Conway Castle and the Smallest House in Britain

Conwy Castle, a majestic historical structure, is nestled in the heart of the ancient town of Conwy in North Wales. Constructed between 1283 and 1287, the castle has impressively withstood the test of time for over 700 years.

Its rich history and the well-preserved castle walls, which visitors can walk along, make Conwy Castle a significant site for tourism. In recognition of its “outstanding universal value,” it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986.

The castle’s history is deeply intertwined with the reign of King Edward I. Built within a span of four years from 1283 to 1287, it was one of several fortifications erected during Edward’s rule.


This collection of castles, which also includes Beaumaris, Caernarfon, and Harlech Castles, has been acknowledged as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Conwy Castle was captured by Owain Glyndwr in 1403, adding a dramatic chapter to its history. Today, the castle is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh Government’s conservation body.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of Conwy Castle is its walls. These walls have been exceptionally well-preserved and are accessible to the public for walking tours. Visitors can enter through multiple points and complete a full circuit around the town atop these historic ramparts.

Conwy Castle seen from the west, showing the barbican guarding the Outer Ward
Conwy Castle seen from the west, showing the barbican guarding the Outer Ward

For those who are not daunted by heights, climbing the staircases to the top of the castle’s towers is a must. From these vantage points, breathtaking views of Conwy unfold, offering a unique perspective of the town and its surroundings. The castle and its walls continue to be a beloved landmark for both locals and tourists, thanks to their historical significance and stunning preservation.

Welsh Princes

Before the English established the town of Conwy, the site was occupied by Aberconwy Abbey, a Cistercian monastery favored by Welsh princes, and also housed one of the llys (palaces) of the Welsh princes. In Conwy, the oldest surviving structure is a segment of the town walls at the southern end of the east side.

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This includes a wall and tower from a llys belonging to Llywelyn the Great and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, which has been integrated into the town wall.

Dating back to the early 13th century, this structure, built on a rocky outcrop with an apsidal tower and four window openings, is a fine example of native Welsh architecture and is distinctly different from the rest of the town walls.

Reconstruction of Conwy Castle and town walls at the end of the 13th century. Model located in Conwy Castle.
Reconstruction of Conwy Castle and town walls at the end of the 13th century. Model located in Conwy Castle.

The site was strategically important, controlling a crucial crossing point over the River Conwy, which had been defended by Deganwy Castle. Since the 1070s, the kings of England and Welsh princes had contested the region, with conflicts intensifying in the 13th century. This led to Edward I’s second intervention in North Wales in 1282.

Edward invaded with a large army, advancing north from Carmarthen and west from Montgomery and Chester. He captured Aberconwy in March 1283 and decided to establish a new English castle and walled town on the site of the former monastery, relocating the abbey to Maenan. The old Deganwy Castle was abandoned. This act was symbolic, demonstrating English power over a high-status Welsh site.

Cost £15,000

Construction on Conwy Castle began shortly after Edward’s decision. Overseen by Sir John Bonvillars and master mason James of St. George, the initial phase focused on the outer curtain walls and towers, followed by the interior buildings and town walls. By 1287, the castle was complete. The project, blending the town walls and castle, cost around £15,000, a massive sum for the time.

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The castle’s constable, who was also the mayor of Conwy by royal charter from 1284, managed a garrison that included crossbowmen, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

The first constable was Sir William de Cicon. In 1294, during Madog ap Llywelyn’s rebellion, Edward was besieged in Conwy Castle, surviving a harsh winter with supplies only from the sea. He shared his private wine supply with the garrison during this siege.

A view of the castle’s massive defensive wall and the original gateway (right)

In later years, the castle was a residence for visiting dignitaries and hosted the future Edward II in 1301 when he came to receive homage from Welsh leaders.

In the early 14th century, Conwy Castle was poorly maintained. By 1321, a survey revealed significant issues, including limited supplies, leaking roofs, and rotten timbers. These conditions persisted until 1343 when Edward, the Black Prince, assumed control of the castle.

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His chamberlain, Sir John Weston, undertook repairs, constructing new stone support arches for the great hall and other parts of the castle. However, following the Black Prince’s death, the castle once again fell into disrepair.

Died in Captivity

At the end of the 14th century, Richard II used Conwy Castle as a refuge from Henry Bolingbroke’s forces. On 12 August 1399, after returning from Ireland, Richard arrived at the castle and engaged in negotiations with Bolingbroke’s emissary, Henry Percy.

In the castle chapel, Percy pledged not to harm the king. Richard surrendered to Percy at Flint Castle on 19 August, agreeing to abdicate if his life was spared. Richard was subsequently taken to London and eventually died in captivity at Pontefract Castle.

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Henry Bolingbroke ascended the English throne as Henry IV in 1400. Shortly after, a rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr erupted in North Wales. In March 1401, Rhys ap Tudur and his brother Gwilym, Owain Glyndŵr’s cousins, launched a surprise attack on Conwy Castle.

Conwy castle
The Outer Ward, with the great hall and chapel on the right

Posing as carpenters, they gained entry, killed the watchmen, and seized the fortress. Welsh rebels then overran the rest of the town. The brothers held the castle for about three months before surrendering under a negotiated royal pardon from Henry.

During the Wars of the Roses between 1455 and 1485, involving the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions, Conwy was fortified but saw little action. In the 1520s and 1530s, Henry VIII carried out restoration work on the castle, which by then served various functions, including as a prison, a depot, and a residence for visiting dignitaries.


By the early 17th century, Conwy Castle had once again fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1627, Charles I sold the castle to Edward Conway for £100. Edward’s son, also named Edward, inherited this ruin in 1631.

