Fort Williamsburg - A toy fort with real cannon.
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
When in 1549, John Wynn was King Edward VI’s standard bearer the king rewarded him with a gift of Bardsey Island. In the 17th Century, his descendant, Thomas Wynn, married Francis Glynne, sole heiress to Glynllifon uniting their two powerful estates. Yet, more land was acquired making the Glynllifon Wynns the most prominent family in Caernarvonshire.
Two hundred years passed until, their descendant Thomas Wynn, born in 1736, inherited the substantial fortune. He married Maria Stella Patronialla, who claimed, her father was Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans - later the King of France. Her claim was never proved. By the age of 25, Thomas had been knighted, become a Member of Parliament, was the Constable of Caernarvon Castle and Lord Lieutenant of the County; duties which he took seriously.
Sir Thomas, an eccentric, was of the opinion that the Lord Lieutenant of the County needed a fort and so he built one in the grounds of his estate. He named the new bastion Fort Williamsburg and, on the 22nd September 1761 - the day of the King George III’s coronation, Sir Thomas published laws and an enrolment book for the garrison. The rules for the garrison were based on the principles of ‘Freedom, Firmness and Friendship.’ There was also a female branch of the garrison known as ‘The Holy Order of Sisterhood.’ The ‘Militia Act’ of 1757 allowed auxiliary forces to be raised to defend the realm, independently of the regular army.
The rectangular fort, built by Sir Thomas, contained a parade ground, magazine and tunnels linking the surrounding earthworks and a watchtower. Batteries of cannon lined the ramparts. It resembled a real military establishment, complete with soldiers, but had no practical defensive purpose.
The American War of Independence had started, in 1775, and France was supporting the colonial rebels. War in Europe was becoming a distinct possibility. The king signed a warrant allowing Sir Thomas to mobilise his militia and in 1776, Sir Thomas was elevated to the peerage as Lord Newborough. The French revolution started in 1792 and the following year King Louis XVI and his family were executed. Britain’s aristocracy watched with horror as thousands of French nobles went to the guillotine and Paris streets ran with blood. Would the French ‘reign of terror’ travel across the channel? In 1797 the French Republic sent a fleet to Wales and landed an army at Fishguard. The invasion failed but the warning was clear; the Republic of France was an enemy.
Lord Newborough examined Gwynedd’s defences and decided that an improved coastal fort was needed at Llandwrog. The existing battery, Fort David, was inadequate and Newborough built a new one at his own expense. The new fortification was named Fort Belan and manned with militia from Fort Williamsburg. Williamsburg had been built for fun but Fort Belan had a more serious purpose, to defend against a French attack. By now his Lordship’s private force was called ‘Loyal Newborough Volunteers’ and considered one of the best equipped regiments in the country.
The volunteers, although well equipped, were not, however, always properly rewarded. Records at the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum include two bills presented to Lord Newborough in 1803 that went unpaid. It was the same year that the London Gazette reported Lord Newborough’s promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. One bill was from Drill Sergeant William Jones for the men’s training over 137 week period at 10s 6d a week (52.5p), the other, from Richard Thomas, for cleaning weapons during the previous four years. He died before he was paid for polishing the muskets and his widow waited seven years for the debt to be settled. The receipt for £16 3s 9d (£6.19p) she signed in 1810 still exists.
Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France in 1799 and proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804. Lord Newborough died three years later and was succeeded by his son. Europe was at war as Napoleon turned on neighbouring countries. He was finally stopped by a British and Prussian alliance at Waterloo in 1815. Despite Napoleon’s defeat and exile to St. Helena, France could not be trusted. As a precaution, Fort Belan was reinforced with more cannon in 1824 but the expected invasion never came. Today, with the threat of attack long since gone, Fort Belan is a group holiday home that can accommodate up to 45 guests.
With no strategic importance, Fort Williamsburg was abandoned after Lord Newborough’s death. It now stands empty, in the grounds of Glynllifon Agricultural College. The parade ground, armoury, ramparts, lookout tower and tunnels have all been listed as architecturally important but the buildings continue to decay, a sad end to the little fort built by an eccentric gentleman.
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