Known as one of the greatest royal fortresses ever built in the Middle Ages, Caernarfon Castle in Wales is truly of significant historical value. Its lengthy history is driven by legends, medieval conflict, and bitter war, but after many ugly happenings, it still remains so astonishingly beautiful. It is very much once of the most architecturally magnificent castles in Wales and is a huge symbol of English dominance over the subdued Welsh.
Caernarfon Castles history
Caernarfon Castle, also known as Carnarvon Castle, Caernarvon Castle, and Castell Caernarfon, is one of the top tourist attractions in all of Wales and has remained like that for many, many years. So, where is Caernarfon Castle and how did it become one of the greatest buildings of the Middle Ages?
The early history of Caernarfon Castle
Before the castle was actually built, Romans roamed the land for many years and even erected the first fortifications on the land where Caernarfon Castle would eventually stand. On the outskirts of the town, the Romans built a fort which they soon after named ‘Segontium’. Following that, the Norman Conquest of England went through and eventually, William the Conqueror gave Wales his undivided attention.
During that time, northern Wales was commanded by a Norman by the name of Robert of Rhuddlan, though in 1088, he was killed by the Welsh. It was then that Caernarfon Castle came around. Robert of Rhuddlan’s cousin, Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, decided to erect a series of castles in Wales, one of them being Caernarfon Castle, to regain control of Wales and assert himself.
In 1093, Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, erected three castles all together. One at a mystery location somewhere in Meirionnydd, another at Aberlleiniog on Anglesey, and the last one in the town of Caernarfon. The original Caernarfon Castle was only a motte and bailey built on a peninsula. It was defended by a timber palisade and earthworks and was beautifully bound by the River Seiont.
This original structure was later integrated into the Edwardian castle, however, where it was originally built within the new structure is a mystery, though they think it may have been to the north-east of the motte. It is said that most of the information that could have helped identify significant medieval ties had been removed because far later on, in 1969, excavations revealed no visible traces of medieval occupation. Back to early times, in 1115, the Welsh recaptured Gwynedd and the basic Caernarfon Castle fell into the worthy hands of the Welsh princes.
Llywelyn the Great and later Llywelyn ap Gruffudd occasionally stayed at Caernarfon Castle according to documents written within the castle.
Whether it be a famous legend or a genuine depiction of Edwards I’s words, it is believed that he had specifically promised the loyal people of Wales that he would name ‘a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English’. He then proceeded to welcome his infant son, Edward II, which absolutely astonished the people of Wales. This could most definitely be a conspiracy as the only recollection from it is from the 16th century.
Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle on the 25th of April in 1284. From then on, he was known as Edward II, King of England and Edward of Caernarfon.
When was Caernarfon Castle built?
Edward I, who built Caernarfon Castle, was involved in a war between England and Wales on March 22, 1282. Llewelyn ap Gruffudd had died that year in December, though his brother, Dafydd ap Gruffudd, continued to fight fearlessly against the English but soon enough, in 1283, Edward I was victorious. It was then that Edward I marched strongly throughout Wales capturing as many castles as possible and even went as far as to establish one in Conwy.
War finally drew to a close that year and Edward I wasted no time. He began to quickly erect many castles at Harlech and Caernarfon. English rule was established due to a handful of very important castles which were Caernarfon, Harlech, and Conwy. They were also named as some of the most impressive castles of the time in Wales and their construction was almost flawless.
James of Saint George who was a famous, experienced, and sought-after architect of the time is said to have had a significant hand in building these castles and was highly applauded for it. During the time of the castle’s construction and the planning of the town. It is said that the body of the Roman Emperor, Magnus Maximum, was discovered.
Edward I ordered a reburial for the famous Roman Emperor in a local church. Edward has requested a programme to begin which included not only the construction of a magnificent castle but also the construction of a town, which later became the town of Caernarfon. Town walls and a new quay were added to the castle, and it essentially transformed Caernarfon completely from what it once was.
