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Caernarfon Castle

Castle located in the town of Caernarfon, Gwynedd, north Wales
SH477626

Map link for Caernarfon Castle

Photographs above & below copyright by Bill Damick
All other photographs copyright by Jeffrey L. Thomas

 

CAERNARVON CASTLE - FIT FOR A PRINCE
copyright by Daniel Mersey

Caernarvon is architecturally one of the most impressive of all of the castles in Wales. It's defensive capabilities were not as overt or as powerful as those of Edward I's other castles such as Harlech and Beaumaris (which indicate the pinnacle of castle building and defenses in Britain), but Caernarvon was instead intended as a seat of power - and as a symbol of English dominance over the subdued Welsh.

SITING

Caernarvon is located at the southern end of the Menai Strait between north Wales and Anglesey, 8 miles south west of Bangor. During Edward I's invasions of Wales, this was strategically an excellent place to build a castle; Anglesey was referred to as the garden of Wales, providing agriculturally rich land close to the poorer land on north Wales. The Menai Strait also allowed speedy access between the north Welsh coast and the western coast, and was therefore important for Edward to control for supplying outposts such as Harlech and Aberystwyth.

As with all of the castles of Edward's Iron Ring, Caernarvon was built on the shoreline (as alluded to above, supplies came by sea due to the Welsh prowess in convoy ambush over land - see Welsh Warriors and Warfare page). At Caernarvon, Edward also built a town, destroying the original Welsh settlement beforehand. Therefore as the entirety of the new settlement was of English origin, I use the anglicised "Caernarvon" as opposed to the Welsh "Caernarfon" in this article.

 

 

FOUNDATION

The castle of Edward I at Caernarvon succeeded first a Roman fort, and then a Norman motte and bailey - built by Hugh of Avranches around 1090. This motte was incorporated into the Edwardian castle, but was destroyed around 1870 (Dr Lawrence Butler suggested to me that there is a good argument for a new resistivity survey to be carried out for the investigation of this). The Welsh retook the original motte in 1115 and retained control until Edward's invasion and colonization in 1283. The site's previous history also demonstrates the strategic importance of the site.

Edward's building was initiated by his march from Chester, and work probably began in May 1283. Edward wanted to create a nucleus of English influence in this area, which was previously so rich in Welsh tradition and anti-English feeling. He also wished to create Caernarvon as the capital of a new dominion - hence the incorporation of a town and market into the strong walls of the site.

Below: the lower ward viewed from the upper ward at Caernarfon

BUILDING HISTORY

PHASE 1

Material for the building of the castle, town, walls, gates, and important quay were ferried in by sea. All of the initial building took place as a single operation, started in the summer of 1283. The first recorded entry of work was on the new castle's ditch, separating the castle from fortified town; this occurred on June 24th. Next, as with most castles built in enemy territory, a wooden barricade was erected to defend the building works from attack. Timber was shipped in from Liverpool, Rhuddlan, and Conway, and labourers began to cut the moat - this also supplied the rock for the walls (which were twenty foot thick at their base). The Welsh township was also demolished at this time. The only tower of the castle completed during the first phase of building was the Eagle Tower; the main priority was to make the site defensible, before later adding the impressive architecture of dominion's new capital. Work continued swiftly and the castle and town walls were substantially completed by late 1285. The architect for this first building phase was Master James of St George - a renowned and gifted castle architect - and from 1283-92, 12,000 had been spent.

Below: detail from the back of the Queeen's Gate

PHASE 2

At the end of the first building phase, the north wall of the castle had no wall, and was instead defended by the town walls and a wide rock cut ditch. Madog ap Llywelyn over-ran the castle through this ditch in his revolt of 1294, and succeeded in burning part of the castle and damaging the town walls. The English retook the castle next summer, and orders were given to make the castle defendable again by 11th November 1295. The town walls and castle were repaired, and the north wall of the castle was finally added, including the King's Gate. By 1330, the building payments ceased and the castle stood with similar looks as it does today. Overall, the expenditure on Edward I's grandest castle had been 25,000 over 50 years.

ACCOMMODATION

The Eagle Tower (shown right), Queen's Tower, Chamberlain Tower and Black Tower all were accommodation towers built on several storeys, mostly with self contained chapels on each storey (indicative of high status accommodation). Two halls existed - the Great Hall and a hall in the King's Tower. The castle was intended to and capable of accommodating the household of the king's eldest son (created Prince of Wales under Edward I), with his council, family and guests also in attendance. As mentioned before, this was as the castle was intended as the capital of a new dominion, and a palace for the dynasty of the new Prince of Wales. In addition to the grandeur, the castle also permanently housed a constable, watchmen, and the garrison.

DEFENCES

Caernarvon was defended in two parts - the castle itself, and the town walls. Edward's strongest castles were concentric, providing optimal defensive capabilities, but the use of castle and town walls provided up to two lines of defence, with the benefit of an ostentatious appearance - essential when considering Caernarvon's intended purpose. However, it should not be assumed that Caernarvon was a weak castle - it's completed defences were formidable.

The castle itself had two gateways defended by strong gatehouses; it also had seven towers lining it's walls (which themselves were up to twenty feet thick). As mentioned above, the north wall was initially absent, being defended by a ditch and the town itself; the second building phase saw this wall added, completed by the King's Gate.

