Beaumaris Castle, Unfinished Masterpiece
The Deadly Siege of Rochester Castle
Perhaps the greatest castle builder of all time was a man named Jacques who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages. Very little is known about him--not even the date he was born or died--for he was a common man. But because he built uncommon castles, he left an important mark on the world.
Born sometime between the years 1230 and 1235, Jacques -- or James as he has come to be known in English -- was a Savoyard, a person who hailed from the Savoy region of medieval Europe. His father, John, was a noted master-mason; that is, he was an architect and engineer who designed and supervised the construction of official buildings. James, most likely apprenticed to his father around the age of fifteen, became a master-mason as well. Together they formed a renowned father-and-son team, whose greatest recognition came when they were hired by Peter II, Count of Savoy, to build a castle at Yverdon, now a city in Switzerland. John was in charge; James would assist him.
Begun in 1260, the castle was essentially square, with an inner ward (a courtyard inside the castle walls); a drum (or rounded) tower stood at each corner. Because the southeast tower was also designed to be the keep, it was taller than the other towers, standing about 120 feet high. But the keep's most important feature was its separation from the castle: it could be reached only by a small drawbridge--some 40 feet above the ground--that connected to the southern wall. If invaders successfully stormed the castle, defenders would be able to take refuge in the tower, lift the drawbridge, and survive a siege on well water and stores of goods found there. It was a clever, sturdy plan for a military castle.
The castle at Yverdon
Sometime between the years 1265-1267, John's name disappeared from the payroll records. He may have taken ill or died, but historians cannot find any record of his life after this point; all they know is that James alone was charged with finishing the castle. As he did, he was given more and more work to do. Peter II, for example, asked him to design and build other castles in the Savoy. And when Count Philip succeeded Peter II in 1268, he ordered James to build a new and very special castle at St. Georges d'Espéranche (now in France).
James began the castle at St. Georges almost immediately and appears, at first glance, to have followed the plan of Yverdon Castle exactly. The window designs were the same, and even the widths of the two castles were within three inches of each other. But Count Philip wanted this castle to be a pleasure palace for entertaining his friends, not a fortress for fighting wars. To deliver such a palace, James substituted more majestic octagonal towers for Yverdon’s rounded ones, eliminated the tower keep altogether, and designed a garden for part of the outer ward. He even added what must have been a magnificent water-filled moat, perhaps 55-feet wide and up to 18-feet deep, surrounding the castle.
Because the castle was his best accomplishment to date and because he chose to live there himself, James even took his name from the castle: James of St. George.
In June 1273, when the castle at St. Georges was almost complete, an important visitor stopped by and changed James’s life forever. King Edward I was on his way home to England after fighting in the eighth and final Crusade.
Edward's arrival at the castle was a joyous occasion; Count Philip ordered such a huge feast that ten oxen and 59 lambs provided the main course. This kind of celebration was fit for a king--who happened to be a relative and friend, as well. Not only was Edward a cousin of Count Philip, he was a true friend of the Savoy. In fact, his mother's family hailed from the Savoy; Edward had selected many royal advisors and valued employees from the Savoy, including his best friend and chief officer, Sir Otto de Grandson. One of his own master-masons, Bertram, came from the Savoy as well. Clearly, Edward respected and trusted Savoyards, and they thought highly of him.
It was at this time that James of St. Georges must have met the king. There is no record of the meeting, but most experts are convinced that Sir Otto or Count Philip introduced the two men, unaware that they would strike up a partnership that would last over 30 years.
James and Edward had at least two things in common: they were about the same age and desired more challenging work. Edward had just inherited the throne from his father and was ready to prove himself as king; James, with St. Georges almost completed, was undoubtedly looking for a new project to enhance his reputation. However, the two differed greatly in how they handled money. As a prince, Edward lavished money on whatever he chose--and when he didn't have enough money, he borrowed what he needed. For example, the Eighth Crusade had cost him a small fortune, much of it on loan. In order to pay these and other debts, he would have to raise taxes on the English people again and again. On the other hand, James was thrifty in his castle-building. He watched expenditures closely, so that every penny was well spent. Perhaps Edward was impressed with James' frugal ways. Perhaps James wondered what it would be like to build more expensive castles for Edward.
When they met, James's name would have been announced; he would have knelt to honor Edward. Then the king might have complimented him on his skill in building castles. He might have asked James some questions about his ideas and work. He might have even asked if James would be interested in building castles for him. Eventually, the king would have moved on to other business.
The meeting might have meant nothing--except that, in little more than three years' time, Edward had declared war on the Welsh and was in need of a skillful master-mason to design and build castles in Wales. James of St. George was the person he wanted. With the approval of Count Philip, James was transferred to Edward's employment. In late 1277 or early 1278, James was on his way across the English Channel, accompanied by his wife Ambrosia, to begin his greatest work.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from an unpublished manuscript by James M Deem. All rights reserved.