The earliest reference to a beginning of construction was in June 1283 when a ditch was dug out to separate the castle site from the town in the north, and while the permanent constructions were being built, a stockade type object was built for protection. Timber for the castle’s construction was brought in from places all over, even from faraway places such as Liverpool. Stone was then taken from places surrounding the castle such as Anglesey and the surrounding areas.
Building Caernarfon Castle
To build Caernarfon Castle, it took many, many sleepless hours, blood, sweat, and tears, and hundreds of workers. They worked wholeheartedly on the mote excavation and digging all of the highly important foundations of the soon to be magnificent castle. Unfortunately, many houses had to be destroyed for the construction of the castle to be completed, so the town wasn’t safe for long like the townspeople had thought.
It took three years for those poor townspeople who had lost their houses to receive compensation, so the process didn’t happen without any uproar. Edward I had put plenty of time and effort into creating an ideal, safe, and simply eloquent place for his queen, Eleanor of Castille to reside. The construction of the castle continued for a large amount of time and even through the harshest of weather. The date of completion isn’t 100% certain, though it is rumoured that in Easter of 1284, when Edward and Eleanor visited the castle that the Eagle Tower was complete.
The Eagle Tower received its name from one of the three turrets that dominated the castle. The tower stood around 30 metres high and has three interesting floors within it as well as a basement that originally allowed complete access from the river via a double doorway with portcullis. It is said that the tower likely contained secret chambers for whoever was the most senior resident inside Caernarfon Castle at the time.
The curtain (or bailey) walls of the castle enclose two wards. Four of the towers out of the twelve were built into the curtain wall and each one contained accommodation on every single floor. These towers were very much necessary in these times due to at least 350 servants occupying the castle at any given time.
An act of rebellion
In 1294, a rebellion broke out in Wales and was led by none other than Madog ap Llywelyn, Prince of Wales. Because of the fact that Caernarfon was seen as a symbol of English power and it was the centre of administration in Gwynedd, the Welsh viciously targeted it. In September, Madog’s supporters captured the rugged town and terribly damaged the town walls, while a fairly lousy ditch and a temporary barricade were protecting the castle.
During this time, anything flammable was set alight and fires raged across the once beautiful Caernarfon and left terrible and tortuous ruins and destruction in its path. Finally, in the summer of 1295, the English once again tried to recapture Caernarfon and by November, they began quickly working to refortify the town. Rebuilding the town walls was high up on the list of priorities and it was quickly completed within a small amount of time and two months ahead of the initial schedule.
It was then that all of the attention was shifted back to Caernarfon Castle and the work that ceased in 1292 once again began. Once the rebellion had ended, Edward I also started to build Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey which was once again all overseen by James Saint George. At the time, Walter of Hereford took over again as a master mason for the new construction and by the end of 1301, a further £4,500 was spent on the highly important work.
From the years 1284 to 1330, near £25,000 was spend on Caernarfon town and Caernarfon Castle. This sum was absolutely enormous in those times and it dwarfed the building costs of other castles built in the same century. In 1330, the construction of the castle was complete, and all was well, but not for long.
In 1403 and 1404, the castle fell victim to not just one, but two sieges both by Owain Glyndwr who then became Prince of Wales from 1404 to 1415. This was during the Glyndwr Rising also known as the Welsh Revolt or Last War of Independence, which was also run by Owain Glyndwr. It was the last major revolt before the incorporation of Wales into England in 1535.
It all began in 1400 when bitter war started over a seemingly small land dispute between Owain Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Ruthin. The rebellion rapidly spread throughout England and Wales and Glyndwr’s loyal men captured Conwy Castle during this time. Afterwards, he besieged Caernarfon Castle twice as well as Harlech and Aberystwyth.
