A Visit to Caernarfon Castle


This is the third of my posts about some of the places I visited in North Wales the week before last. The first was about the beautiful Bodnant Gardens and the second about Conwy Castle, one of the three different castles we went to see. Today’s post is about Caenarfon Castle along the coast to the south-west of Conwy.

North Wales Castles

Caernarfon was one of a series of castles built by King Edward I of England after the second Welsh war of independence in 1282. Building began in 1283 and the castle became his royal palace-fortress instead of the originally intended castle at Conwy.

For the Welsh, Caernarfon was already an important and mythical place. The Romans built a fortress here (Segontium)  in AD 77 and legend holds that a Roman emperor called Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus) married a local princess. It is thought that this link with the powerful Romans was the reason why Edward I chose Caernarfon as his royal ‘capital’ and had it built with colour-banded walls, emulating the walls of Roman cities and perhaps even Constantinople itself.

Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a motte and bailey castle was built close to the site where the Edwardian castle would one day stand. Many of these early castles were erected quickly, all over England, generally constructed of wood at first and replaced by stone some time later. Motte means ‘mound’, which could have been a natural one, or one raised specifically for the purpose of supporting the keep, or fortified tower. Below the motte would be the bailey (an enclosure or courtyard) in which the kitchens, stables and storehouses would be situated. Here is an examples of an English motte and bailey castle, just to show what they looked like. Note, this is not the one at Caernarfon. There is little evidence of that left.

Carisbrook motte and bailey castle. Auhor: Charles D.P. Killer. Commons
Carisbrook motte and bailey castle. Auhor: Charles D.P. Killer. Commons

It is thought that the motte of the Norman castle at Caernarfon was incorporated into Edward I’s castle, although the location of the bailey is uncertain.

The design of Caernarfon Castle is rather like the number 8 – it’s been described as having and hour-glass shape (plan below). The coloured banding of the stone and the octagonal towers make it an impressive site from a distance, especially viewed from the Menai Strait. Unfortunately, it was a grey and miserable day when we went to Caernafon, so the castle has a particularly dark and menacing appearance. The main entrance shown in one of these photos is the King’s Gate.

This is a general plan of the  castle:


A. Site of the Watergate  B. Eagle Tower  C. Queen’s Tower  D. Well Tower E. Lower Ward F. Great Hall  G. Kitchens  H. Chamberlain Tower  I. King’s Gate  J. Upper Ward  KBlack Tower  L. Granary Tower  M. North- East Tower  N. Cistern Tower  O. Queen’s Gate

And here is a mix of photos from inside the castle, mostly from around the Upper and Lower Wards:

The Eagle Tower is one of the greatest of the castle’s towers and there are interesting displays in there. In the photos above it’s the one with the pennants flying. It was probably designed to provide accomodation for Sir Otto de Grandison, the king’s lieuteanant. Inside is a basement and three storeys and outside, a very weathered eagle sits on top of the west turret (left hand side turret on the photo). No? I could hardly see it, either…

According to tradition, Edward’s son, Prince Edward of Caernarfon (and future Edward II) was born in Caernarfon Castle on April 28 1284. In 1301 he was created Prince of Wales:

Edward I creating his son, the later Edward II, Prince of Wales in 1301. Source: British Library (scanned). Author, User:Lampman. Public Domain

Since then, the title has been traditionally held by the eldest son of the monarch. On the 28 July 1958, the investiture of Prince Charles, eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II took place in Caernarfon Castle. The circular disc in the photos above marks the place.  This picure from Wikimedia Commons shows a wider view of the area:

Caernarfon Castle, site of the Investiture of Prince Charles in 1958 . The Black Tower is seen behind it. Author: Albertistvan. Commons

The Queen’s Tower (C on the plan) and two floor of the Chamberlain’s Tower (H) now house the regimental museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Through the walls from one tower to the other are lots of information panels. We didn’t go into this area on this occasion, but for anyone interested in mlitary history it’s worth a visit.

For two centiuries after Edward’s time, his arrangements for the governing of Wales still held. There were periodic revolts, as the one in 1400-15 when the castle was besieged by the Welsh supported by the French.

The ascension of the Tudors, who were Welsh, eased hostilities between England and Wales and castles became less important. The Tudors changed the way that Wales was governed and castles became neglected. Many fell into decay. Although Caernarfon’s walls remained in good condition, the roofs and much of the timber rotted. Domestic buildings were stripped of anything of value (e.g. glass and iron) but the castle was in good enough condition to be garrisoned by Royalists troops during the civil war of 1642-49.

As with Conwy, there is so much that could be said about this castle. But enough is enough for one post.