Llewelyn Fawr founded or funded Aberconwy Abbey. He was buried at the abbey in 1240. The building of the English castle and town at Conwy subsequently displacing the abbey to Maenan, and thus was a powerful symbol of Edward I’s supplanting of the dynasty of Gwynedd. Neither the abbey nor Llewelyn’s grave remain survived. Only St Mary’s church endures of what was the monastic church and only Llewelyn’s sarcophagus remains up-river at Llanrwst bereft of its lid or contents. The building of Conwy castle and town thus deliberately and unequivocally shattered the material and memorial legacy of Llewelyn: only shards remained.
How has the 19th-21st-century townscape of Conwy sought to recall and commemorate the Welsh monastic origins and its Welsh royal patron before the town’s foundation? I’m happy to be corrected, but I think there exists only one principal locus of this commemoration: a late-Victorian fountain.
Completed in 1895, the statue and fountain simultaneously commemorate the completion of the town’s water supply system and re-populates the town’s heart with the spirit of Llewelyn Fawr. Intervisibility with St Mary’s church – as stated above, the surviving religious focus of what was the Cistercian monastic house – is unambiguously significant in this regard.
Llewelyn is depicted with a ludicrously large shield and sword, and he faces in defiance south-east towards the castle he didn’t live to see built by his English royal rivals. He stands on a ludicrous garland-wrapped neo-classical column that jars with the medieval allusions of the statue upon it in a stark fashion. Still, I suspect to a Victorian architectural and civic mind, it would have presumably seemed suitably ‘antique’ and perhaps evoking the claimed Roman inheritance of the Welsh princes.
The waters pour from the mouths of bronze dragons, further emphasising the Welsh inheritance of identity through a fluid medium.
The dedicatory plaque outlines its rationale and significance? Well, it doesn’t. It simply records the town corporations’ gratitude for its gifting, not the significance of its commemorative subject. This is patriotism framed textually as public utility in true Victorian civic fashion. Yet the medium of water, its spiritual allusions to monastic life, as well as the overt neo-classical/neo-medieval mash-up of the pillar and statue, serve to speak visually and materially of a different story of national fantasies within an urban context.
Previously, I’ve discussed how art over the last 40 years has populated the interiors of castles in Wales, and framed key approaches, as counter-colonial articulations of Welsh nationalism, from Harlech to Kidwelly. Meanwhile, botched attempts to celebrate Edward I’s castle-building have received critical reception at Flint.
The interior of Conwy Castle retains a celebratory English royal focus, despite some cartoons affording a Welsh perspective (told by ‘Ivor Story’), yet this Victorian statue of Llewellyn reminds visitors of the Welsh princely monastic foundation and the life and death of its patron. Indeed, is this the north Walian progenitor of the more recent tradition of populating castles and their environs with Welsh medievalisms? For many, I suspect that this Victorian representation of Llewelyn Fawr is Llewelyn Fawr: for it is depicted widely in art and other media, including many postcards. The statue thus has singularly reignited the Welsh princely identity of the town’s ‘prehistory’ as a monastic foundation of Gwynedd.