Caernarfon – town defensive walls


   Before the English town of Caernarfon was built, the area was occupied by the Romans, who built a fort Segontium, and later by the Normans and the Welsh princes. In 1282 king Edward I for the second time during his reign invaded northern Wales, pushing opponents west of Montgomery and Chester. In 1283, the English king secured Caernarfon and the surrounding area and decided that it would become the center of the new county and the capital of the subordinate principality of North Wales, with a new castle and a walled town. The construction of the new, fortified center was partly a symbolic act, demonstrating the English power.
Town walls were built in the years 1283-1292 under the supervision of master James of Saint George, the chief architect of Edward in North Wales. To build them, huge numbers of workers were mobilized throughout England. They were gathered in Chester and then transported to Wales for every summer construction season. Work on the walls has progressed quickly, although at uneven stages. The cost of urban fortifications was about 3,500 pounds, which was a very large sum at that time.

   The baptism of fire of the town’s fortifications passed in 1294 during the Welsh uprising of Madog ap Llywelyn, which broke out due to the actions of the English administration, and in particular after the imposition of taxes, including one fifteenth of all movable property. The rebellion had been planned for months and attacks were to be launched on the same day across Wales. The rebel leaders hoped that at the end of September King Edward and most of his forces would be in France as part of the planned campaign, but due to bad weather, Edward’s army did not sail, and the ruler canceled the French campaign to deal with the Welsh uprising first. Caernarfon was one of the first English centers to be captured and burned, but a year later an English counteroffensive recaptured the town and the still unfinished castle. The damages were repaired immediately (the rebuilding of the town walls took 12 months and cost a £ 1000), while the insurgent forces were crushed on March 5 in the Battle of Maes Moydog. Although Madog managed to escape alive, he was captured after a few months and put in a London prison.
The new town was inhabited by English settlers, especially from the nearby Cheshire and Lancashire counties, and the town walls were partly intended to encourage immigrants and royal officials to settle in a safe place, but the urban population was not too high throughout the 14th century. However having fortifications came in handy in 1400, when Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to use a princely title, rebelled against English rule. Despite attempts to capture Caernarfon in 1403 and 1404, the townspeople repelled the attacks and saved their belongings. Only the ascension to the English throne of the Tudor dynasty brought the calming of the situation between the two nations. It changed the way Wales was managed. The Tudors were also of Welsh origin, which reduced the hostility between the two nations and the need to maintain the fortifications of the castle and the town. Eventually, since 1507 inside the town walls of Caernarfon, the Welsh were also allowed to live.
In the nineteenth century, the town of Caernarfon has grown considerably, some of the towers have been converted into administrative buildings, and rooms for offices were set up in the gatehouses. Small fragments were also demolished for the purpose of providing street traffic. As a result of the extension, many fragments of fortifications have been covered by houses and various annexes. It was only in the twentieth century that they were bought by the government and demolished.


   The town walls were built on a hexagon plan, the southern part of which was a castle. On the western side, the wall had a slight bend, the major bend was on the eastern side. The length of the fortifications was 734 meters and wall covered 4.18 hectares of the town’s area (approx. 250 x 200 meters). Like the castle, they were mostly made of limestone. The wall, like the towers, was crowned with a battlement with arrowslits and a wall-walk for defenders created entirely on the stone offset, without the need for wooden porches. A stone stairs led to it, added near each of the towers.
The defensive wall was reinforced with seven semi-circular towers, open from the town side and one cylindrical, closed, in the north-west corner. The towers were originally equipped with removable, wooden bridges to enable the wall fragments to be cut off from the attackers. They were fully extended in front of the face of the defensive walls, with good conditions for side firing of the threatened curtains. They were topped with battlement and an open, not roofed combat storey, access to which led through stone stairs from the level of the wall-walk of the walls’ curtains.
Two gates led to the town: the western one called Golden or Water Gate and the eastern one called the Great or Exchequer Gate. Both consisted of double, half-round towers protecting the passage between them. Originally it were closed with portcullis and doors, the eastern gate was additionally secured with a drawbridge and a battlemented foregate. The eastern gate has been housing rooms for officials since its inception. First, the royal exchequer room was arranged there, later, in early modern times the town hall and then the guild house. In front of foregate, at which fees were charged to merchants, a stone, five-span bridge was placed over the river in 1301. In addition, in the south-eastern part of the perimeter, in the curtain between the North-East Tower of the castle and the town tower, there was a smaller wicket called Green. The second postern gate, until the church was built, functioned on the north-west side, later its portal was built into the nave of the temple. The third postern gate was at the castle on the south-west side of the town walls. Probably originally it was supposed to be a more developed water gate, used to supply the castle directly by boats through the wickets in the Well and Eagle towers.
In the north-west corner of the walls was built the 14th-century church of St. Mary, who used the corner, round tower in the walls, as the sacristy and the house of the vicar. This tower was 9 meters in diameter. On the lower floor, it housed a sacristy, and on the upper floor, a living room heated by a fireplace.
The outer zone of defense was a dry moat from the north and east. Additional protection was the Menai Strait from the west and the Cadnant River from the north and east. The south was secured by the royal castle. A waterfront (quay) was created in front of the defensive walls on the west side, originally timber, but after burning in 1294, it was rebuilt with stone at the beginning of the 14th century.

Current state

   The medieval fortifications of Caernarfon are currently one of the best preserved, not only in Wales but throughout Europe. The defensive circuit survived practically at the entire length, only the crowning of some towers, gates and walls has not survived. Because of great value, fortifications were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

show northern part of the fortifications on map

show eastern part of the fortifications on map

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Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Salter M., Medieval walled towns, Malvern 2013.
Taylor A. J., Caernarfon Castle, Cardiff 2004.

Website, Caernarfon town walls.