 

Below: detail from the upper level rear of the King's Gate

The King's Gate (above) was never fully completed, but was immensely strong - it was twin towered, and had been intended to have a drawbridge, five doors, six portcullises, and a right angled turn (rendering attackers' shields useless as they turned the corner) from the main gatehouse into a smaller ward over a second drawbridge... and that doesn't even begin to consider the arrangement of murder holes, arrow loops and spy holes. The defences at the Queen's Gate were not as substantial as those at the other gateway; again, it was never fully completed. The gate was defended by twin towers, but could only be reached up the stone ramp from ground level to the summit of the earlier motte, on top of which the Queen's Gate was originally built. This made it far less vulnerable to attack, but even so, the gate was defended by two drawbridges and five murder holes. The final, and major, part of Caernarvon's defences were the town walls. This was an 800 yard circuit with eight towers and two twin towered gateways. The towers were situated 70 yards apart, the southern end of the circuit was blocked by the castle walls. The town walls were entirely surrounded by water filled moats, and the Rivers Cadnant and Seiont, and of course, the Menai Strait. The East Gate was the principal entrance - defended by a drawbridge, crenellated gateway, and two towers. The West Gate also had two towers, in addition to a barbican and portcullis; it faced out onto the Menai Strait.

Daniel Mersey

Other articles by Dan Mersey


Cadw 1990

When the antiquarian traveller John Taylor visited Caernarfon in the middle of the 17th century, he commented "if it be well manned, victualled, and ammunitioned, it is invincible." Indeed, many would argue that it is the greatest of Edward I's castles (Jeff would disagree) and few can doubt that its outward appearance is different from that of any of the other strongholds he commissioned in Wales. Here, King Edward seems to have gone to considerable lengths to give substance to the tradition linking Caernarfon with imperial Rome. The king must have known that the Roman fort of Segontium, lying just above the modern town, was inseparably associated in legend with Magnus Maximus, the usurper emperor.

At Caernarfon the walls were given a prominent patterning with bands of different colored stone. Moreover, the towers were constructed in an angular fashion rather than the more usual rounded form of, for example, Conwy or Beaumaris. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Edward I was drawing upon symbolism, and turned for inspiration to the great city of Constantinople. There, in the eastern successor to Rome and one of the wonders of the ancient world, the 5th-century walls bear a striking resemblance to this late 13th-century castle. Overall, the king was creating a fitting building to be a new royal residence, a palace, intended to be the seat of government for the newly-formed shire counties of north Wales. Everywhere, strength and majesty are evident in its walls and turrets.

Construction began in June 1283, soon after the final defeat of Llywelyn the Last. As at Conwy, the plan made provision for but a single curtain wall, albeit a massively powerful one. To compensate for this lack of outer defences, the wall was honeycombed by continuous wall-passages at two separate levels. These are all well equipped with arrow-loops and, on the town side, there are lethal multiple embrasures which enabled archers to spread their firepower to terrible effect.

The circuit was punctuated by nine towers and two great gatehouses, though neither two gates was ever fully completed. Nevertheless, the visitor who looks carefully at the King's Gate will be left in no doubt as to why it has been described as the mightiest in the land. An attacker would have needed to penetrate no fewer than five hefty doors and six portcullises before entering the heart of the castle. The Queen's Gate lay outside the circumference of the town walls, and would have been approached by way of a high stone ramp and drawbridge. Inside, the plan of Caernarfon is unusual, being shaped rather like an hour glass, originally divided into two wards by a cross wall at the narrowest point. In the lower ward are the remains of the great hall and kitchens, but it is the provision of private accommodation in the towers which demands greatest attention.

Most impressive of all is the Eagle Tower (above left), crowned by its triple cluster of turrets. In the 13th century this was almost certainly the residential quarters of Sir Otto de Grandison, King Edward's first Justiciar of North Wales. Everything about it is on a regal scale, each of the turrets bearing a stone eagle as further symbolic evidence of the links with imperial power. In addition to the accommodation here, the Queen's Tower is almost as spacious, and there must have been many more private suites in the Chamberlain, North-East, Granary and Well Towers.

As the center for a new seat of government, Caernarfon was clearly marked out for a special role. This was undoubtedly enhanced by the birth, within its precincts, of the first English Prince of Wales. The king's son, Edward of Caernarfon, was born in 1284 and henceforward the castle must have been seen as the palace of a new dynasty of princes. With this in mind, the majestic architecture, together with the extent and quality of accommodation, falls into perspective. Ironically, the castle seldom if ever fulfilled the elevated role planned for it. As an adult, Prince Edward (later Edward II) never returned to its walls, and by the mid 14th century it had become little more than a depot for the armament of the other north Wales castles.

Even so, it continued to be maintained and garrisoned, and successfully withstood sieges by the forces of Owain Glyndwr in 1403 and 1404. During the Civil War, Caernarfon finally surrendered to Parliamentary forces in 1646. Centuries of neglect were halted by repairs undertaken in the late 19th century and, in 1911, it was the scene of the Investiture of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales.

Today, a visit to the castle is made yet more interesting by a number of informative exhibitions and displays throughout the towers. In addition, the visitor should not overlook the remains of the town walls. Built at the same time as the castle, they protected the English inhabitants of the infant borough established by King Edward.

 

Additional information aboutthe castles of Edward I
Learn more about Edward I's bastide towns in north Wales

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