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Caernarfon Castle
Well Preserved Medieval Royal Castle in Wales

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Caernarfon is a well preserved great stone castle, built by King Edward I. It is thought that Edward's architect, James of St. George, modelled the castle on the walls of Constantinople. On higher ground on the outskirts of the town are the remains of an earlier occupation, a Roman Fort called Segontium.

It was besieged by Welsh rebels on several occasions and three times during the later English Civil War.

On 1 July 1969 the investiture ceremony of Charles, Prince of Wales was held at Caernarfon Castle. It is open to the public.

 

From 1284 to 1330, when accounts end, between £20,000 and £25,000 was spent on Caernarfon's castle and town walls. Such a sum was enormous and dwarfed the spending on castles such as Dover and Château Gaillard, which were amongst the most expensive and impressive fortifications of the later 12th and early 13th centuries.

Subsequent additions to Caernarfon were relatively small, so what remains of the castle is substantially from the time of Edward I. Despite the expense, much of what was planned for the castle was never carried out. The rear of the King's Gate (the entrance from the town) and the Queen's Gate (the entrance from the south-east) were left unfinished, and foundations in the castle's interior mark where buildings would have stood had work continued.

The ascension of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne in 1485 heralded a change in the way Wales was administered. The Tudors were Welsh in origin, and their rule eased hostilities between the Welsh and English. As a result castles such as Caernarfon, which provided secure centres from which the country could be administered, became less important.

The ward where the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales took place.

 

 


Contact
CadwPlas
Carew
Unit 5/7 Cefn Coed
Park Nantgarw
Cardiff, CF15 7QQ
Wales
UK
Telephone from the UK: 01286 677617
Telephone from the US: 010 44 1286 677617
Telephone from France: 00 44 1286 677617
Telephone from other countries: +44 (0)1286 677617

Fax: 01443 33 6001
Website: http://www.caernarfon.com/

 

 

Google Maps

 

Small scale map showing the location of
Caernarfon Castle

Google map showing the location of
Caernarfon Castle

Large scale map showing
Caernarfon Castle

 

Castle and Town of Caernarfon

While the castle was under construction, town walls were built around the adjacent town. The town of Caernarfon was constituted as a borough in 1284 by charter of Edward I. The charter, which was confirmed on a number of occasions, appointed the mayor of the borough ex officio Constable of the Castle.

By 1285, Caernarfon's town walls were mostly complete. The work cost between £20,000 and £25,000 from the start until the end of work in 1330.

For around two centuries after the conquest of Wales, arrangements established by Edward I for the governance of the country remained in place. During this time the castle was constantly garrisoned, and Caernarfon was effectively the capital of north Wales.

Caernarfon is home to the regimental museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (sic: Welch is an archaic English spelling of the word Welsh).

The Queen's Gate at Caernarfon Castle

 

 

Castle History

The first fortifications at Caernarfon were built by the Romans. A Roman fort or castrum, named Segontium, lies on the outskirts of the modern town. The castrum was sited near the bank of the River Seiont. It was probably positioned here because of the sheltered situation and because traffic up the Seiont would have been able to supply Segontium.

Caernarfon derives its name from the Roman fortifications. In Welsh, the place was "y gaer yn Arfon", "the stronghold in the land over against Môn"; Môn being the Welsh name of was the island of Anglesey. Little is known about the fate of Segontium and its associated civilian settlement after the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century.

After the Norman Conquest of England, William the Conqueror turned his attention to Wales. According to the Domesday Survey of 1086 a Norman (Robert of Rhuddlan) was in charge of the whole of northern Wales. He was killed by the Welsh in 1088. His cousin the Earl of Chester, Hugh d'Avranches, reasserted Norman control of north Wales by building three castles: one at an unknown location somewhere in Meirionnydd, one at Aberlleiniog on Anglesey, and another at Caernarfon. This early castle at Caernarfonwas on a peninsula was bounded by the River Seiont and the Menai Strait.

This castle would have been a motte and bailey, defended by a timber palisade and earthen banks. The motte was integrated into the later Edwardian Castle, but the location of the bailey is uncertain. The motte would have been surmounted by a wooden keep.

