After a recent trip on the Ffestiniog Railway, I visited Criccieth and had a very positive few hours in the town and castle including a very satisfactory visit to a chippy. I have the 1990s Richard Avent Cadw guide to Criccieth Castle (i.e. not the very latest version) which provides the basis of the castle details in this post. My visit involved parking in the town, walking to the castle on a striking promontory overlooking the sea, exploring the small heritage displays, eating sausage and chips on a bench halfway up the hill, and then twice exploring the castle inside and out.
The maerdref of the commote of Eifionydd was transferred from Dolbenmaen to Criccieth by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in the 1230s and the castle is first mentioned here in 1239. Serving as a prison, administrative centre and fortification for the Welsh princes, the castle fell to the English by March 1283 during Edward I’s invasion of Gwynedd. It was visited repeatedly by the king and a borough was established which remained small and never developed stone fortifications of its own. Refortified, the castle remained in English royal control and was besieged in 1294 by Madog ap Llywelyn. The castle was used as a prison through the 14th century. Finally, both the castle and borough were destroyed in 1404 during the Glyndwr rising and never rebuilt.
Avent’s guide outlines honestly and lucidly the challenge of reconciling the historical narrative and sums recorded as spent on the castle’s building and repairs with the material remains. Avent regards the earliest phase as Welsh work of the early 13th century to be the inner ward and thus the work of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth sometime between 1230 and 1240. The parallel with Beeston and Montgomery castles is the subject of recent discussion by my student Rachel Swallow here.
Avent then argued that a second phase of construction involved the building of the outer ward- new towers and a curtain wall joining them – and can be attributed to the reign of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd during the 1260s and 1270s.
A third phase is attributed to the English work of Edward I and might have included the rebuilding of the inner gatehouse and adding stairs to it, the rebuilding of the south-east and south-west towers and the extension of the outer gatehouse. The reworking of the north tower to mount a stone-throwing trebuchet might also date to this period. Accounts talk also of repairs in the early 14th century during the reign of Edward II, which may have constituted further work on the inner gatehouse and re-roofing.#
With my archaeodeath hat on, I want to draw attention to some commemorative dimensions to this heritage site.
1) The displays of the heritage centre relate to anniversary commemoration. This is because they only outline the history of Criccieth Castle and other castles in North Wales. The special display focuses on the tour of Giraldus Cambrensis and its centrepiece are some very freaky mannequins. This was installed to mark the 800th anniversary of his tour of Wales. There are obviously no mortuary remains on display, but it struck me that there is a similarity between these displays about the lives of particular individuals and the ‘life-like’ reconstructions attempted for many archaeologically excavated skeletons.
2) In the visitor display, easy to miss as one passes from the heritage centre out on the path up the hill to the castle, is mounted the nameplate of a Great Western Swindon-built Collett 4073 ‘castle class’ steam engine: Criccieth Castle. Steam engines, as we all know, have personalities through their naming, as discussed here. This engine is now dead – scrapped – but it is something of a commemorative full-circle to see the engine bringing its identity back to the castle after which it is named. Sadly, I didn’t notice any caption explaining the historic significance of this nameplate: it seems Cadw aren’t sure how to write a narrative for it for the visitor.
3) The commemoration of nation and heritage is a ubiquitous feature of Welsh and English castles, relayed in this instance through the pair of Welsh flags on the inner gatehouse and the information boards and other heritage paraphernalia. There is also the ‘commemoration’ of health and safety and the heritage tourist, as discussed here, here and here, denoted by the prominent health and safety metal plaques showing white figures on red background. I would argue that these simultaneously have a warning ‘function’ but also impose an ideological template of management and care upon ancient monuments both visually and materially.
4) On the path up to the castle and against the walls of the castle itself were undedicated benches. Yet positioned to afford striking sea views there are two memorial benches to local people. They are situated in public and yet simultaneously private micro-locales outside the walls and slightly off the standard tourist route. This is also a striking example of the close correlation of viewshed with memorialisation in modern commemorative practice. One bench is dedicated to a couple and no local affinity is noted. The other is to a local lady whose address is given: she clearly lived under the shadow of the castle all her life and now is memorialised looking out from it. I have discussed this theme previously here.