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Considering its importance, I thought it would be bigger. Not that walls 3 1/2 metres thick and 12 metres high are insubstantial, but I'd expected a castle that had endured five sieges, taken nearly eight years to build and was the last royalist fortification to fall in the English Civil War to have more bulk. It site is still a commanding one, on a rock 60 metres above the sea, but the water, which once lapped its base, has retreated, diminishing the effect a bit.
Nevertheless, it played a major role in Welsh history. It was built by Edward I as one of his 14 Ring of Iron fortresses meant to keep the Welsh subdued after the death of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gauffydd, in 1282. Harlech, says Blue Badge guide Donna Goodman, "was considered to be the strongest of the Ring of Iron castles." Today it, along with three other of Edward's Welsh castles (Caernarvon, Conwy and Beaumaris) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four made the cut, says Goodman, because "they are the finest examples of medieval castles in the world." Harlech is the smallest of the four, but it its prime, when its walls were lime-washed to a brilliant white, "it would have looked like Camelot," says Goodman.
Harlech's most prominent turn at centre stage came at the start of the 1400s. Owain Glyn Dwr (anglicized as "Owen Glendower"), "perhaps the most conjured name in all of Welsh history," according to one of the castle's information panels, had raised the flag of Welsh rebellion in 1400 and had himself declared Prince of Wales. By 1404 he controlled virtually all of the country and had captured the castles of Aberystwyth and Harlech.
Harlech he made his headquarters. He and his family moved in. Here he held court and signed a treaty with Charles VI of France. In the summer of 1405 he convened a Welsh parliament at Harlech. But his days as ruler were short-lived. In 1409, after persistent cannonading (the balls from it are lined up on the floor of the gatehouse), the English retook Harlech.
Although his wife and two daughters were captured and taken to the Tower of London (where they died) Glyn Dwr managed to slip away. He continued to lead a guerrilla movement, but by 1412 it had run out of steam. Unlike most deposed rulers, though, it seems Glyn Dwr was neither caught or killed, nor went into exile. He simply vanishes from history. One tradition has it he lived with his daughter, Alys, across the Welsh border in Herefordshire, presented himself a friar and died an old man. Books have been written speculating on his fate. Meanwhile, Henry of Monmouth, the man who retook Harlech, became the sole Prince of Wales – and later Henry V.
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