European 13th century wars and castles

The main “front” in the Middle Ages was always considered to be the Holy Land, but by the mid 1200s, the Christian kingdoms there were a lost cause. By 1300, they had no more holdings in the Middle East, apart from some last-stand fortresses on, say, Malta. But the 1200s were the boom times for castles.

The other two active fronts were in France and along the border between England and Wales. The English kings were almost constantly involved in some kind of war; if they weren’t Crusading (Richard I, Edward I) they were defending territory in France or trying to conquer Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Some of the best castles in the world are in Wales, for that reason. After 1277, Edward I put enormous resources into holding onto his hard-won conquests there, and even more so after 1282.

Caernarvon Castle was the showpiece of the group, and Edward’s son, the first English “Prince of Wales,” was born there in 1284. This castle, like others, was designed by an architect/mason from Savoy (at French Alps border): Jacques (or James) of St. George. Edward I met him when he was coming home from a brief Crusade, and by hiring him, promoted him into the elite international masons. He was responsible for most of the 1282+ castles of Wales. Many castles from this period have fallen into ruins, but several of St. George’s castles are still in good condition.

These Welsh castles are the stereotypical “castle” we imagine, although as you have seen, many castles are not that way. (And as we get into later castles, you’ll see more that aren’t “real castles”.) St. George began his involvement with the castles of 1278 as Master Mason: one of them, Rhuddlan, is still in pretty good shape. The other outstanding St. George castles in good shape: Conwy (begun 1283), Harlech (1282), Caernarfon (1283), and Beaumaris (1295). We’ll look at these five castles separately.

Savoy, in the Alps, was not generally a party to the wars between England and France. Edward I’s mother was related to the Savoy princes, too. So Savoy was not on the front lines for the Hundred Years’ War.

The Channel Islands were very much part of the front lines, though. These islands, where half the population spoke French in spite of the islands’ giving their names to English cattle breeds, had some 13th century castles. Mont Orgueil, on Jersey, is worth looking at.

Normandy had many front-line castles, but of course the many civil and international wars since the 13th century have destroyed most of them. We’ll look at the Chateau de Tancarville.

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