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The onset of the English Civil War in 1642, a conflict between the royalists supporting Charles and Parliament, marked a new chapter in the castle’s history. John Williams, the Archbishop of York, took control of the castle for the king, investing his own resources to repair and garrison it.

Conwy castle and the A547 road bridge. The impression is given of the castle being on the bridge. There are in fact three bridges spanning the Afon Conwy at this point.
Conwy castle and the A547 road bridge. The impression is given of the castle being on the bridge. There are in fact three bridges spanning the Afon Conwy at this point.

In 1645, Sir John Owen replaced Williams as the castle’s governor, leading to a heated dispute between the two. The Archbishop eventually defected to Parliament’s side. Conwy town fell in August 1646, and by November, General Thomas Mytton captured the castle after a prolonged siege. The Trevor family, having lent property to the Archbishop, petitioned Mytton for its return.

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Post-siege, Colonel John Carter was appointed governor and undertook further repairs. In 1655, Parliament’s Council of State ordered the castle to be slighted, or rendered militarily unusable. As part of this directive, the Bakehouse tower was likely partially demolished.

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the castle returned to Edward Conway, the Earl of Conway. However, in 1665, Edward opted to strip and sell the castle’s remaining iron and lead, supervised by his overseer William Milward. This action, despite local opposition, reduced the castle to a complete ruin.

In 1665

By the 18th century, the castle’s ruins became celebrated for their picturesque and sublime qualities, attracting numerous visitors and artists. Paintings of the castle by Thomas Girtin, Moses Griffith, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Paul Sandby, and J.M.W. Turner emerged during this period.

The 19th century saw the construction of several bridges over the River Conwy, including a road bridge in 1826 and a rail bridge in 1848, enhancing access and further boosting tourism.

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In 1865, Conwy Castle transitioned from the Holland family, who had leased it from the Conways’ descendants, to the town of Conwy’s civic leaders. Restoration efforts began, including rebuilding the damaged Bakehouse tower.

The Ministry of Works leased the castle in 1953, under which Arnold Taylor conducted extensive repairs and research into its history. An additional road bridge to the castle was built in 1958. Already a scheduled monument, the castle became part of the World Heritage Site “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” in 1986, cementing its historical and cultural significance.

Smallest House in Britain

The Smallest House, with dimensions of just 72 inches wide, 122 inches high, and 120 inches deep, is an architectural marvel and is built into the walls of Conway Castle.

The smallest house in Great Britain, Conway, 1962 The notice reads: The SMALLEST HOUSE In GREAT BRITAIN. Admission 2d. POST CARDS AVAILABLE WITHIN NOT OPEN ON SUNDAYS

Despite its tiny size, it cleverly accommodates a bedroom upstairs and a living area downstairs, complete with rudimentary cooking facilities and a water tap hidden behind the stairs. In the 19th century, it was home not just to single occupants but also to couples, as evidenced by various census records of that time.

In 1891, the house was purchased for £20 by Robert Jones, a local landowner and fisherman. Displayed within the Smallest House is a copy of the conveyance document, which intriguingly reveals that the sale included not just the house but also a sitting tenant, coincidentally named Robert Jones.

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This tenant, Robert Jones, continued to live there until 1900, when the local Corporation deemed it and several nearby buildings unfit for living. The owner, Robert Jones, worried about losing rental income, embarked on a journey with Roger Dawson, the editor of the North Wales Weekly News.

They traveled across the country, measuring other small houses to determine if this was indeed the smallest house in Great Britain. Their findings convinced the Corporation to preserve the house from demolition, and it was subsequently opened as a tourist attraction.

Guinness Book of Records

In the early 1920s, the Smallest House’s unique status was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records, confirming it as the smallest house in Great Britain.

The Smallest House emerged as an opportunistic creation, cleverly built to fill a gap between two rows of cottages on the quay. These rows, originating from the town wall towers at the extremes of Lower Gate Street, extended towards the central tower but left a small space unoccupied.

Smallest House and adjoining terrace houses

An astute builder, noticing the housing shortage in the town and the existing side and back walls (formed by the tower), realized that all that was needed to complete another residence was a front wall and a roof. Thus, the Smallest House was born.

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Over the years, this tiny dwelling was home to a variety of residents. In 1841, it housed Phillip Davies, a painter; by 1851, Maria Edwards, a widow and pauper, lived there, as recorded in the census. Subsequent decades saw occupants like William Jones, a master mariner, and his wife Margaret in 1861; John Jones, a coachman, in 1871; and George Edwards, a fisherman, and his wife, Mary, in 1881.

Unique Legacy

The last resident was Robert Jones, a versatile worker who listed his profession as a gardener, laborer, and fisherman. He occupied “Smalls,” as it was affectionately known, until 1900.

In that year, a Corporation inspector deemed Smalls and neighboring cottages unfit for habitation, forcing all tenants to vacate. The owner, also named Robert Jones, who had purchased the property in 1891 and lived further up the quay, was understandably upset about losing rental income from Smalls.

Roger Dawson, his friend and the editor of the North Wales Weekly News, proposed an ingenious plan. He suggested they travel the country, measuring other small houses to establish Smalls as the smallest in Great Britain, thus saving it from demolition.

Their efforts paid off when the Guinness Book of Records officially recognized it as the Smallest House in Great Britain in the early 1920s.

Remarkably, the house has remained within the ownership of the Jones family, now belonging to the great, great-granddaughter of Robert Jones, maintaining its unique legacy and status as a cherished piece of architectural history.

The Smallest House can be found here:

  • The Smallest House
  • c/o 11 Lower Gate Street
  • Conwy
  • LL32 8BE