Caernarfon Castle: The Imposing Welsh Constantinople
Caernarfon Castle (often anglicized as Carnarvon or Caernarvon) is a castle in Caernarfon, in the northern Welsh county of Gwynedd, that was built during the Middle Ages. The castle is closely associated with the conquest of Wales by the English king, Edward I, and was part of his so-called iron ring of castles that was meant to subjugate the country. In the centuries that followed, Caernarfon Castle saw much fighting, and was besieged many times. The last time the castle was besieged was during the 17 th century, after which it was abandoned. Caernarfon Castle was neglected until the 19 th century, when it was restored. During the 20 th century, the castle was used twice for the investiture of the Prince of Wales. Today, Caernarfon Castle is a well-known tourist attraction, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.
The Strategic Importance of Caernarfon
Caernarfon is a town located in Gwynedd, in the northern part of Wales. It is situated on the west end of the Menai Strait, which separates the Welsh mainland from the Isle of Anglesey. The strategic significance of the area was evident even before the Medieval period. Anglesey had fertile agricultural land, which meant that the island was the main food source of the area. Therefore, the person who controlled the Menai Strait was also in control of the region’s food supply.
Caernarfon Castle was strategically important for any conquest of northern Wales. The person who controlled the Menai Strait was also in control of the region’s food supply. (Kadpot / CC BY-SA 4.0)
A fort was constructed by the Romans when they were occupying Britain. The fort, known as Segontium, was built around 75 AD on a low hill to the southeast of the present town. The fort not only allowed the Romans to control the local population, but also allowed them to guard their lands against Irish pirates. After the withdrawal of the Romans, estimated to have been at the end of the 4 th century AD, the fort became the seat of the local chieftains.
The Normans invaded Wales during the 11 th century, but were not able to hold on to the country. Nevertheless, they managed to build a motte-and-bailey castle at Caernarfon. Hugh of Avranches, Earl of Chester, was responsible for building this castle. He chose a different site from the Romans, and built the castle on a peninsula adjacent to the Menai Strait. The castle, which was built of timber, was protected on the southern side by the River Seiont, and on the eastern side by the Cadnant Brook. In spite of these defenses, the Norman castle was seized by the Welsh during the early 12 th century, and was probably destroyed. Although the motte survived, and was even incorporated into Edward’s castle, it was demolished during the 19 th century.
Edward I and his Iron Ring of Castles
The English were back in Wales in 1277, this time led by Edward I. The Welsh were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty, but revolted against the English in 1282. The rebellion, however, was crushed in the following year, and the English were now in firm control of Wales. After this second invasion, Edward ordered the construction of the iron ring of castles in the northern part of Wales, so as to strengthen his control over that region. Apart from Caernarfon Castle, this defensive system also included Harlech Castle and Conwy Castle.
Designed by James of Saint George, Edward I built the Iron Ring of mighty castles to crush Welsh resistance, including Harlech Castle, on the left (valeryegorov / Adobe Stock), and Conwy Castle, on the right (Richard Hoare/ CC BY-SA 2.0).
Caernarfon Castle was designed by the master architect James of Saint George, and its construction began in 1283. This initial construction phase lasted until 1292, and concentrated on the western, southern, and eastern parts of the castle. At this point of time, the northern part of Caernarfon Castle was protected by a large ditch and the town walls. During this phase, the materials required for the building of the castle were brought to the site by sea, as it would have been more convenient to do so. From the beginning, Edward had big plans for Caernarfon, as he intended to turn the area into the capital of his new dominion. Therefore, in addition to the castle, Edward also established a town and a market at the site.
Welsh Rebellion of 1294 and Subsequent Rebuilding of the Castle
The Welsh rebelled again in 1294, and this time, they were led by Madog ap Llywelyn. As Caernarfon was the English center of power in northern Wales, it was a natural target for the rebels. Despite its strong fortifications, Caernarfon Castle was not adequately protected on the northern side. Therefore, Madog and his supporters were able to take the castle by attacking it from this side. Part of the castle was burned down, and the town walls were damaged.
Caernarfon Castle, western view at low tide. (Herbert Ortner / CC BY 3.0)
In the following summer, however, the English succeeded in taking back the castle from the Welsh. Orders were given to repair the castle, and to make it defensible once more. By November, these repairs were completed. Next, the builders concentrated on the northern side of the castle. In 1301, the construction of Caernarfon Castle was halted for three years, and was only resumed in 1304.
Work continued until 1330, when work on the castle finally came to an end. It is estimated that over this period of almost 50 years, Edward spent about £25,000 on Caernarfon Castle, which was a huge sum of money. In any case, the many of the original plans were never implemented. For instance, the inner sides of the King’s Gate and the Queen’s Gate were actually unfinished, and the inner buildings of the castle were never completed. Despite these deficiencies, Caernarfon Castle was still an imposing defensive structure.
Caernarfon Castle: The Imposing Welsh Constantinople?
The castle was surrounded by a wide ditch, which separated it from the surrounding town. In the northwestern and northeastern parts, the town wall was built across the ditch, and connected to the castle walls. During Edward’s time, the strongest castles were defended by two sets of concentric walls. Caernarfon Castle, however, only had one set of walls. Instead of a second set of walls, the castle was protected by the town walls. This meant that Caernarfon Castle was defended by two sets of walls, like the best castles of the time, but was also able to maintain an ostentatious appearance, which would have fitted the king’s plans to make Caernarvon the seat of English power in northern Wales.
