Harlech - From 'A Topographical Dictionary of Wales' (1849)
HARLECH, a small decayed town, formerly a borough, in the parish of Llandanwg, union of Festiniog, hundred of Ardudwy, county of Merioneth, of which it is the ancient shire town, in North Wales, 20 miles (N. W.) from D�lgelley, by Barmouth, 32 (W. by S.) from Bala, by Festiniog and Maentwrog, and 229 (W. N. W.) from London: the population is returned with the parish. This place is conjectured by some writers to have been a fortified post of the Romans, constructed to defend the openings of the two estuaries to the north of it, called respectively the Traeth Mawr and the Traeth B�ch, and to secure a communication with the opposite shore; but this opinion rests only upon the discovery of some Roman coins and a golden torques in the vicinity. It is evident, however, that it was a fortified post of the ancient Britons; and the place was called Tŵr Bronwen, from Bronwen, the sister of Br�n ab Llŷr, Prince of Siluria, or Gwent. It afterwards obtained the name of Caer Collwyn, having been, towards the close of the ninth century, the residence of Collwyn ab Tango, a chieftain of one of the fifteen tribes of North Wales, and lord of Eivionydd, Ardudwy, and part of Lleyn, who inhabited a square tower, which subsequently became a portion of the more modern castle, and of which there are yet some remains.
According to some of the British historians, the castle was founded, so early as the year 530, by Maelgwyn Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales. The present structure was built by Edward I., upon the ruins of the former, and was either called Arlech, from its situation upon a rock, or by its present name of Harlech, which signifies "the fair rock." It was commenced in 1286; though it appears that in the year 1283 Hugh de Wlonkeslow was constable here, with a small garrison under him, and had an allowance of �100 per annum, which, however, was afterwards much reduced. Owain Glyndwr, during the furious and destructive war which he waged against Henry IV., forcibly took possession of this fortress, in 1404; but it was retaken by the English troops within three years afterwards. In 1459, it became the asylum of Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI., who, after the battle of Northampton, retired to Coventry, and thence to this place, from which, after a short stay, she departed for Scotland, again to take the field in the North of England.
On the accession of Edward IV. to the throne, that monarch soon became master of the whole of the kingdom, except two or three strong fortresses in Northumberland, and Harlech Castle. The latter was held by Davydd ab Ievan ab Einion, a man of great stature and dauntless valour, and one of the most staunch supporters of the Lancastrian cause. To effect its reduction, Edward, in 1468, despatched Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, with a strong body of men, who, after encountering the most formidable difficulties in their march through a rugged alpine territory, the line of which was afterwards called Lle Herbert, or "Herbert's way," invested the castle. The earl entrusted the prosecution of the siege to his brother, Sir Richard Herbert, a knight equal in prowess and bravery to the Welsh commander, whom he summoned to surrender, but from whom he received only a laconic and humorous refusal. After a siege of no ordinary duration, finding that the place was so strong as only to be reduced by famine, he entered into terms of honourable capitulation with Davydd, whose security and protection he guaranteed by intercession with his sovereign: in this, however, he was at first unsuccessful, until he boldly offered his own life, and threatened to reinstate the Welsh hero in his impregnable fortress, apprising the king, at the same time, of the difficulty of obtaining possession of it.
From a manuscript in the Cotton Library it appears that, in the reign of Elizabeth, the garrison of Harlech Castle consisted of twenty-four men, commanded by a constable receiving an annual allowance of �50. In 1624, much damage was done to the cattle and other farming stock of the neighbourhood by an extraordinary mephitic vapour, which arose from the sea, and is conjectured by Camden's annotator, Bishop Gibson, to have been caused by the putrefaction of a great swarm of locusts, which visited the neighbouring coasts about this time, and was suddenly destroyed by the coldness of the climate. During the civil war of the seventeenth century, the castle was alternately in the hands of both parties. Sir Hugh Pennant bravely defended it for the king, until deserted by his men, when it was surrendered to the parliament; subsequently it was again possessed by the royalists, from whom it was ultimately taken by Gen. Mytton, in March 1647, at which time the garrison consisted of twenty-eight men, under the command of Capt. William Owen. It was the last fortress in Wales that held out for the king, in like manner as it appears to have been among the last defended for the house of Lancaster.
