Spectacular Conwy Castle is one of Europe’s finest medieval castles. It forms part of the ‘iron ring of castles’ built by the English King Edward I to deter future Welsh rebellions. The castle took just four years to build, but who designed and built this medieval masterpiece?
Conwy Castle was built by the architect Master James of St. George. He was the go-to castle builder for Edward I in North Wales. James was a master mason from the Savoy region of Europe, who oversaw the completion of Conwy Castle in a blisteringly rapid four years (source).
Over 700 years later, Conwy Castle still has the power to leave you with a feeling of awe in its scale. In this article, I shall explain why Conwy Castle was built before looking at its architect, Master James of St George, and how this magnificent fortress was built.
Why Conwy Castle Was Built
In 1277, English King Edward I began his conquest of Wales in earnest.
In a series of campaigns over the next six years, Wales came under English control and English law. The last native Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was killed in December 1282 at the battle of Orwin Bridge.
Edward I achieved his aim to make the previously fiercely independent Wales a territory of England.
The last part of the conquest involved subduing rebels and uprisings in the north of the country. However, Edward knew only too well that the recently conquered Welsh would not simply lie down and accept English rule.
Therefore, Edward needed a plan, one that would help subjugate the Welsh and deter future rebellions.
Part of the solution was to embark on a castle building scheme which was to become known as the ‘iron ring of castles’.
An Iron Ring of Castles
The castle-building program began well before Wales was brought under complete control of Edward I.
The construction of Flint Castle began in 1277, soon after the English crossed into Wales. However, it took seven years to complete.
In time, 10 castles were built along the North Wales coastal region. They stretched from the border with England, across to Harlech Castle overlooking the Irish Sea in the west.
Each castle was planned to be a single day’s march from another, allowing for rapid deployment to a besieged castle.
The following table lists the ten castles that formed the iron ring.
|Castle||Construction Begins||Year Completed|
The local population would never have seen such constructions before. This was shock and awe medieval-style.
Each castle screamed power and dominance. If you are to rebel against your new King, these are the fortifications you will have to defeat. They were designed to cow and subjugate would-be rebels.
The design of Conwy Castle upped the ante even further. The castle was originally rendered with lime, making it a gleaming white.
The power and opulence of King Edward I were being made clear. Conwy Castle stood out as a shining example of the English conquest, a building designed to make you look and take note.
The following video provides an insight into Conwy Castle.
The Man Who Built Conwy Castle
While returning from crusade, Edward I met a master mason at the court of Philip I, the Count of Savoy. It was to prove a significant historical moment.
The master mason was Master James of St George, and together they would build a series of impressive castles across Wales, including Conwy Castle.
Not huge amounts are known about Master James, including his exact date of birth. He was born around 1230 and learned his trade from his master mason father, John.
A master mason was an architect and engineer who was employed to design and oversee the building of official buildings.
James is acknowledged as working with his father on the construction of Yverdon Castle in Switzerland.
Work began in 1259 and was financed by Peter, Count of Savoy. The castle was completed in 1267.
However, by this time it was being overseen by James alone. Records on his father had ended by now.
The castle used a design where the keep was separate from the castle, with a drawbridge that could be raised. This offered refuge if the outer castle walls were penetrated by an invading force.
The work on Yverdon Castle must have impressed, as James would soon have another project lined up.
Philip succeeded Peter as Count of Savoy in 1268. Philip wanted a new castle at St. Georges d’Esperanche in modern-day France. He also wanted a grand castle, more a luxurious residence than a defensive castle. He picked Master James as the man for the job.
A Historic Encounter
Master James must have been more than satisfied with the outcome, adding the title of St George to his name. His castle designs were also starting to draw attention from further afield.
Toward the completion of the castle, the Count of Savoy was hosting an important visitor.
Edward I was introduced to Master James of St. George in 1273 by the Count of Savoy.
Edward must have been particularly impressed with the castle he saw and persuaded the count to allow Master James to travel to the UK to work for him.
It was the beginning of a working relationship that lasted for three decades, resulting in some of the most imposing and magnificent castle fortifications in Europe.
Building Conwy Castle
Master James of St. George oversaw the building or renovation of 12 castles in Wales. One of these was Conwy Castle, with work starting in 1283.
Anyone who has visited this masterpiece of medieval military construction will be amazed that such a fortress was built in just four years.
Edward I picked a site that was significant for its defensive capacities as well as its local history. Located high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Conwy estuary and with a stream running on one side, it was an ideal defensive site. The river could provide valuable water during any siege.
