Caernarfon is a large castle with attached fortified town.  A Roman fort was built at Segontium on the hill above the present fortress.  The remains of this are still visible from the castle.  When the fort decayed a stone llys seems to have been constructed nearer the river.  In time this too was replaced when the Normans came in the late 1070s or 1080s.  The walls of this castle are mentioned in a poem of 1157 describing the nearby battle of Tal Moelfre on Anglesey.  A castle at Caernarfon remained in use until the victorious Edward I arrived in 1283 and began the construction of the castle we see today.  The unfinished castle was sacked in 1294 and then rebuilt again.  On Edward's death in 1307 the upper ward of the castle was standing as well as the borough defences.  Edward II completed the bulk of the fortress and his statue from 1321 still dominates the remains of the great gate to the east.  During Glyndwr's war the castle was attacked twice by Gallo-Welsh forces, but the emaciated garrison held them off.  During the civil war the castle proved its worth, but eventually surrendered and was subsequently demilitarised and abandoned.  It was later refurbished as the tourist attraction it is now.  A recent tradition has grown up that the walls of Caernarfon are based on those of Constantinople due to a medieval Welsh legend that links the two together.

The castle is entered via the main great gate with its statue of Edward II.  This powerful structure is heavily defended and internally the gatepassageway turns 90 degrees to the north into the outer, lower bailey.  This is an unusual design and the masonry decoration of this section strongly suggests that two gatehouses of different ages have been combined.  The inner one quite possibly dates to the age of the Welsh princes.  Within the enceinte the upper ward has four great polygonal towers, two turrets and two twin towered gatehouses with an extra, apparently earlier gatehouse to the lower ward.  The bulk of this is the work of Edward I, though there are several large additions and much of the work is unfinished or demolished internally.  The lower ward, with the impressive well tower and two more even larger towers was largely constructed by Edward II.  Both wards combined are about 500' long by 150' wide.

At the end of the lower ward, the eagle tower carries the remains of three great stone eagles on its summit, the heraldic symbols of Justiciar Grandison, its fourteenth century builder - symbols that have been anachronistically claimed as the heraldic device of Owain Gwynedd (d.1170).  The main buildings of the fourteenth century castle, like the kitchens and great hall, were all in the lower ward.  It is not impossible that the earlier versions from this were destroyed in the smaller upper ward at this time and the remains transported to the lower ward to make the new buildings.  The upper ward could then have been used as the military depot, which the castle became, and the lower, more commodious ward, used as the administrative capital of North Wales.  It is noticeable that wall passages abound within the thick curtain walls and even the walls of the towers.  Another unusual feature are the triple crossbow slits that defend the eastern side of the castle.  Such features are not extant at other castles and must have been of dubious military value.

Why not join me at Caernarfon and other British castles this October?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry