J is for James of St George

Another person for this letter challenge, but one who’s influence has widely effected the way people view North Wales.

Wales has been often called the ‘castle capital of the world’, with between 400-600 castles (around 100 of which are still standing) Wales possesses the highest concentration of castles of any country in Europe. Perhaps the most famous of these castles are Edward I’s Castles of North Wales, which today make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each one resemble a mastery of medieval military architecture and the master architect behind it all was James of St George.

Born in the Duchy of Savoy (located near the French-Swiss-Italian Border) in 1230, James worked for long time as an apprentice mason to his father, Master James. However in time James Jr would become a renown mason in his own right; hired by Count Peter of Savoy, James headed several projects at Chillon, Villeneuve and Yverdon. However James masterpiece was the fortress at St George d’Esperanche (just south of modern day Lyon), after which he took his name.

New opportunities opened up for James though when the uncrowned Edward I, returning from the Ninth Crusade after hearing of his father’s death, stopped off to accept the homage of the new Count of Savoy, Phillip I. Its likely that during his stay in Savoy, Edward heard of James’ skill and by 1277  James of St George was in the employment of the new English king.

The Rhone-Alps, traditionally part of the Duchy of Savoy

Edward’s war against the Welsh provided James with ample work as Edward sought to secure his steady conquest with stone castles. Initially James worked on constructing new castles at Flint, Builth, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan, however by 1282 North Wales had been completely conquered and James set about overseeing the construction of Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech which became the finest military castles in all of Europe. James also set about restoring and reinforcing old Welsh castles like those at Dolwyddelan and Criccieth.

The ruined wards of Conwy Castle

The costs of these new castles was enormous for the time period, Caernarfon’s castle and walls cost £15,500, Conwy’s castle and walls came to around £15,000 and Harlech Castle cost £8,190 to construct. James himself earned two shillings a day (believe me that was a HUGE amount for the time period). When Edward I took to campaigning in Scotland, the money dried up even faster, resulting in the castles being severely undermanned and in the case of Caernarfon Castle, never even finished. By 1294 the Welsh were in rebellion and although they were quickly crushed, this renewed Edward’s interest in the region and he ordered the construction of Beaumaris Castle.

Caernarfon Castle, still under construction in some regards

Despite being the zenith of concentric castle building, the money once again wasn’t there and James was never able to finish Beaumaris. Amazingly letters and financial reports from this time period have manged to survive, and thus have given us a detailed look into the construction process. The severe financial strain is apparent in one letter James himself wrote to the Royal Exchequer stating that

In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed – 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison mentioned above, nor of the purchase of material, of which there will have to be a great quantity… The men’s pay has been and still is very much in arrears, and we are having the greatest difficulty in keeping them because they simply have nothing to live on.’

Beaumaris Castle, James’ unfinished master piece

By the 1300s though James had abandoned these projects and was once again off with Edward, this time in Scotland where he oversaw the establishment of the Linlithgow Peel and helped end the siege of Stirling Castle. By 1304 Stirling Castle remained the only Scottish holdout against Edward’s army, despite having only a garrison of 30 men, the castle defenses made it near impossible to storm. After 4 months of firing lead balls, Greek fire, and explosive gunpowder at the castle, Edward grew impatient and demanded James find a way to end the siege. What followed was 3 months of construction, the result being the largest trebuchet ever to exist, affectionately named Warwolf. Upon the mere sight of the 400ft Warwolf, the Scottish defenders declared their readiness to surrender, however Edward refused to accept any surrender until Warwolf had been tested. Capable of firing 300 pounds of missiles, it only took a few shots for Warwolf to level a large section of the castle’s curtain wall.

Beyond his engineering feets little is known about the life of James of St George, who died in 1309, but his work remains apparent to this day. I often wonder what his reaction would if he could see his castles now, almost 700 years later.

Perhaps I’d need to explain to James what UNESCO is first…

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  1. Another interesting post. It would be fun if JoStG could visit us to see his reactions. I saw a serie of some brittish historians who went to France to be part of a building of a Castle in the same way as they did during this period. It was very interesting to see how the did. So many great inventions and so much time and effort. I think it was a project that would go on for 25 years. I forgot the name of the place in France where this is done.

    Liked by 1 person

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