The Welsh recaptured Gwynedd in 1115, and Caernarfon Castle came into the possession of the Welsh princes. From contemporary documents written at the castle, it is known that Llywelyn the Great and later Llywelyn ap Gruffudd stayed at Caernarfon.

War broke out between England and Wales in 1282. The Welsh leader, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, died later that year. His brother Dafydd ap Gruffydd continued to fight, but in 1283 Edward I was victorious. Edward marched through northern Wales, capturing castles such as that at Dolwyddelan, and establishing his own castle at Conwy.

War drew to a close in May 1283 when Dolbadarn Castle, Dafydd ap Gruffudd's last castle, was captured. Shortly after, Edward began building castles at Harlech and Caernarfon. The castles of Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech were the most impressive of their time in Wales, and their construction helped establish English rule. The master mason responsible for the design and orchestrating the construction of the castle was probably James of Saint George, the experienced architect and military engineer who played an important role in building the Edwardian castles in Wales.

According to the Flores Historiarum, during the construction of the castle and planned town, the body of the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus was discovered at Caernarfon, and Edward I ordered his reburial in a local church.

Construction of the new stone castle was part of a programme of building which transformed Caernarfon. Town walls were added, connected to the castle, and a new quay was built. The earliest reference to building at Caernarfon dates from 24 June 1283, when a ditch had been dug separating the site of the castle from the town to the north. A bretagium, a type of stockade, was created around the site to protect it while the permanent defences were under construction.

Timber was shipped from as far away as Liverpool. Stone was quarried from around the town and nearby quarry sites, such as at Anglesey. A force of hundreds worked on the excavation of the moat and on digging the foundations for the castle. As the site expanded, it began to encroach on the adjacent town. Houses were cleared to allow construction. While the foundations for the stone walls were being created, timber-framed apartments were built for Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, his queen. They arrived at Caernarfon on either 11 or 12 July 1283 and stayed for over a month.

Construction at Caernarfon Castle continued over the winter of 1283/1284. The Statute of Rhuddlan, enacted on 3 March 1284, made the town at Caernarfon a borough and the administrative centre of the county of Gwynedd. According to tradition, Edward II was born at Caernarfon on 25 April 1284.

Edward was created Prince of Wales in 1301, with control over Wales and its incomes. According to legend, the king had promised the Welsh that he would name "a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English" and then produced his infant son. Since then the title has traditionally been held by the eldest son of the monarch.

In 1284, Caernarfon was defended by a garrison of forty men, more than the thirty-strong garrisons at Conwy and at Harlech. Even in peace time, when most castles would have a guard of only a few men, Caernarfon was defended by between twenty and forty men.

In 1294 Wales broke out in rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn. As Caernarfon was the centre of administration in Gwynedd and a symbol of English power, it was targeted by the Welsh rebels. Lleyweln's forces captured the town in September, and in the process damaged the town walls. The castle was defended only by a ditch and a temporary barricade. It was quickly taken and set alight. Fire raged across Caernarfon, leaving destruction in its wake.

In the summer of 1295, the English retook Caernarfon. By November the same year, they had begun refortifying the town. Rebuilding the town walls was a high priority, and £1,195 (nearly half the sum initially spent on the walls) was spent on completing the job two months ahead of schedule. Attention then shifted to the castle and on finishing the work that had halted in 1292.

Once the rebellion was put down, Edward began building Beaumaris Castle on the Isle of Anglesey. The work was overseen by James of Saint George so Walter of Hereford took over as master mason for the new phase of construction at Caernarfon.

Tension between the Welsh and their English conquerors spilled over once again at the start of the 15th century with the outbreak of the Glyndŵr Rising (1400–1415). During the revolt, Caernarfon was one of the targets of Owain Glyndŵr's army. The town and castle were besieged in 1401, and in November that year the Battle of Tuthill took place nearby between Caernarfon's defenders and the besieging force. In 1403 and 1404, Caernarfon was besieged by Welsh troops with support from French forces.

When the Tudor dynasty ascended to the English throne in 1485, tensions between the Welsh and English began to diminish and castles came to be considered less important. As a result, Caernarfon Castle was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.

