Castle of the Week 65 – Caernarfon Castle

For sheer majestic elegance, Caernarfon Castle is hard to beat. Regarded as ‘the fairest that mortal had ever seen’ from an old Welsh tale, it was designed to be the seat of power and government in Edward I’s campaign to conquer Wales.

Caernarfon owes its existence to a fascinating, yet bloody and turbulent period of history. It marked a change in castle building design, and combined with the likes of Harlech, Conway, Rhuddlan and Beaumaris, we embark upon a string of castles that were not only the means to control the Welsh, but were state of the art for their time. Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks) reign lasted from 1272 to his death in 1307, and during this period ordered the construction of some of the finest pieces of architecture ever seen in the United Kingdom. So, the questions should be asked: what drove Edward to build Caernarfon? What makes Caernarfon such a special place in terms of castle design?

Historically, the site on the northern banks of the Seiont River, which flows into the Menai Strait, has long been regarded as strategically important. A Roman fort (80A.D.) and a motte and bailey castle were built here previously, the latter around 1090 by Hugh of Avranches, believed to have accompanied William in his conquest of Britain in 1066. Archaeological evidence suggests that part of the motte exists within the modern Caernarfon today. It lies 8 miles south-west of Bangor and close to the Isle of Anglesey, known as the ‘garden of Wales’ during Edward’s time, providing agriculturally fertile land to the relatively unfertile North Wales and western shores. Control of this land would give Edward a massive boost in supplying the likes of Harlech and Aberystwyth with goods and provisions.

The Background to war

When Edward I ascended the throne on 20th November 1272, Wales was an independent and separate country to England. Although split into petty kingdoms, the rulers of Gwynedd in North Wales gradually asserted control over their southern neighbours and saw the beginnings of unification under one man: Llwelyn ap Gruffudd. He saw himself as overall ruler of Wales and over time, anti-English feeling heightened as the English were chased out of the country.

It wasn’t too long into Edward’s reign before he found himself at war with Wales, although largely due to the incompetence of his father, Henry III. Llwelyn was bestowed with the title Prince of Wales after the English lost some of their territories through fighting, and although Henry acknowledged Llewlyn’s territorial gains, those lords who lost land did not. The final straw for Llwelyn could have been the building of Caerphilly Castle by the Earl of Gloucester, one such lord who disputed the Welsh claims to territory, and built right in Llwelyn’s back yard. Edward did not take sides in the dispute, as Llwelyn owed him a substantial amount of money following Edward’s crusade, money he could do without losing. Edward did demand that Llwelyn attend his coronation, but this was snubbed, despite repeated attempts by Edward to force him. Indeed, Edward brought his court to Chester Castle, close to the borders of Wales and England, yet Llwelyn still refused to show. Edward’s temper finally snapped and on 12th November 1276, at Westminster, he declared Llwelyn a rebel, a quarrel to be settled by war.

Building work at Caernarfon commenced in May 1283, within days of the arrival of Edward and his army. Whilst the castle would not have the might of the likes of Harlech and Rhuddlan, it was to be a symbol of conquest and new government in Wales. Not only that, but it was Edward’s plan to create a nucleus in this area, a self-sufficient settlement that would provide Edward with goods imported from Europe, but the vision of a civilised society was to subdue and offer moral fibre to the natives. This led to a walled town at Caernarfon (large parts of the walled town remain today). In what could be an act of revenge and a clear message to Llwelyn, the existing Welsh fortification here was levelled, and the castle built directly on top.

The Jewel in Edward’s plan

There are many features to the castle that are both striking and fascinating, none more so than the banded appearance of the stone which looks remarkably like the walls of Constantinople. Edward was impressed by the structure of these walls in his involvement during the Eighth Crusade (1270-1272). To achieve this, he used limestone from quarries in Anglesey, interspersed with brown sandstone from Menai. Upper and lower shooting galleries were built in the South Wall, giving Caernarfon the ability to shower would-be attackers with arrows from three levels and across several angles at once. The King’s Gate was perhaps the most elaborate and, frankly, over the top element of building work in the design, despite the fact that it was never finished. Five drawbridges and no fewer than six portcullises were planned. The castle really didn’t need that many, one would suffice and two would surely calm the fears of even the most nervous inhabitants. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to take into account the number of murder holes, spy holes and arrow loops. Yet this was a reflection of Caernarfon’s real role, to impress and impose rather than to defend. This is not to say that Caernarfon was a weak castle, for it’s defences were formidable.

Edward employed the services of Master James of St Georges, an experienced and highly regarded mason, to design and build the mighty castle. The irregular appearance reflects the way the walls follow the contours of the underlying rock, similar to Conway but in stark contrast to the likes of Beaumaris which was built on marshland. Yet despite some sophisticated features, Caernarfon remains a simple enclosure with a curtain wall. It does, however, provide a fine example of the move away from the tall towers, or keeps, from earlier castle designs. Built near tidal water ensured it was able to be re-supplied with goods, provisions and troops if need be.

The building work took on two phases. Initially the plan was to ensure the site was defensible, and as a result work on the North Wall wasn’t started. The town walls were complete though, which included towers along its length, and it was this that was to protect the castle. The town itself was intended to portray a model of decency to the Welsh, but they weren’t permitted to live within the town walls. They were, in fact, encouraged to trade, to buy and sell goods, with laws that made it illegal to trade anywhere else. It seems that this was a position the English could not lose with. Yet the Welsh came to hate these towns, the castles, including Caernarfon, a symbol of a conquered nation. And in 1294, they rose again.

What followed was easily regarded as a true national rebellion. Edward’s castles at Harlech, Conway and Caernarfon were all targeted. At Caernarfon, the Welsh scored a major victory, burning parts of the castle, defacing the fabric and destroying parts of the town wall. The town itself was overrun, and Edward, at the time preparing to engage the French in war, was furious. The war with France would have to wait, and he diverted his troops to face the Welsh once more. In some ways, Edward was more than ready, having his troops already equipped. What followed was probably the largest deployment of troops in Wales so far, with some 35,000 men given their orders. The battle that followed was a close affair after the English supply lines were broken and 16,000 men under direct orders of Edward himself faced starvation and disease at Conway. Yet the economic power of England enabled this potentially embarrassing situation to be remedied. When cut off from the land supply line, Edward was able to ship in supplies to feed his men, a result of Conway being built next to the sea and therefore able to re-supply in times such as this.

Caernarfon was repaired and the North Wall built by 1330. Edward spent a total of £25,000 over a period close to fifty years on his beloved castle. It remains unique, though partly incomplete, Edward’s dream never fully realised. He died, aged 68, after a period of illness whilst fighting the Scots rebellion.

Write-up by Sulis.