist stronghold fell.

Rising tall above the surrounding landscape, Harlech Castle is one of the most dramatic castles in Wales. Coupled with the rousing tune of ‘Men of Harlech’, a reminder of the site’s history, the castle is a must-visit in north Wales.

Montgomery Castle

Montgomery Castle sits high upon a steep crag. These historic ruins offer visitors views across the border into neighbouring England. The castle’s history dates back to the early 13th century when King Henry III began the building work in response to the growing power of the Welsh princes. This defensive work replaced an early wooden fort, Hen Domen, which had stood nearby.

The Civil War Leaves its Mark

Over the centuries, Montgomery Castle survived numerous attacks. The most notable of these occurred during the Civil War of the 17th century. Here, Parliamentarian forces demolished Montgomery Castle. Their attack left behind only the ruined towers and low walls.

The resilient ruins of Montgomery Castle have seen centuries of history and conflict along the Welsh/English border.

Powis Castle

The English and their supporters built many of the castles in Wales to consolidate their power. Powis Castle tells a different tale. The Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn built this grand fortress in the 13th century as the seat of the princes of Powys. Not long after, in 1274, powerful Welsh rival Llywelyn ap Gruffudd destroyed this structure. A mere three years later, the castle was rebuilt.

The Herbert Family

However, it was the building work of the later 1500s which elevated Powis Castle to one of the most dramatic castles in north and mid-Wales. It was the Herbert family who undertook this grand remodelling, and Powis remained in their family until it passed to the National Trust in 1952. Today, the castle retains many original features, including interiors ranging from Elizabethan to Edwardian.

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle stands proud as the biggest castle in Wales, second only in size to Windsor Castle in all of Britain. Gilbert de Clare, a Marcher lord, built the castle quickly in the mid-1200s. The growing threat of the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, inspired his building work. Not long after, the castle passed to the infamous Hugh Despenser. A favourite of Edward II, Hugh remodelled the castle to match his fearsome reputation.

The Leaning Tower of Caerphilly

Several centuries later, the 17th century Civil War left one tower listing to the side. Still standing at a jaunty angle today, the 4th Marquess of Bute restored much of Caerphilly Castle in the first half of the 20th century. As one of the wealthiest men of his era, he spared no expense on the building project.

Covering 30 acres, or approximately 23 American football fields, Caerphilly is designed to intimidate and impress. Surrounded by artificial water defences, this can still be felt today. Caerphilly Castle, which seems to almost float on the water, is a dramatic sight indeed.

Castell Carreg Cennen

Perched dramatically on a limestone crag, Castell Carreg Cennen offers breathtaking views across the valley below. A Marcher lord built the current castle, now in ruins, at the turn of the 13th century. It is an excellent example of a fortress constructed after Edward I’s conquest of Wales.

The earliest evidence of the use of the site of Castell Carreg Cennen is in 1248. However, it is likely that an earlier native Welsh castle once occupied the site. Just 30 years later, Edward I captured the castle. With a turbulent history, Castell Carreg Cennen endured until the mid-15th century. During the War of the Roses, a large force of men dismantled the building to prevent further use.

In the 19th century, the Earl of Cawdor initiated a restoration project, as was the fashion. Today, it can be challenging to distinguish the original medieval structure from this work. It is nonetheless a unique site, considered the most beautiful castle and romantic ruin in Wales.

Cardiff Castle

Standing at the heart of the Welsh capital city, Cardiff Castle is a testament to nearly 2,000 years of history. Its story begins with the establishment of a Roman fort in the late 50s AD, followed by the great stone keep in the 11th century.

The Marquesses of Bute

Through the ages, Cardiff Castle passed between many noble families. Yet it was the Bute family that left an indelible mark. In the 19th century, the 2nd Marquess of Bute played a pivotal role in transforming Cardiff into a great coal port. This work catapulted the family’s fortune to new heights. His son, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world by the second half of the 19th century.

Cardiff Castle continued to stand as a great defence during WWII. The tunnels under the castle became air raid shelters for almost 2,000 people during the war. Following the war, the Butes gifted the castle to the city of Cardiff, marking a new chapter in its history.

Castell Coch

Castell Coch, or ‘The Red Castle’, emerges from the woods like something out of a fairytale. Gilbert de Clare (of Caerphilly Castle) built the castle in the 13th century. However, much of the building that stands today is 19th century work. Upon the wishes of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, his architect, William Buges, transformed the castle into an enchanting gem.

Castell Coch in Public Favour

Often voted as the public’s favourite Welsh building, Castell Coch is a blend of Victorian imagination and medieval history. The castle’s distinctive appearance and lush surroundings make it a romantic yet dramatic castle in Wales to visit.

Additionally, a mysterious legend surrounds the castle. It is said that a passage connects Castell Coch with Cardiff Castle, 8 km/5 miles away. However, anyone who has tried to explore this passage has been chased off by two giant eagles that guard the tunnel and the mysterious chest hidden within.

Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle majestically stretches along a limestone cliff above the meandering River Wye. Chepstow is a fine example of evolving castle designs as they adapted to withstand increasingly destructive weaponry. This Norman stronghold, constructed in 1067, is one of the first of its kind to grace the Welsh landscape. These dates also make Chepstow Castle the oldest castle in Wales.

The Legacy of William Marshall

Chepstow Castle’s history is inextricably linked with the legendary William Marshall. The great knight acquired the castle through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, an heiress. The marriage catapulted William among the ranks of the richest individuals in the kingdom. No stranger to war, he transformed Chepstow into a defensive fortress fit for his reputation.

Today, the castle is home to the oldest castle doors in Europe and the earliest mortice-and-tenon joints known in Britain. The doors date from no later than the 1190s.

A mighty castle built to withstand centuries of attack, looming over a tranquil river bend, Chepstow Castle is one the most dramatic castles in Wales.

Visit Wales

Meet the Author: Alex Boag-Wyllie

Born in the Scottish Highlands, I was lucky enough to spend my early childhood playing on beautiful, sweeping beaches and learning to ski (or, more often, fall over). My father’s job kept us on the move though, and I was soon just as at home amidst the rolling Wiltshire downs, the dramatic Yorkshire Dales and the expansive East Anglian coast. I’ve had almost 40 bedrooms to date across the UK, so I’m your gal if you need a good cafe recommendation (almost) anywhere in the country; if I haven’t been there yet, you can be sure it’s on my trip list…

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