Despite its dilapidated condition, during the English Civil War Caernarfon Castle was held by Royalists, and was besieged three times by Parliamentarian forces. This was the last time the castle was used in war.

Caernarfon Castle was neglected until the 19th century when the state funded repairs.

In 1911, Caernarfon was used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales for the first time. He later became Edward VIII. In 1969 the precedent was repeated with the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales.

The castle houses the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum.

Caernarfon Castle

 

An Aerial View of Caernarfon Castle

 

The King's Gate

 

Caernarfon ispart of a UNESCO world heritage site

 

The castle from across the River Seiont

 

Arms of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon

 

 

Castle Architecture

Despite Caernarfon Castle's external appearance - it looks mostly complete - the interior buildings no longer survive and many of the building plans were never realised

.

by 1292 £12,000 had been spent on the construction of Caernarfon's castle mainly the southern facade of the castle and town walls. As the southern wall and town walls completed a defensive circuit around Caernarfon, the plan was to build the castle's northern facade last.

By the end of 1301, a further £4,500 had been spent on the work with the focus of work on the northern wall and towers. Accounts between November 1301 and September 1304 are missing, possibly because there was a hiatus in work while labour moved north to help out with England's war against Scotland.

Walter of Hereford had left Caernarfon and was in Carlisle in October 1300; he remained occupied with the Scottish wars until the autumn of 1304 when building at Caernarfon resumed. Construction continued at a steady rate until 1330.

Most of Edwards castles fell into disrepare after the fifteenth century. In Caernarfon's case the walls of the town and castle remained in good condition, though features which required maintenance such as roofs fell into a state of decay. Conditions were so poor that of the castle's seven towers and two gatehouses, only the Eagle Tower and the King's Gate had roofs by 1620. Domestic buildings inside the castle had been stripped of anything valuable, such as glass, lead and iron.

Despite the disrepair of the domestic buildings, the castle's defences were in a good enough state that during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century that it was garrisoned by Royalists. Caernarfon Castle was besieged three times during the war. The constable, John Byron, 1st Baron Byron, surrendered Caernarfon to Parliamentarian forces in 1646. It was the last time Caernarfon Castle saw fighting. Although it was ordered in 1660 that the castle and town walls should be dismantled, the work appears never to have started.

Although it avoiding slighting, the castle was again neglected until the late 19th century. From the 1870s onwards, the government funded repairs to Caernarfon Castle. Steps, battlements, and roofs were repaired, and the moat to the north of the castle was cleared. Under the auspices of the Office of Works and its successors since 1908, the castle was preserved because of its historic significance.

Caernarfon Castle's design was influenced by a desire to make the structure impressive as a symbol of the new English rule in Wales. This was particularly acute as Caernarfon was made the centre of government in the northern part of the country.

The Edwardian castle's layout was dictated by the lay of the land, although the inclusion of the previous castle's motte played a part. The narrow enclosure is roughly in the shape of a figure eight. It was divided into two enclosures, upper and lower "wards" in the east and west respectively, with the eastern containing (never completed) royal accommodation. The divide was supposed to be established by a range of fortified buildings, but these too were never built.

Caernarfon's appearance differs from that of other Edwardian castles through the use of banded coloured stone in the walls (one of the reasons that it is suspected that Constantinople served as a model). The conscious use of imagery from the Roman Empire was an assertion of authority by Edward I. The design was also influenced by a legendary dream of Magnus Maximus, a Roman emperor. In his dream Maximus had seen a fort, "the fairest that man ever saw", within a city at the mouth of a river in a mountainous country and opposite an island. Edward interpreted this to mean Segontium was the city of Maximus' dream and drew on the imperial link when building Caernarfon Castle.

As well as the use of coloured bands of stone for decoration, Caernarfon differed from other Edwardian castles in its use of polygonal towers instead of the more common round towers. This choice of design may have been intended to echo the design of the Walls of Constantinople, which included the same feature. There were crenellations on the tops of walls and towers. Along the southern face were firing galleries. Galleries were planned for the northern face but they were never built.

