Known as an unfinished masterpiece, Beaumaris Castle was the last castle built in Wales by King Edward I of England. Construction began in 1295, with Edward’s ‘master of the king’s works in Wales’ James of St George overseeing the project. James is intrinsically tied to Beaumaris Castle, and it is considered “Britain’s most perfect example of the concentric castle plan”.
Construction started well but by early 1296 trouble was brewing. Politically Edward was having problems with Scotland and France, leading to rumours that war would start. A war on two fronts would take an immense amount of resources, with the likelihood being construction in Wales would have to take a back seat. Cue a letter written by James (and the clerk Walter of Winchester) recording the project’s progress so far on the 27th February 1296…
“To their very dear lords, the treasurer and barons of the Exchequer of our lord the king, James of St George and Walter of Winchester send their greetings and due respects. Sirs, since our lord the king has ordered us by his letters of the Exchequer to give you a full report concerning the state of the works at Beaumaris, so that you may give direction for the same works for the coming season and see what is best to be done, we wish you to know that the work we are currently doing is very costly and that we are badly in need of funds”
The letter goes on to detail how they owed over 500 pounds to their workers, who as a result they were struggling to retain on Beaumaris’ construction. The workforce was huge, around 1500 people, but James and Walter knew they needed more workers if Beaumaris was going to be the castle that had been envisioned. Sure enough, the first Scottish Wars of Independence kicked off in 1296 with Beaumaris and its construction no longer a priority. It stalled and was ultimately never completed, with James having to leave his magnificent vision behind and join Edward in Scotland to work on Scottish castles. He did, however, return to Beaumaris in 1306 when work resumed but died in 1309 with the castle never completed to its original design.
I would struggle to pick a favourite out of the 3 castles I visited in Wales (the other two being Conwy and Caernarfon) but Beaumaris really was amazing to visit. Walking through the outer gate described in a 14th century survey as “the gate beside the sea”, you could feel the history of the site come alive. Although a ruin, the layout is still really clear and rather ingeniously the staff have commissioned art work in different parts of the site for visitors to interact with. I enjoyed (A rather windy!) walk along the battlements and admired the view across the Menaii Strait.
Although the site was never completed, it is still an impressive castle and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Have you been to Beaumaris Castle? What did you think? I look forward to hearing your comments below!
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Beaumaris Castle Guide Book
ODNB St George, James [known as Master James of St George] by Arnold Taylor
Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain by Marc Morris
Beaumaris Castle: https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/beaumaris-castle