The addition of the Tudor Dynasty to the English throne in 1485 meant that a huge change was administered. The Tudors, who were Welsh in origin, made a big change during their rule which meant that hostilities were eased between the Welsh and English. As a result, many of the castles lost all of their importance and were left to become ruins. In 1538, it was reported that many of them were ‘moche ruynous and ferre in decaye for lakke of tymely reparations’.
The English Civil War
For a long while, the castle and connecting town were left to fall into disrepair. While the walls of the town and Caernarfon Castle remained in fairly decent condition, many features required some serious repair. Things like roofs were in a horrendous state and needed to be removed and redone because of the severe rotting of the timber.
It is said that the condition of some parts of Caernarfon Castle were so poor, that out of the castles seven towers and two gatehouses, only the Eagle Tower and King’s Gate had an intact roof by the year 1620. Anything inside Caernarfon Castle that held even the slightest bit of value was stripped such as iron and glass. Despite all of the repairs needing to be done on Caernarfon Castle, it was in a strong enough state to be garrisoned by Royalists during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.
During the English Civil War, Caernarfon Castle was besieged three times. John Byron surrendered Caernarfon to Parliamentarian forces in 1646 and that was the last time that Caernarfon Castle saw battle. In 1660, it is said that the castle was supposed to be dismantled, though this may have never started or was stopped very early on.
The 19th Century
The castle managed to avoid being dismantled, but it had also seen severe neglect and was almost completely forgotten about up until the 19th century. It was then from the 1870s onward that the government rallied together and funded significant repairs for Caernarfon Castle to return to somewhat of its former glory. The deputy-constable at the time, Llewellyn Turner oversaw all of the work being done and instead of conserving already existing stonework at times, he instead opted to restore and rebuild the castle.
This triggered a fair bit of controversy amongst the townspeople, however, rebuilding continued and soon after steps, battlements, and roofs were rebuilt and repaired. The moat to the north of the castle definitely got plenty of attention and soon after the rest of the castle was done, the moat was cleared of post-medieval buildings. Once again, this triggered a massive amount of controversy because, despite the outcry and protests of locals, Llewellyn Turner and his co-workers had decided that those post-medieval castles ruined the view.
In 1908, under the support of the Office of Works and its successors, the castle was preserved due to the beautiful history of it and its significant heritage. From then on, the castle started being used to crown and name significant figures such as Prince Edward, later known as Edward VIII, and far later down the track, even Charles, Prince of Wales. Caernarfon Castle has always been the property of the Crown since its inception, it is currently looked after lovingly by Cadw which is the Welsh Governments historic environment division.
The present day
Later on, in 2015, a new entrance pavilion was built and designed by architects to further add great value to the castle. These days, Caernarfon Castle is said to be the castle of dreams and a legend brought to life. It is said that all who see Caernarfon Castle are permanently enchanted for years to come over the sheer beauty that the castle holds. Even after a long and slightly tortuous 700 years, the castle remains just as beautiful as it was during previous times and it stirs the imagination like no other castle can.
It is now named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is very much well recognised. It was named as such to specifically recognise the importance of the site and to underline how important it is to preserve, conserve, and protect this sacred site. If you find yourself going to explore Caernarfon Castle, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that it is not the only thing worth seeing in the lovely town of Caernarfon.
Caernarfon Castle Facts
- Even now, Princes are still crowned inside Caernarfon Castle. Charles, Prince of Wales even received his title here in 1969.
- Caernarfon Castle is equipped with two mighty gatehouses, also known as the King’s and Queen’s gates and they are said to display the true might of the castle.
- The expense and sheer scale of Caernarfon Castle was absolutely phenomenal, and people don’t realise just how expensive it would have been if it had been built in these times.
- The design of Caernarfon Castle is quite unusual, and it looks almost exactly like a figure 8.
- Caernarfon Castle was one of Edward I’s most ambitious projects and is said to be one of the mightiest castles in his ‘Iron Ring’ of castles.
You may enjoy reading about our other Welsh castles here.