The location was also the site of Aberconwy Abbey, the most important Cistercian abbey in North Wales.
Llywelyn the Great was buried at the abbey. Edward provided funds to move the abbey to a new location in Maenan. He was the King in this neck of the woods now.
Conwy Castle was first and foremost a military fortification. The most important element was its security and defensive capability. With this in mind, Master James of St. George set about overseeing the construction of the outer wall and towers first.
The eight towers are the most instantly identifiable parts of Conwy Castle.
They were several stories high and up to 70 ft (21.3 m) tall. The outer walls were 15 ft (4.6 m) thick in parts.
This was a high-end castle, one fit to protect a royal inhabitant.
Much of the construction material used was sourced from local quarries, although sandstone for the windows and other finer elements was shipped in from farther afield.
The castle was also built with two fortified barbicans, each designed to be lower than the walls behind them. This allowed the castle defenders to fire arrows over the barbican.
The Royal Apartments
Once the main fortifications were in place, Master James oversaw the building of the inner and outer wards. The royal apartments were found in the inner ward, with access via a stone causeway and heavily protected.
The Great Hall was sited in the outer ward, along with a private chapel and the kitchen and stables.
Much of the design was influenced by the rocky outcrop location. This is why the castle does not have the same concentric design as other castles of the time. As previously mentioned, the castle was then rendered white for extra visual impact.
An Accompanying Town
Master James of St. George was required to provide more than just a castle. Developing the town of Conwy was equally important as it helped protect the most accessible part of the castle.
Conwy was built with fortified walls that surrounded the settlement. The town became an English colony, protected by 1.3 km of walls and 21 defensive towers. These walls were also built during the same time frame as the castle itself.
It All Sounds a Bit Pricey
Castles did not come cheap, and the design of Conwy Castle was certainly no exception to the rule.
It cost Edward I £15,000 to build Conwy Castle, around $50 million in today’s money. Construction involved around 15,000 men and is one of the most expensively built castles of its time.
Master James of St. George did well for himself out of its building too. He was paid two shillings a day for his professional services, the equivalent of the weekly wage for the average craftsman.
By 1285, he had been appointed Master of the Royal Works in Wales, a title which saw his daily rate rise to a lucrative three shillings.
It must be said that Master James of St. George was just one of many master craftsmen who would have been employed to construct the castle. For instance, Richard of Chester was another of King Edward’s favored engineers.
He oversaw the initial preparation of the site, as well as some of the masonry and stone work.
750 Years Later
Conwy Castle still dominates the landscape just as it did when first built in the 13th century. The walls may be gray now, but it still retains the power to impress its many visitors.
However, if you look hard enough, you will still find evidence of the old lime rendering which gave the castle walls their original color.
Conwy Castle was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986. It is a jewel in the Welsh tourism crown, one which can see up to 200,000 visitors flock to the site every year.
This is because it is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the UK. It also contains the most complete royal apartments to wander around of any of the great Welsh castles.
A good deal of credit for how you find the castle today goes to conservationists and historians. The impressive walls and inner wards created by Master James of St. George fell into a state of disrepair following the civil war in the 17th century.
Appreciation of the castle’s importance has seen it restored to the point where visitors can once again enjoy the sheer scale of Master James’ design.
What Happened to Master James of St. George?
Master James of St. George was one of the most important medieval castle builders. The castles he built were witness to significant moments in history and stand today as stark reminders of more turbulent times in British history.
His association with Edward I lasted for 30 years.
He was rewarded for his work with a manor in North-East Wales, granted by his employer, the English king. Further castles he oversaw building include Rhuddlan, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris.
Master James was a frugal craftsman who liked to get value and kept tight accounts of the work he oversaw. This may have been another reason why Edward I appreciated his craftsmanship.
Edward was never the frugal type. His wars alone placed huge financial demands on his people. Parliament assented to ‘extraordinary taxes’ to pay for them (source). A money-counting master mason may have been just what he was looking for.
Beaumaris was the last Welsh Castle begun under the watchful eye of Master James.
When Edward I turned his attention north of the border, he sent for his master mason. Master James of St. George worked on projects in Scotland including the strengthening of the defenses at Linlithgow. However, his legacy in the UK remains the imposing castles he helped build in Wales.
Master James of St. George died around 1308, his reputation as a master castle builder intact.
He was married to Ambrosia, who left the court of Savoy to travel with him to his new country of employment. A lack of records regarding a pension for Ambrosia suggests that she died before him.