Northern Wales II: Caernarfon

Oh, there is history here!  The Romans built the first fort nearby, from which Caernarfon derives its name; in Welsh, the place was called “y gaer yn Arfon”, meaning “the stronghold in the land over against Môn”.  Following the Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror turned his attention to Wales.  When the person nominally in charge of (northern) Wales was killed by the Welsh (1088), Norman control was re-established by building 3 castles, one of them here at Caernarfon.  It would have been a motte and bailey castle – the easy-to-build but militarily formidable fort of the time, with a protective ditch and a timber palisade enclosing a courtyard (bailey) and wooden keep on a raised earthwork (motte), similar to that shown at Lincoln Castle (post “The Lincoln Castle, Bishop’s Palace, and the Magna Carta“).  The Welsh recaptured the area in 1115, and this original Caernarfon castle became the property of the Welsh princes – until war broke out between Wales and England in 1282.  England’s King Edward I invaded and marched through northern Wales, capturing Welsh castles and starting his own at Conwy.  Several months later in 1283 the last Welsh castle fell, and Edward began building a new castle at Caernarfon, replacing the pre-existing motte and bailey structure.  The castle was intended to be the definitive chapter in King Edward’s conquest of Wales, constructed not only as a military stronghold but also as a seat of government and royal palace.  The defenses were built on a grand scale with a deliberate link to Caernarfon’s Roman past, the striped and angular walls designed to echo those of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome.  The pictures below are from the internet.

Part of the castle’s fame comes from its association with the English title, “Prince of Wales”.  According to legend, Edward got the angry Welsh to submit to the Crown by promising them he would name “a prince, born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English”.  To the surprise of the Welsh, his son Edward II was born at Caernarfon in 1284 (speaking not a word of English – or any other language), and was created Prince of Wales in 1301 with control over Wales and its incomes.  Since then the title has traditionally been held by the eldest son of the monarch.  Prince Charles was “invested” with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969.

A schematic of today's Caernarfon CastleA schematic of Caernarfon Castle is shown here.  As you can see, it’s all walls and towers; construction was stopped in 1330 before it was completed.  Although there were once interior buildings, none have survived.

The main entrance to the castle, shown in the left picture below, is the town-facing King’s Gate; the right picture is a drawing of the unfinished

rear of the King’s Gate.  Had this twin-towered gatehouse been finished, it would have been protected by two drawbridge, 5 sets of doors, 6 portcullises, many murder holes above, and arrow loops to the side.  You can see from that drawing above that there was a chapel above the gatehouse passage.  It had double sinks for holy water, and slots in the floor to allow raising of the portcullises.  The whole second floor was intended to be a large hall; the windows and remains of finely sculpted heads finishing off the roof supports show that it was designed for stylish living.

Closer views of the castle walls are shown below.

High-tech arrow loop with slanted slitsArrow loops are everywhere in the walls, creating a veritable medieval machine gun.  These arrow loops were high-tech for their time: not only were they angled to allow each archer to cover a wide area, they also had an angled central pillar in the center of each loop to provide extra protection.

The impressive walls of the town and castle survive largely intact, but all that remains of the buildings within the castle are the foundations.  In part that’s because the buildings within the castle were never completed; money for construction was diverted to repair town walls damaged in the Welsh revolt of 1294; more money was diverted for Edward’s invasion of Scotland (post, Stirling Castle); and Edward died in 1307.  Further, when the Tudor’s (of Welsh origin) ascended the English throne in 1485, the Welsh were treated better.  Hostilities eased, castles became less important, and consequently they were neglected.  By 1620 only the Eagle Tower (shown later) and King’s Gate had roofs, and the domestic buildings had been stripped for building material.  Still, the interior is impressive!  The two pictures below look toward the unfinished Queens Gate.  In the first

picture, the large bare rectangle on the right is where the Great Hall once stood.  In its heyday the Great Hall would have been impressive, featuring fine architecture.  On the other side of the courtyard, the three joined brown rectangles are the foundations of the kitchen.  During the castle building, these kitchens would have fed up to 600 people.  A

large part of the diet was boiled meat (doesn’t that sound English?); the kitchen had fitted cauldrons and running water supplied by pipes from the Well Tower, as indicated above by the illustration and the picture of the ruins. There was also a waste disposal chute that went through the castle wall.

Inside Caernarfon Castle, looking at the Queen's GateReturning to the Caernarfon Castle overview, re-shown here, the jutting structure behind the kitchen site is the unfinished rear of the King’s Gate, and across from that the Chamberlain Tower, with the North-East Tower, Watch Tower and Queen’s Gate in the background.  The pictures below look in the opposite direction toward the huge three-

turreted Eagle Tower.  In the first picture, the leftmost tower is the Watch Tower, then the Chamberlain Tower and the Eagle Tower.  Note at the left edge of the right picture above, and in this The Granary Tower on the right, the North-East Tower on the left; note the notched walls that were unfinishedpicture of the Granary and North-East Towers, that there are notched walls ready for an expansion that never came.

Although the castle was never finished and never really used, King Edward (and other officials and overseers) did visit and were housed in completed royal lodgings on the upper floors.  When Edward and wife Eleanor visited in 1284 to have their son, the Eagle Tower was likely completed (up to the 2nd floor) and had the grandest

apartments.  Had Caernarfon been completed as intended, it could have contained a royal household of several hundred people.

City and castle walls are shown below.

When we were there, Caernarfon had a street fair.  Nice!  Among the highlights were a really cool (and momentarily convincing!) velociraptor moving through the crowd, and a

very cute calf.  Awwww!  Can I take him home??  And how about dining on super-fresh street seafood at the harbor under the shadow of a castle?  Crab anyone?  This kind of

experience is why we tolerate some of the discomforts of traveling.  Are you jealous, stay-at-home readers?  I’ll finish with pictures of the Caernarfon harbor.


Next post – Northern Wales III: Beaumaris

3 comments on “Northern Wales II: Caernarfon

  1. Susanne Thurnay says:

    Ron, has anyone suggested you read Jasper Fjorde yet? Great fun with some “alternative” English (and Welsh (and global)) history. Start with “the Jane Eyre affair”

  2. Susanne Thurnay says:

    Fforde – not what autocorrect thinks it should be.😣

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