Caernarfon Castle sits in a commanding position at the mouth of the River Seiont overlooking the Menai Strait. Edward I of England intended it to be a powerful, impressive fortress and the seat of his government in Wales, as well as his own official residence in the country.
The first castle at Caernarfon was built by the Marcher Lord Hugh d’Avranches, 1st Earl of Chester in 1088. It was a simple timber motte-and-bailey castle with a wooden palisade. The Welsh overran Gwynedd in 1115 and the castle became one of the residences of the Welsh princes. Documents show that both Llywelyn the Great and his son Llywelyn ap Gruffudd both stayed here.
The English and Welsh went to war again in 1282. By the middle of 1283 it was over and Edward, having decided to subdue Wales once and for all, began construction at Caernarfon later that year.
The plan for construction was extensive and completely transformed the town of Caernarfon.
James of St George was in charge and his plans included new town walls designed to supplement the castle defences, a grid of streets inside the walls with new housing for English settlers and a new quay as well as the castle.
In 1284 Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle during a visit by Edward I and his queen. Tradition holds that he was born in the Eagle Tower, but it’s unclear whether the tower would have been complete enough for that to be true. Edward II was the first heir apparent to the British throne to be created Prince of Wales.
By 1288 the town walls were mostly complete as was the southern side of the castle. Expenditure had slowed down as the Welsh threat diminished and had stopped by 1292 when the southern extent was completed.
In 1294 Madog ap Llywelyn led a rebellion against the English. Caernarfon Castle was targeted and Welsh forces took the town that September. They killed the constable and set fire to the town causing extensive damage.
Edward’s forces retook the castle in late 1295 and re-started construction in earnest. He put Walter of Hereford in charge, James of St George having moved to nearby Beaumaris Castle in the spring.
Walter, and his successor Henry of Ellerton, oversaw the construction of the northern part of the castle including the King’s Gate, Granary Tower and the Well Tower (which was never quite completed and only gained its watch turret during late Victorian times).
The Eagle Tower overlooks the quay at the west end of the castle. It gets its name from the, now much decayed, stone eagles which crown its three turrets. It is four storeys high and has apartments for the castle’s constable and king’s justiciar. It would have functioned as the castle’s keep and, indeed has its own postern leading to a ground floor storeroom. It is right next to a walled dock that could keep it supplied with provisions.
The Queen’s Tower is almost as big as the Eagle Tower and would undoubtedly have been appointed to hold an important dignitary.
All the towers were designed to house officials. So they all contain a large number of fireplaces, small bedchambers, chapels and latrines. The King’s Gate was planned to be the main keep and primary gatehouse, but it was never completed. Even so it has extensive living rooms and its own chapel.
Under the gatehouse the main entrance to the castle is defended by a drawbridge, three portcullises and a pair of gates. The chapel above also has large murder holes in its floor which allows the defenders to drop things into the passageway.
The first phase of building was uncompromisingly military. The southern front was probably inspired by the imperial walls of Constantinople. The unusual polygonal towers and coloured bands of masonry mirror that great fortification. The southern walls also have no windows, just numerous arrows slits and thick masonry.
The next major event at Caernarfon Castle was the Glyndwr Rising in the early 15th Century under Owain Glyndwr. The English King’s seat of power in Wales was a natural target and Caernarfon was besieged from around 1401 to 1404.
At the height of the uprising in 1403 the castle held out for months against two sustained attacks by Welsh and French forces with a garrison of just 37 archers.
In the late 15th Century tensions in Wales were easing and the need for strong fortifications like Caernarfon was diminishing. In the 16th Century the castle was neglected and many of its domestic building were raided for valuable building materials.
During the English Civil War the castle was garrisoned again, this time by Royalist forces. The castle and town changed hands three times without much of a fight.
In 1660 Caernarfon Castle was scheduled for slighting; a fate that it somehow escaped. It was allowed to fall into disrepair until the mid 1870s.
In the early 20th Century it came into the care of the Office of Works, later Cadw, which took over the preservation and repair of the castle. The castle has always been the property of the Crown however.
Historically very few of the Princes of Wales have had anything to do with Caernarfon. However in 1911 a new tradition started whereby Caernarfon would be the site used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales. The most recent ceremony took place on July 1st 1969 for HRH Charles, Prince of Wales.
Caernarfon Castle is open all year round and it’s an exciting castle to visit. Its site and size mean that there are lots of spiral staircases, wall-walks, galleries and passageways to explore. Cadw also runs a range of events and exhibitions here throughout the year.
Other facilities at the castle include a gift shop, car parking, disabled access and video presentations.
Status: Ruin / Visitor Attraction
Tel: +44 (0) 1286 677617
Opening Times: March to June Daily 9.30am to 6pm, July and August Daily 9.30am to 6pm, September and October Daily 9.30am to 5pm, November to February Daily 10am to 4pm Mon-Sat and 11am to 4pm Sun
The harbour and castle at Caernarfon
The Black Tower