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The History of Conwy

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Settlements existed at the site of Conwy Castle for some considerable time before the building of the castle. The Welsh settled the area, recognising its strategic value and mindful of its abundant food supplies. Another view is that the Romans may have been the first to settle the area, with the Welsh moving in after they departed, recognising the area as offering security from the raiding Irish. In the Dark Ages, a wooden fortress was constructed on the opposite bank of the Conwy River, on the site of the suburbs of present day Llandudno . In the mid sixth century it was the stronghold of Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of Gwynedd. In 1979 an important archaeological find in the area was a hoard of 204 Silver Cnut Pennies. The wooden fortifications were eventually destroyed by lightning in the ninth century, eventually being replaced by a stone castle built for Henry III of England. This was destroyed after being taken by Llewellyn the Last.

Conwy was originally the site of an Abbey built by Llewellyn ap lorwerth (Llewellyn the Great) in the early 13th century. It is also the site of his tomb. For this reason, it must have been particularly galling for the Welsh people when King Edward built his castle at Conwy, constructing it over the site of the Abbey and Llewellyn’s grave! This was no doubt deliberate; Edward used the castles he built in Wales as a demonstration of his conquest of Wales, as well as the obvious defensive and strategic uses. The Abbey was relocated to a site near the town of Llanwrst , about eight miles away from the site of the original Maenan Abbey. Conwy Castle is built at a particularly strategic location on the far bank of the river. It was easily reached by ships to restock supplies and provide reinforcements at times of siege. The western bank of the river Conwy was also in the Kingdom of Gwynned, thus Edward made a statement that he had crossed the river and made a foothold in the proudly Welsh Kingdom of Gwynned. Edward’s impressive castle was defended by a total of eight towers, each being of the later rounded design. The castle was built between 1283 and 1287, employing some 15000 men for the building. Over the next century or so, an Outer Wall was built to encompass the town, with a total of 21 towers.

The castle was besieged in 1295 and later taken by Owain Glyndŵr in 1403. Glyndŵr and some of his supporters tricked their way into the castle with a few dozen men. It was an important religious festival and it is believed that they mingled with peasants or workmen entering the the castle on business, then took advantage of the fact that most of the garrison were at prayer in the church. They took over the castle and held out for three months; demanding a ransom for the castle. Such was the strength of the castle that King Henry IV was powerless to do anything other than negotiate terms. The rebel leaders walked away with handsome settlements, but it was not favourable for all of their loyal troops; eight of whom were executed as part of the deal!

Over the next few centuries, the castle began to fall into disuse and disrepair. By the beginning of the 17th century, the castle was in a sorry state. Later in the century, however, it was called into service and garrisoned by Royalist troops after the outbreak of the English Civil War . It fell to the Parliamentarians following a three month siege in 1646 and was slighted, leaving just the stone shell standing. King Charles granted the remains of the castle to Edward Conway, 3rd Viscount Conway, after his restoration . The Viscount then proceeded to have the remaining iron and timber stripped from the castle shell and sold off.

Conwy has many houses of historical note. A fine town house, Plas Mawr was built there in 1576. In addition Aberconwy , on the corner of High Street and Castle Street, is one of the oldest houses in Wales. Last, and in fact in some ways least, Conwy boasts Britain’s smallest house; it is only 10 feet high and has a frontage of only six feet! During the 18th century the town was visited by Daniel Defoe , who noted that it was a ‘noble harbour, which infinitely outdoes Chester or Liverpool itself’. In the early 19th century a quay was built and used by fishermen and for slate export. Until the building of Thomas Telford ’s suspension bridge in 1829, you were forced to get the ferry to cross to Conwy. In the mid 19th century, Robert Stephenson built a railway bridge and in the late 20th century a tunnel was built to add to the existing links. The modern town of Conwy is a charming town with a relatively small population.

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