I was reading the other day that the Welsh word for England is Lloegr, which means ‘the Lost Land’. This conjures up a huge sense of grief over something that cannot be retrieved. It also creates a different perspective from the normal one, where it’s the ancient Britons who were the real owners of these isles and all the others, us included, usurpers.
The Romans and Germanic tribes from the continent drove them into what is now Wales and their myths and legends recalled thereafter the ancient homelands which they could never return to.
It was the incoming English who called this part of the continental offshore islands Wales: literally ‘the Alien Land’. It derives from ‘walchaz’ in Old Germanic, meaning ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ – ironic, under the circumstances.
There is a string of border castles that testifies to the eternal struggle to keep the unruly Welsh, aliens in their own ancestral lands, under control. They were mostly built by Edward I.
Conwy Castle is the greatest of them, and indeed one of the greatest fortresses in Europe. It hasn’t been modified or beautified like most of the others (with the exception of Harlech). It looks rather as if it has brutally erupted from the rock, a bastion of medieval uncompromising rule, wanting nothing to do with courtly frills. You can imagine that the garrisons manning it must have been pretty much steeped in blood.
It was designed, as was Harlech, by James of St George, master castle builder to Edward I. Where Harlech has more legends and stories attached to it, including the stirring song ‘Men of Harlech’ (made famous in ‘Zulu’), Conwy has more impressive and complete towers and walls. It seems to sneer at you as you look up at it, as if it could stamp on you with ease but can’t be bothered because you’re just so pathetic.
All of the Welsh border castles are impressive, but most of them like Caernarfon merge into the towns. I like my castles to be distinct entities, cut off from the urban areas, unpolluted by bourgeois values and grubby merchant mentalities. Medieval rulers knew that merchants had to know their limits and be kept firmly in place, and look what’s happened since they took over everything. No more castles, for a start.
Work on Conwy was begun in 1283 and it was an important element in Edward I’s cunning plan to effectively fence Wales off by constructing an iron ring of castles to keep the population under control. The whole town in addition had its own high wall to protect the English colony that was planted here. Talk about provocation – it was a bit like setting up house in the Falls Road in Belfast at the height of the Troubles and hanging a Union Jack out the window – asking for it.