The town is situated on the shore of the northern part of the great bay of Cardigan, having on one side some of the wildest and most desolate mountains in the principality, and on the other the wide expanse of sea which separates this part of Merionethshire from the promontory of Lleyn in Carnarvonshire. It has declined into little more than a village of inferior size and insignificant appearance. The place was made a free borough by Edward I., who granted to the burgesses of "Hardelagh" certain lands, privileges, and immunities, and placed it under the government of two bailiffs, a recorder, serjeant-atmace, and other officers; but the chief of its burgensic privileges were abrogated by an act of inclosure passed in the year 1806, and there are now only a very few burgesses remaining, whose duty latterly was confined to their meeting the parliamentary representative of the county, on the day of election, at the extremity of the town, and walking before him, with wands in their hands, to the town-hall, and thence to his place of abode. Owing to the unimportance of the Merionethshire towns, the privilege of sending a member to parliament, granted to those of the other Welsh counties by the 27th of Henry VIII., was withheld from Harlech and the other boroughs of this county; and in lieu thereof, the flourishing town of Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire, was invested with the franchise. The county assizes were formerly held here, but were removed to other places about two centuries ago, and the county court was removed from Harlech about the commencement of the present century; the building in which the assizes were held is still standing. The market, which was on Saturday, has fallen into disuse; fairs are held on March 4th, April 14th, the Thursday in Trinity week, June 10th, August 16th, September 22nd, and October 11th, chiefly for the sale of live stock. The present parish church of Llandanwg, consecrated in 1841, is situated in the town; it is an unpretending edifice, without any claim to particular description, in a style most resembling the early English, and has no chancel. The cost amounted to upwards of �1100, of which �100 were received from the Bangor Diocesan Church-Building Society, �200 from the Society for Building and Enlarging Churches, and the rest was raised by private subscription; the late Sir R. W. Vaughan, the Hon. E. M. L. Mostyn, and Mrs. Gore gave the land, and each subscribed liberally to the funds. An endowment of �15 per annum is paid to a master for teaching twelve children free. There are places of worship for Baptists, Calvinistic Methodists, and Wesleyans, with Sunday schools held in the two latter.
The castle stands on the edge of a lofty perpendicular rock, which overhangs an extensive marsh, once covered by the sea, but inclosed by the act passed in 1806. The buildings surround a spacious square area, at each angle of which is a circular tower, with a turret rising from one of its sides, and on each side of the entrance is also a tower. The apartments, now roofless, are of large dimensions, particularly the banqueting-hall, which is seventyfive feet long and thirty in width, and was lighted by four lofty windows on the side facing the sea: the other parts most easily distinguishable are the state chamber, the white chamber, the chapel, dungeons, keep, and water-gate; and on the lower part of the rock, adjoining the marsh, are vestiges of walls, with towers of defence. Part of the walls of the original edifice, of native Welsh construction, are yet apparent, the more modern works in some places resting upon them. This fortress was inaccessible on the side next the sea, and was protected on the other by a fosse of extraordinary depth and width, which, prior to the invention of gunpowder, rendered it impregnable. A constable is still appointed, the office being at present filled by the Hon. Thomas Pryce Lloyd. From the castle is obtained a delightful view of Cardigan bay, and the Carnarvonshire hills, with the lofty Snowdon towering above the rest. The golden torques above-mentioned, which was dug up in 1692, in a garden near the castle, is now in the possession of the Hon. Mr. Mostyn. It is a round wreathed flexible bar, about four feet long, composed of three or four rods twisted together, the spiral furrows being separated by sharp intervening ridges, running its entire length; the ends are plain, truncated, and turned back like pot-hooks. It is about an inch in circumference, weighs eight ounces, and is supposed to have been a Roman-British ornamental badge of dignity, hung round the neck and breast, with the quiver suspended from it behind. In the vicinity of the town are some scattered vestiges of Druidical monuments.