Caernarfon Castle is the most impressive of all the castles built by Edward I and is one of the worlds great medieval fortresses.
Set on the banks of the Menai Strait and at the heart of North Wales, Caernarfon became the English administrative centre.
Robinson and Thomas (qv) say that "... King Edward seems to have gone to considerable lengths to give substance to the tradition linking Caernarfon with imperial Rome. The king must have known that the Roman fort of Segontium, lying just above the modern town, was inseperably associated in legend with Magnus Maximus, the usurper emperor. Maximus appears as the Macsen Wledig of the Mabinogion, and it is Segontium which provides the background to his dream of journeying from Rome into a land of high mountains facing an island. There he saw a great city with towers of many colours and eagles fashioned out of gold. This was done at Caernarfon, the walls were given a prominent patterning with bands of differently coloured stone. The towers were constructed in an angular fashion.
Caernarfon Castle is architecturally one of the most impressive of all of the castles in the world.
It's defensive capabilities were not as powerful as those of Edward I's other castles such as Harlech and Beaumaris but Caernarfon was instead intended as a seat of power - and as a symbol of English dominance over the Welsh.
Caernarfon Castle is located at the southern end of the Menai Strait between North Wales and Ynys Môn, nine miles south west of Bangor. During Edward I's invasions of Wales, this was strategically a great place to build a castle.
Ynys Môn was referred to as the garden of Wales, providing agriculturally rich land close to the poorer land on North Wales. The Menai Strait also allowed speedy access between the North Welsh coast and the western coast, and was therefore important for Edward to control for supplying outposts such as Harlech.
As with all of the castles of Edward's Iron Ring, Caernarfon was built on the shoreline, supplies came by sea due to the Welsh prowess in convoy ambush over land. At Caernarfon Castle, Edward also built a town, destroying the original Welsh settlement . Therefore as the entirety of the new settlement was English.
Caernarfon Castle and town demonstrably has two main building periods. The first is that of 1283-92, and the second is dated to 1294-1330.
Material for the castle, town, walls, gates, and important quay were by sea. All of the initial building took place as a single operation, started in 1283. The first recorded entry of work was on the new castle's ditch, separating the castle from fortified town.
Next, as with most castles built in enemy territory, a wooden barricade was erected to defend the building works from attack. Timber was shipped in from Liverpool, Rhuddlan, and Conway, and work began to cut the moat - this also supplied the rock for the walls (which were twenty foot thick at their base). The Welsh township was also demolished at this time. The only tower of the castle completed during the first phase of building was the Eagle Tower; the main priority was to make the site defensible, before later adding the impressive architecture of dominion's new capital. Work continued swiftly and the castle and town walls were completed by 1285. The architect for the first building phase was Master James of St George - a renowned and gifted castle architect - and from 1283-92, £12,000 had been spent.
At the end of the first building phase, the north wall of the castle didn't have a wall, and was instead defended by the town walls and a wide rock cut ditch. Madog ap Llywelyn over-ran the castle through this ditch in his revolt of 1294, and succeeded in burning part of the castle and damaging the town walls. The English retook the castle next summer, orders were given to make the castle defendable again by 1295. The town walls and castle were repaired, and the north wall of the castle was finally added, including the King's Gate. By 1330, the building payments ceased and the castle stood with similar looks as it does today. Overall, the expenditure on Edward I's best castle had been £25,000 over 50 years.
Caernarfon was defended in two parts - the castle itself, and the town walls. Edward's strongest castles were concentric, providing the best defensive possible, but the use of castle and town walls provided up to two lines of defence, with the benefit of an ostentatious appearance - essential when considering Caernarfon's intended purpose. However, it should not be assumed that Caernarfon was a weak castle - it's completed defences were formidable.
The castle itself had two gateways defended by very strong gatehouses; it also had seven towers lining it's walls. The north wall was initially absent, being defended by a ditch and the town itself; the second building phase saw this wall added, completed by the King's Gate.
The King's Gate was never fully finished but was immensely strong - it was twin towered, and had been intended to have a drawbridge, five doors, six portcullises, and a right angled turn (rendering attackers' shields useless as they turned the corner) from the main gatehouse into a smaller ward over a second drawbridge... and that doesn't even begin to consider the arrangement of murder holes, arrow loops and spy holes.
The defences at the Queen's Gate were not as good as those at the other gateway; it was also never completed. The gate was defended by twin towers, but could only be reached up the stone ramp from ground level to the summit of the earlier motte, on top of which the Queen's Gate was originally built. This made it far less vulnerable to attack, but even so, the gate was defended by two drawbridges and five murder holes. The final, and major, part of Caernarfon's defences were the town walls. This was an 800 yard circuit with eight towers and two twin towered gateways. The towers were situated 70 yards apart, the southern end of the circuit was blocked by the castle walls.
The town walls were entirely surrounded by water filled moats, and the Rivers Cadnant and Seiont, and of course, the Menai Strait. The East Gate was the principal entrance - defended by a drawbridge, crenulated gateway, and two towers. The West Gate also had two towers, in addition to a barbican and portcullis; it faced out onto the Menai Strait.
Most impressive of all is the Eagle Tower crowned by its triple cluster of turrets. In the 13th century this was almost certainly the residential quarters of Sir Otto de Grandison, King Edward's first Justiciar of North Wales. Everything about it is on a regal scale, each of the turrets bearing a stone eagle as further symbolic evidence of the links with imperial power. In addition to the accommodation here, the Queen's Tower is almost as large, and there must have been many more private suites in the Chamberlain, North-East, Granary and Well Towers.
As the centre for a new seat of government, Caernarfon was clearly marked out for a special role. This was undoubtedly enhanced by the birth, within its precincts, of the first English Prince of Wales. The king's son, Edward was born in 1284 and henceforward the castle must have been seen as the palace of a new dynasty of princes. With this in mind, the majestic architecture, together with the extent and quality of accommodation, falls into perspective. Ironically, the castle seldom if ever fulfilled the elevated role planned for it. As an adult, Prince Edward (later Edward II) never returned to its walls, and by the mid 14th century it had become little more than a depot for the armament of the other North Wales castles.
It continued to be maintained and garrisoned, and successfully withstood sieges by the forces of Owain Glyndwr in 1403 and 1404. During the Civil War, Caernarfon finally surrendered to Parliamentary forces in 1646. Centuries of neglect were halted by repairs undertaken in the late 19th century and, in 1911, it was the scene of the Investiture of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales.
Today, a visit to the castle is made yet more interesting by a number of informative exhibitions and displays throughout the towers. In addition, the visitor should not overlook the remains of the town walls. Built at the same time as the castle, they protected the English inhabitants of the infant borough established by King Edward.