Harlech Castle, on the western seacoast of Wales, is the Platonic ideal of a castle. It’s that castle you think of when you hear the word. It’s the castle that toy companies copy, the castle 11 year olds try to make with oatmeal canisters and boxes. It’s the castle’s castle.
The reason is simple. Harlech was built by the premier castle designer in the apex time of castle-building. It was built before gunpowder, but after all of the siege engines. Its design incorporated the necessities of the age of castles, and nothing more.
The castle’s walls seem to grow out of the sea cliff rock; they were built into it with no apparent ledge or place to stand. On the landward side, there is a huge double-tower gatehouse. The Inner Ward’s design is square, with round towers. Unlike in the previous centuries, there was no free-standing Keep. Instead, the Great Hall and other residential buildings were built into the Inner Wall, on the opposite side from the gate.
The castle had a road down the cliff to the sea coast. This meant that besiegers would need to use both troops and ships to effectively blockade it, and the Welsh, against whom the castle was originally built, were not a sea power. It would be very hard to attack the castle from the sea, on the other hand. The cliff’s height was formidable, and there was a wall built down to a lower level, with a gate that could be defended. Stairs led to a pier so that supplies could go straight from ship to gate to castle. The sea level was higher than it is now; if it rises again, Tuvalu’s loss will be Harlech’s gain. In a modern photograph, you can see that houses have been built into the former bay.
The landward gatehouse was the key defensive structure. Its towers were elongated as well as round, basically shaped like the letter D. It didn’t have one single door. It had two heavy doors, surrounded by three portcullises. Between the doors was an open area that defenders could look down on, leaving invaders exposed to fire. Of course there were arrow slits and murder holes built all through the structure, as well. The gatehouse was large enough to function as its own fort; the commanding knight may have lived inside it. It was equipped with glass windows on the sides that were inside the walls.
The castle was painted white; we can assume that the Great Hall was painted in other colors, probably with wall murals. By this time, fireplaces with built-in wall chimneys were standard. They had learned a lot about flue design, so the halls were not more than minimally smoky. Chimneys extended upward for several stories, often with more fireplaces feeding into them. The chimneys alone helped take the chill off the upper rooms, which were usually bed chambers.
Like the other Welsh castles, Harlech was deliberately disabled at the end of the English Civil war. It is in much better condition than many of them, though. Video