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Best Castles in England, Scotland and Wales

 

 
            Introduction    Castles in Wales  Castles in England  Castles in Scotland   

 

 

 

 

  

The Best Castles in England, Scotland and Wales

Best Castles

Looking over Edinburgh, Scotland from Edinburgh Castle

Introduction

Castles are great places to explore and there are many to visit when touring the United Kingdom.  Below, we present our choices for the best castles to visit in Wales, England and Scotland. Our descriptions are concise, but we link to other references that provide additional details if you require more information.

Although we are inclined to think of castles as massive stone fortresses, many are palaces or fortified manor homes masquerading as castles.  We have tried not to stray too far from the fortress concept, but some constructions blur the line and have managed to worm their way into our heart.  To be honest, every time we wander near a castle, whatever it may really be, we stop and tour it. 

Castle Design

Castles were built based on a defensive strategy that a small number of soldiers could protect a suitably fortified location and deny that area to any enemy.  The first fortified structures were on hills or purpose built mounds crowned with stone walls and wooden defenses, while the castles of England, Scotland and Wales were a more recent development, built after the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066.  Eventually the massive, stone, fortified castles of England, Scotland and Wales evolved over the 11th and 12th centuries.  The defensive aspects of these buildings were improved upon in the years that followed, perhaps reaching their apex with the glorious string of castles in Wales established by Edward 1 at the end of the 13th century.

The basic design of a castle required extraordinarily thick defensive walls (called curtains) surrounded by a moat.  Moats were either dry and filled with mechanisms to make crossing them dangerous, or filled with water and mud (which deterred heavily armored knights and denied soldiers a foothold close to the castle walls).  The curtain usually integrated defensive towers that featured small openings to launch arrows, projectiles or to pour hot liquids on the attacking forces.  Access to the castle was controlled through a drawbridge over the moat and a fortified gatehouse, which featured numerous defenses to impede unwanted invaders.  A tall central tower or “keep” was the defensive center of the castle. In turn, the keep was  surrounded by a courtyard or bailey, which served as place for training, exercise and parades.  As castle building theory and its technology advanced, concentric castle walls were built around the keep and bailey to afford a higher level of protection.

The castles that we describe below exhibit the core features described above, but each is unique in how these components were arranged and interrelated.  In addition, the local geography and topography contributed to the selection of the locations chosen for castles. Castles were mostly sited  at strategic choke-points or in extremely defensible positions along major routes.

Castle Map

One "truth" that is common to all castles is that they are more understandable when viewed from the air than from the ground.  It is difficult to judge the extent of castles from the ground and from the air you can see their extent and many of the interesting features of their architecture.  For this reason, our map of the Best Castles to visit in Wales, England and Scotland can be used to show the satellite view of  most of the castles we recommend (the imagery is not sufficient to see Eilean Donan, Sterling or Tantallon, all in Scotland). Be sure to zoom in for added detail, the view will be worth your effort.  When you see this  symbol click for a map view of the location of that castle.

             

Castles of Wales

Wales is home to some of the United Kingdom's most well-known castles, which were mainly built by the English to control the Welsh, who proved very capable at thwarting the English lords. Wales is a unique and scenic region that has much to offer and is a great place for a vacation.  For more information, see our Guide to the Best Places to Visit in Wales

Caerphilly Castle

    Caerphilly Castle fits the romantic notion of what a castle should look like

Located in the town of Caerphilly, Wales and surrounded by purpose built, defensive lakes, Caerphilly Castle dates from the 13th century.  It was the first concentric castle in Britain (defensive walls surrounded by defensive walls) and is considered one the greatest medieval castles in the world. In addition, it is one of the largest castles in Great Britain and was built to defend southern Wales (Glamorgan) from Welsh nationalists.  It is thought that the design of this castle inspired Edward 1 to adapt many facets  of its construction to the castles he would build to conquer and control Wales.  For information on visiting see this site from the Caerphilly County Borough Council

Caernarfon Castle

The Keep at Caernarfon CastleCaernarfon Castle (13th century) is regarded as the most impressive of the castles built by Edward I. In addition to its role in the defensive strategy of the English, historians believe that its massive style was purposeful and designed to convince the Welsh  of Edward’s determination to establish the English dominance over Wales. While Caernarfon may not have met the latter goal, it is one of the most inspiring of the castles in Wales.

 

Caernarfon Castle is both brutish and beautifulIn addition, Caernarfon is famous for its ornamentation.  It was built with an unusual number of towers and its curtain walls include alternating rows of different colored stones.  In 1969, Caernarfon served as the location for the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales.  See the Castle's official website for more information on visiting.

Conwy Castle

Castle Conwy was both elegant and powerfulCastle Conwy was sited to overlook the River Conwy and control its traffic both for supply and defensive purposes.  The castle, built in the late 13th century for Edward I as part of his plan to subjugate the Welsh, is known for its eight massive towers and a location that was both strategic and easy to defend.  Size, however was a constraint and Conwy was built without concentric walls.  However, its eight turrets allowed full visibility of the surrounding area.

The construction effort at Conwy also included a town that is considered one of the premier examples of medieval fortified towns.  Castle Conwy, along with the castles of  Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris were the four largest and most expensive of Edward I's castle building efforts in Wales.

For details on visiting, see this official site.

 

             

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris is more comely than the other castles in Wales

Beaumaris Castle was the last and largest of the string of castles built by Edward I.  The fortress was built to guard the eastern end of Menai strait, a body of water that separates Angelsey from mainland Wales.  Many regard Beaumaris as the most beautiful of Edward's castles in Wales.  Its moat has been partially restored and its walls remain in good shape, although the castle was never finished due to a lack of funds and changing strategies.  Beaumaris Castle has a concentric design and was constructed to allow direct supply by boat.  See this official site for more details on visiting http://www.beaumaris.com/ 
 

Harlech Castle

Caslte Harlech had a well protected entranceHarlech Castle (close to the town of Harlech) is sited in an attractive location on the shore of Cardigan Bay. A harbor wasThe view from Harlech to the Bay is stunning dug to supply the castle by sea (late 13th century), enhancing its strong defensive characteristics.  Harlech Castle, which is small and compact is another of Edward I's "Ring of Iron" surrounding Wales. 

 

Harlech is known for its powerful gatehouse that included a number of defensive options for punishing uninvited guests.  Your entry to the castle  will be through the gatehouse, so take a close look for the danger that waited for the those intent on invading this defensive bastion.  For information on visiting, see this site

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle has a unique elegance

Raglan Castle (15th century) is known for its unique look.  It was an aristocrat's home and not a “royal” castle.  Although numerous attempts were made to destroy this castle during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, it was one of the last castles surrendered due to the strength of its unique, six-sided Great Tower.  Unfortunately the Tower was damaged in the war and by events after.   See this official site for more details.

 

Carew Castle

Carew Casle was fortified, but remained a gentleman's home

Carew Castle dates from the early 13th century with significant later additions.  A Tudor-style modernization by Rhys Thomas changed to look of the castle considerably.  Considered one of the most interesting castles in south Wales, it is located near banks of the Carew river was positioned to control river crossings.  Parts of the castle were destroyed in the English Civil war to ensure that it was not used to advantage the enemy.

See this site for more details on Carew Castle .

 

Next - Castles of England

Or - Castles of Scotland

Or - The Best Places to Visit in the United Kingdom

 

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