Most of the northern towers had four-storeys including a basement. The Eagle Tower at the western corner of the castle was the grandest. It has three turrets once surmounted by statues of eagles. This tower contained grand lodgings, probably built for Sir Otton de Grandson, the first justiciar of Wales. The basement level contained a water gate, through which visitors travelling up the River Seiont could enter the castle. Water was drawn from a well in the Well Tower.

There were two main entrances, one leading from the town (the King's Gate) and one allowing direct access to the castle without having to proceed through the town (the Queen's Gate). Their form was typical of the time – a passage between flanking towers. If the King's Gate had been completed, visitors would have crossed two drawbridges, passed through five doors, under six portcullises, and negotiated a right-angle turn before emerging into the lower enclosure. The route was overlooked by numerous arrow loops and murder holes.

A statue of Edward II was erected in a niche over looking the town, above the entrance to the King's Gate. The Queen's Gate is above ground level, due to the integration of the earlier motte, raising the ground level of the interior. Externally, the gate would have been approached by a stone ramp which is no longer present.

While the curtain wall and its towers survive largely intact, all that remains of the buildings contained within the castle are the foundations. Royal lodgings were intended for the upper ward, working buildings such as kitchens for the lower ward. The kitchens were located immediately west of the King's Gate.

The other notable feature of the castle's domestic side, was the Great Hall. Caernarfon's Hall abutted the south side of the lower ward and was 30.5 metres (100 ft). Though only the foundations survive, in its heyday the Great Hall must have been an impressive building.

Map of Caernarfon in 1610 by John Speed. You can see the castle was at the south of the walled settlement.

 

The two wards of Caernarfon Castle,
(from left to right the Black Tower, the Chamberlain's Tower, and the Eagle Tower.

 

A painting of Caernarfon by J. M. W. Turner in 1830–1835, oil on canvas , 96 × 140 cm (37.80 × 55.12 in. Now in the São Paulo Museum of Art

 

The Eagle Tower

 

Interior of the King's Gate

 

The banded walls are not obvious

 

The banded walls used to be more obvious

 

 





Unesco World Heritage Site


Unesco name of World Heritage site: Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd (added in 1986)


Justification for Inscription: "The four castles of Beaumaris, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and the attendant fortified towns at Conwy and Caernarfon are the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe, as demonstrated through their completeness, pristine state, evidence for organized domestic space, and extraordinary repertory of their medieval architectural form.

The castles as a stylistically coherent groups are a supreme example of medieval military architecture designed and directed by James of St George, King Edward I of England’s chief architect, and the greatest military architect of the age.

The extensive and detailed contemporary technical, social, and economic documentation of the castles, and the survival of adjacent fortified towns at Caernarfon and Conwy, makes them one of the major references of medieval history.

The castles of Beaumaris and Harlech are unique artistic achievements for the way they combine characteristic 13th century double-wall structures with a central plan, and for the beauty of their proportions and masonry.

Criterion (i): Beaumaris and Harlech represent a unique achievement in that they combine the double-wall structure which is characteristic of late 13th century military architecture with a highly concerted central plan and in terms of the beauty of their proportions and masonry. These are the masterpieces of James de St George who, in addition to being the king’s chief architect, was constable of Harlech from 1290 to 1293.

Criterion (iii): The royal castles of the ancient principality of Gwynedd bear a unique testimony to construction in the Middle Ages in so far as this royal commission is fully documented. The accounts by Taylor in Colvin (ed.), The History of the King’s Works, London (1963), specify the origin of the workmen, who were brought in from all regions of England, and describe the use of quarried stone on the site. They outline financing of the construction works and provide an understanding of the daily life of the workmen and population and thus constitute one of the major references of medieval history.

Criterion (iv): The castles and fortifications of Gwynedd are the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe. Their construction, begun in 1283 and at times hindered by the Welsh uprisings of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, continued until 1330 in Caernarfon and 1331 in Beaumaris. They have only undergone minimal restoration and provide, in their pristine state, a veritable repertory of medieval architectural form: barbicans, drawbridges, fortified gates, chicanes, redoubts, dungeons, towers, and curtain walls."

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