Caernarfon Castle incorporated colored stones in stripes which many believe was a way to mimic the walls of Constantinople, probably due to Edward’s travels to the Holy Land as commander of the Ninth Crusade. (Public domain)
Another unique feature of the castle’s walls is that they were built using “colored stones arranged in stripes and polygonal rather than cylindrical towers,” which is different from the other castles Edward constructed in Wales. It has been speculated that this was meant to mimic the walls of Constantinople, and alluding to the mighty Byzantine Empire in the East. In order to strengthen the castle’s walls, seven polygonal towers were added to them. This was unusual, as rounded towers were more common. This lends further support to the speculation that Edward was making a reference to the walls of Constantinople when he constructed Caernarfon Castle. These towers were crowned with battlements, from which the castle’s defenders could fire at a besieging enemy.
Engraving of the Eagle Tower at Caenarvon Castle from about 1840. (National Library of Wales / CC0)
The strongest of the seven towers was the Eagle Tower, situated on the castle’s western side. The tower is topped with three polygonal turrets, which were once decorated with statues of eagles which gave the tower its name. In addition to being a defensive structure, this tower also had a domestic function. The Eagle Tower contained large chambers, and was probably meant to serve as the residential quarters of Otto de Grandson, the first Justiciar of North Wales. Three other towers – the Queen’s Tower, the Chamberlain Tower, and the Black Tower, were also constructed with amenities that made them suitable as accommodation for the elite.
The inside plan of Caernarfon Castle is quite unusual. It is quite narrow and was built in the shape of an ‘8’ or hourglass. The castle is divided into two parts: the lower ward in the west, and the upper ward in the east. The two wards are separated by a cross wall at the narrowest point. The remains of the great hall and the kitchens can bee seen in the lower ward. As mentioned earlier, plans for the building of a number of buildings inside the castle’s walls never materialized. The upper ward may be accessed via the King’s Gate or the Queen’s Gate, which are also the castle’s two entry points. The King’s Gate is located on the northern side of the castle, and provides access to the town, whereas the Queen’s Gate is located on the castle’s eastern side. Although both entries were never finished, they are nevertheless huge and imposing structures.
Inside of Caernarfon Castle. (Oleksandr Umanskyi / Adobe Stock)
Caernarfon Castle Provides Insight Into Wales' Turbulent Past
In the centuries following Edward’s conquest, Caernarfon Castle was permanently garrisoned. This is a reflection of the castle’s strategic significance, as well as the importance of Caernarfon as the capital of North Wales. The Welsh rebelled once more in 1400, and Caernarfon Castle was besieged in 1401. In November that same year, the Battle of Tuthill was fought near Caernarfon, which ended inconclusively. Caernarfon Castle was besieged again in 1403 and 1404. Although the Welsh were aided by the French during the sieges, they failed to capture the castle. The English garrison defending the castle is alleged to have been made up of about thirty men. This meant that Caernarfon Castle was so strong that it was able to resist a larger attacking force.
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When the Tudors came to power in 1485, hostilities between the Welsh and English was decreased, as the new dynasty was from Wales. As a consequence, Caernarfon Castle lost its defensive function and gradually fell into neglect. By the beginning of the 17 th century, for instance, most of structures of the castle were roofless, whilst the more valuable equipment of the castle had been stolen. Nevertheless, the defensive features of Caernarfon Castle were left intact.
Left: The history of Caernarfon Castle provides insight into Wales' turbulent past. (Saolcha / CC BY-SA 3.0). Right: Caernarfon Castle fell into disrepair until the 1870s, when funds were provided to repair the castle. (National Library of Wales / CC0)
As a matter of fact, the castle was still so strong that it was able to withstand several sieges during the English Civil War. During that conflict, Caernarfon Castle was hastily repaired, and garrisoned by the Royalists. Although the castle was attacked by the Parliamentarians several times, it managed to withstand the assaults. The castle’s garrison, under the command of John Byron, only surrendered in 1646, when it was clear that the Royalist cause was lost. This was the last time Caernarfon Castle saw action.
Caernarfon Castle and the Prince of Wales
Although orders were issued for the demolishment of Caernarfon Castle and its town walls in 1660, these were not carried out, and the castle was saved from destruction. Instead, it gradually fell into disrepair. During the 1870s, funds were provided by the government to repair the Medieval castle. The work was supervised by Llewellyn Turner, who made the controversial decision to rebuild parts of the castle, rather than to preserve its existing stonework. Caernarfon Castle made it to the headlines in 1911, when it was used for the investiture of Prince Edward (the future Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales. Another investiture was performed at the castle in 1969, this time for Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales.
There is an interesting legend regarding the tradition of conferring the title “Prince of Wales” on the heir apparent of the English / British throne. According to this story, Edward I, after his conquest of Wales, promised the Welsh “a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English.” Much to the surprise of the Welsh, Edward put forward his infant son, Edward II, and proclaimed him Prince of Wales. The new prince was indeed born in Wales, in Caernarfon Castle, to be exact, but did not speak a word, English or not. The story may indeed be apocryphal, as it only began to circulate during the 16 th century. In addition, at that time, the elite of England spoke Norman French. Moreover, Edward became Prince of Wales in 1301, but was born in 1284.
Left: Edward I made his son, the future Edward II, Prince of Wales. (Public domain) Right: The Investiture of the current Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in North Wales sparked Protests in 1969. (Geoff Charles / CC0)
Caernarfon Castle is considered today as one of the best-preserved castles in Europe. In addition to being under the care of Cadw (the historic environment service of the Welsh government), it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caernarfon Castle was added to the list in 1986, alongside Beaumaris Castle, Conwy Castle, and Harlech Castle, as part of the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd. Apart from Caernarfon Castle, visitors to the site may also visit the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum, which is housed within the castle.
Top image: Oil painting of Caernarfon Castle in 1846 by Hugh Hughes, from the National Library of Wales. Photo source: Public domain.
By Wu Mingren
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