The gatehouse at Harlech contained spacious chambers or halls, with fireplaces and latrines. There is little doubt that the guardhouse was home to the constable of the castle. Master James of St. George, the Harlech's builder, was himself appointed constable of his creation (Williams 2007, p. 7). The gatehouse was also occupied, in this period, by Sir John de Bonvillars, Deputy Justiciar of North Wales. The larger rooms on each level were fitted with tall windows. The most favored rooms faced the courtyard, the chimneys of their fireplaces making an additional architectural arrangement on the roof of the gatehouse (Williams 2007, p. 21). The view from Harlech is particularly impressive. The sea and the mountains of Snowdonia provide a majestic backdrop to the royal castle. It has even been suggested at Roscommon that the castle's original location beside a lake and in the middle of an expansive field may have been chosen to enhance the magnificence of the structure (O'Conor, 2008, p. 334).
Certainly the site was pleasant enough that an English gentleman entirely refurbished the structure in the late Sixteenth Century and constructed a fortified Elizabethan manor house. In fact, much of Roscommon's original fabric is obscured by the later intrusions, including large mullioned windows that would have taken full advantage of the pleasant view. Nevertheless, Roscommon's original layout, down to the focus on the great gatehouse with its generous accommodations and suites of private chambers, recalls almost exactly the arrangement at Harlech. The two castles were built during exactly the same period of time and reveal a similar guiding force even in their detail - they reflected the master plan of English royal castle building (McNeill, 1997, p. 100).
On still another level, Roscommon and Harlech stand out as very real attempts to link symbols of power and culture with the land on which they rest. The two sites are strongly associated with the histories and peoples of both Ireland and Wales. Medieval rulers wished to see themselves as representing the destined order of things, and as in some way combining and embodying the sacred and the secular. The siting of Roscommon places it squarely within the context of medieval Gaelic culture. The native dynasties frequently chose important ecclesiastical sites as the seats of their governments. In Medieval Ireland important abbeys or pilgrimage sites, frequently became the focus of settlements. The combination of sacred and secular lent them a special importance that appealed to the kings. From the Sixth Century a monastery had existed at the site of present day Roscommon town. In 1123, Turlough O'Conor presented a reliquary to the monastery that contained a fragment of the True Cross (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 5). This Cross of Cong is still significant today, yet in medieval times its significance would have been all the greater. In particular, Roscommon was the site of an Augustinian monastery, a Dominican friary, and a lay settlement by the time work began on Roscommon Castle - all three together indicating the significance of the locale as a provincial center (Murphy 2003, p. 41). The castle's later ownership by the O'Conors further enhances the notion that the site was significant to the O'Conors long before the construction of the castle. Though no remains of an actual Gaelic royal residence have yet been found, it is known that is was common practice, among the Anglo-Norman lords to build on top of Gaelic forts and raths, as for example, at Castlkreen, Rathmullen, and Lismahon (Murphy 2003, p. 42-43). A low island that formerly stood in the lake has been shown to have been built up with stones in medieval times, and was; therefore, possibly a crannog, and even an O'Conor royal residence (Murphy 2003, p. 44). The choice of Roscommon as a castle site appears to have possessed special significance as the Anglo-Norman settlement that had been founded there was frequently under attack from the O'Conors. It was following the burning of the town, yet again, in 1360, that the English-built castle came into the possession of the O'Conor dynasty, records of the time revealing a place under so little English control that the returns of a fee farm in Roscommon equaled barely one-seventh of the returns of a similar fee farm in Cork (Barry, 1988, p. 173). Thus, the site was important to both sides. For the English, the building of the castle represented an image of dominion as much as an attempt at real control of the truculent Irish population. For Irishmen and women, Roscommon's recapture and possession was matter of pride and heritage.
Across the sea in North Wales, Edward's choice of the rock of Harlech was scarcely less accidental. The king's conquest of Wales was envisioned as the fulfillment of the Roman prophecies to which, as king of England, Edward believed himself heir. The first of his great Welsh castle, Caernarvon was built near the site of Ancient Segontium, birthplace of the Emperor Magnus Maximus, father of the Emperor Constantine. Supposedly, in the very year that work on Caernarvon began, the bones of Magnus Maximus were discovered near the site (Brown, 1970, p. 102). Edward, like his contemporary in France, saw himself as an Emperor in the Roman model, and also as the fulfillment of a tale in the Welsh Mabinogian in which Magnus Maximus journey to a "land of mountains" guarded by a "great fortified city by the sea" (Brown, 1970, p. 102). Pinning down the Welsh with castles like Caernarvon and Harlech appeared the consummation of these dreams, and the identification of the English king with a reborn past. He could also seem himself as in some measure beginning to reconstitute the world-empire of the Romans. As well, it could not have hurt that Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, a fact which would have given additional religious sanction to Edward's conquests in Wales. Still more specifically, the site of Harlech figured directly in the Mabinogian as once having played host to the court of a Welsh king who had claimed dominion over all of Britain:
Bendigaid Fran, son of Lyr, was the crowned king of this island, and exalted with the crown of London. And one afternoon he was at Harlech in Ardudwy in his court. And they were sitting near the rock of Harlech, above the sea. (Williams 2007, p. 1)
Here again, the two streams of legend come together. Lyr is of course the King Lear of Shakespeare, but he is also, in this case, as much a potent symbol of Welsh nationalism as he is of English lore and aspirations. By capturing the English castle at Harlech, Owain Glyn Dwr was doing much the same thing as the O'Conors at Roscommon - reclaiming a symbolic piece of native territory. Edward's castle was indeed a masterpiece of military engineering and on an eminently defensible site. Owain Glyn Dwr's eventual surrender was not brought about because Harlech was taken, but rather through a series of local battles and skirmishes that effectively cut off Owain Glyn Dwr's line of supply. The hero of Wales was literally starved out of Wales' last great stronghold (Davies, 1997, p. 100). In Wales, as in Ireland, the castle was an English beachhead that either led it the furtherance of English dominion, or else served as a focus of native resistance. It was a point for resistance that was inadvertently created by the English themselves. That the castles were not active Gaelic or Welsh creations can be seen in the story of the O'Conor occupation of Roscommon. They owned the castle for two centuries, yet modern archeology can find no trace of any work they may have done at the site, a fact that has been shown not to relate to any lack of skill or resources (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 27). The O'Conor capture of Roscommon showed the resilience of a native Gaelic dynasty and of the Irish people in the face of Anglo-Norman occupation and subjugation. By approximately the time the O'Conors were in secure possession of the castle, even the "Five Bloods," the families of the five royal dynasties of Ireland - of which the O'Conors were one - had been deprived of their equality before the law by the Statues of Kilkenny. Only through outright warfare could they maintain their rights.
So Roscommon, like Harlech was a rallying point. These two great castles were as much symbols of an age as they were mere military installations. Roscommon and Harlech were alien construction implanted in the midst of foreign lands. The native peoples resisted as best they could. The Welsh were driven from a spot of legendary importance to themselves while, at least through the medieval era, the Irish held on at Roscommon. Harlech and Roscommon provided a setting for conflicting national and royal ambitions. The castles' specific sites were chosen to impress both through their natural beauty and by the way in which they were "improved" by human hands. Harlech and Roscommon represented the very…