Llywelyn ab Iorwerth had a court near Conwy and established the Cistercian monks nearby at the mouth of the river. But when Edward I of England defeated Llywelyn’s grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and conquered north Wales in 1282, he wanted to found a castle and a new fortified town at the mouth of the river. The monks were moved up stream to Maenan and Edward built his town and castle.
The castle is a superb defensive structure, designed by Edward’s military architect Master James of St George. It sits on a rocky ridge which dictates the plan of the building - not concentric but an outer ward leading into an inner ward overlooking the river. (More about the castle, with excellent photos, on the Castlewales web site.)
The castle looks virtually impregnable: but it was taken during the Glyndwr uprising, by Welsh cunning. It was Easter 1404. The castle had been provisioned to stand a long siege - but it had no resident chaplain. So on Good Friday most of the garrison went to the parish church for the elaborate rituals of the Easter Sepulchre. When they got back, they found that a group of Glyndwr’s supporters led by the Tudur brothers of Anglesey (ancestors of the Tudor monarchs of England) had rushed the gate and taken possession of the castle. And there they stayed, eating up the provisions, until the king granted them a pardon.
Conwy also has the finest surviving town walls in Britain - testimony both to Edward’s planning and to the unpopularity of his conquest of the Welsh.Much of the walls can still be walked. (More detail on the Castlewales web site.) Inside the walls are a maze of little streets and old houses, including a restored medieval merchant’s house. The church is the old abbey church converted to parish use, with a spectacular screen and medieval choir stalls.
Down on the harbour, modern yachts and pleasure cruisers contrast with tall ships. Conwy houses the Tall Ships Haven, where you will find the Zebu with its authentic rigging; one of the last sailing ships to trade in Europe. In the nineteenth century Conwy's Harbour was a busy port, which shipped slate brought by rail from Blaenau Ffestiniog.
The pearl fishery in the estuary was famous in Roman times: indeed, the Roman general Suetonius declared its acquisition to be one of his main motives for subjugating the country around. A shield of great value and exquisite workmanship, dedicated by Julius Caesar to Venus Genetrix, and placed by him in her temple in Rome, was encrusted with British pearls. Later, mussel gathering in the Conwy River Estuary was the largest industry in the town and brought extra rewards when pearls were found. One large and beautiful specimen which adorns the crown jewels, was found in the Conwy Estuary during the reign of Charles II.