The first medieval timber castle in Caernarfon was erected at the end of the 11th century by the Norman invaders who conquered the territory of North Wales. It was created on the initiative of Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, as a motte and bailey structure. The Welsh regained Gwynedd along with the castle at Caernarfon in 1115. It came into possession of the Welsh princes, it is known that they stayed in it from time to time Llywelyn the Great, and later Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
After the outbreak of the Anglo – Welsh war in 1282, Edward’s army marched through all of North Wales, gaining further resistance points and by 1283 defeating the Welsh leader Dafydd ap Gruffydd. Shortly thereafter, Edward ordered to build the castles in Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech to confirm English domination.
Work on the royal castle at Caernarfon, which was to become the administrative center of the English Crown for North Wales, began in 1283. The initial phase of construction, which lasted until 1292, focused on the western, southern and eastern parts of the stronghold. The northern part was initially protected by a large ditch, as well as the town walls, erected along with the castle. Hundreds of workers were working on the construction, digging the moats and foundations of the castle. When the construction began to enter the town, the houses were removed to allow further work. Residents were compensated only after three years. The construction was visited by the king and his wife, for whom timber, temporary buildings were erected. According to tradition, the successor of the throne, Edward II, was born in the castle, from 1301 entitled as the Prince of Wales. Until 1292, a huge sum of 12,000 pounds was spent on the work at the castle.
In 1294, the Welsh uprising of Madog ap Llywelyn broke out. Because Caernarfon was the most important center in Gwynedd and a symbol of English power, it became one of the targets of the rebels. The forces of Madog took over the town in September 1294, also an unfinished castle with temporary timber fortifications was conquered. In the summer of 1295, the English returned to Caernarfon and began to rebuild, but the town walls were a priority. The works were supervised by the Edward I chief architect, James of Saint George, next the construction supervision was taken by the mason master Walter from Hereford. By the end of 1301, another 4.5 thousand pounds were spent, this time concentrating on the northern part of the castle. Walter died in 1309, and his master of the masonry position was taken over by a direct subordinate, Henry Ellerton. The construction was continued until 1330, spending a total of 20,000 to 25,000 pounds for the castle and town walls. This sum was huge and it overshadowed expenses on such large castles as in Dover or Château Gaillard. Despite this, many of the plans have never been implemented. The inner sides of the King’s Gate and the Queen’s Gate remained unfinished, as did the inner buildings in the wards of the castle.
Over the next two centuries, the castle was permanently garrisoned, and Caernarfon was considered the capital of North Wales. Tensions between the Welsh and English conquerors led to the outbreak of Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising in the years 1400-1415. The town and the castle were besieged in 1401, and in November of the same year, the unresolved Battle of Tuthill took place nearby. In 1403 and 1404, Caernarfon was again besieged by the Welsh army, with the support of the French forces, but the fortifications of the castle and the town were able to fight off the attackers. At that time, the English garrison of the castle supposedly had about thirty people.
The accession of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne in 1485 initiated a change in the way in which Wales was treated. The Tudors were of Welsh descent, and their governments soften hostility between the Welshmen and the English. As a result, the role of the Caernarfon castle was weakened and it fell into neglect. At the beginning of the 17th century, most of the towers and rooms was devoid of roofing, and all of the more valuable pieces of equipment were stolen. Despite the damages, the defensive elements were so good that during the English Civil War the castle was garrisoned by royalists. Caernarfon was besieged three times during the war. In 1646, the castle constable was John Byron, who surrendered the stronghold to the forces of the Parliament. It was the last military event related to the castle. Although in 1660 it was ordered to slighting together with the town walls, the work was, fortunately, interrupted, and perhaps it never even began. Despite the survival, the state of the building deteriorated gradually until the 19th century. It was not until the 70s of the 19th century, that government-funded repairs began. The works were supervised by Llewellyn Turner, who in a few cases was controversially rebuilding the castle, instead of preserving its existing stonework. The stairs, battlements and roofs have been renovated, and the moat north of the castle has been cleared of post medieval buildings.
The plan of the castle of Edward I was largely dictated by the terrain, including the incorporation of a mound (motte) from an earlier Norman building. In the end, a narrow construction in the shape similar to the eight was erected, which was divided into two parts: the lower ward in the west and the upper ward in the east. The division was to be confirmed by a number of internal buildings, but they were never completed.
The defensive walls were reinforced with seven polygonal, main towers and two smaller ones, from which flanking was possible. Their tops were crowned with a battlement with a arrowslits in every second merlon. Most of the northern towers had three floors and basements. The most powerful of these was the Eagle Tower on the west side, crowned with three turrets that once possessed statues of eagles. The tower contained large rooms and was probably built for Sir Otton de Grandson, the first Justiciar of North Wales. To the east of it was built the Well Tower, in which, as the name suggests, there was a 15 meter deep well. At the basement level, it had a water gate through which supplies to the castle could be delivered. Further to the east are the foundations of the kitchen, and then a powerful, but never completed, King’s Gate leading to the town. It was a typical building then, with a passage between two connected towers. Its eastern side is flanked by the Granary Tower, behind which the north-eastern tower stood. As the only one it was two-storey. To the south of it, in the curtain wall was placed a small watchtower, and then the Queen’s Gate, from which, after the high drawbridge, you could get out directly to the suburban areas. It is located on a small hill, which is a remnant of the eleventh-century mound of the first Norman castle. In the south-eastern part, a smaller Cistern Tower was erected. It had a stone tank carved for rainwater. To the west of it, was built the Black Tower, and the defense of the southern, middle section was provided by the Chamberlain Tower, crowned with a reconstructed turret and having the only preserved chimney. To the west of it there is the Queen’s Tower, also topped with a turret. In the Middle Ages it was called the Banner’s Tower.
While the defensive wall and towers survived largely unaffected, all buildings inside the castle were destroyed or never completed. The royal residences were to be located in the upper ward, the lower one housed utility rooms, including kitchens and the Great Hall. It adjoined the southern face of the defensive wall and was 30.5 meters long. The great halls were places for meetings, deliberations, hosting guests and feasts. If Caernarfon was completed as planned, it would be able to accommodate several hundred people.
The castle at Caernarfon differs from other Edwardian castles in Wales, thanks to the use of multi-colored stones laid in strips, and polygonal not cylindrical towers. Some scientists suspect that this is a ideological reference to the walls of Constantinople. A conscious reference to the power of the Byzantine Empire was to testify to the strength and authority of the founder of the castle.
The Caernarfon Castle is one of the best preserved medieval strongholds, not only in Wales but in the whole of Europe. Currently, the castle is under the care of the Cadw government agenda, responsible for the preservation and care of historic buildings in Wales. In 1986, Caernarfon was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List under the “Castles and city walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” in recognition of its importance. Unfortunately, the castle in 2015 met with misery in the form of a new glass pavilion in the ward, which disfigures historic walls. The castle houses the Museum of the Royal Fusilier Regiment.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Taylor A. J., The Welsh castles of Edward I, London 1986.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Caernarfon Castle.