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CAERNARFON CASTLE, CAERNARFON

Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 95318

Map Reference SH46SE

Grid Reference SH4779862668

Unitary (Local) Authority Gwynedd

Old County Caernarfonshire

Community Caernarfon

Type of Site CASTLE

Broad Class DEFENCE

Period Medieval

Site Description Caernarfon castle is an imperious and grand fortress built following the English conquest of Gwynedd in the late thirteenth century. Its banded stone towers famously reference the great walls of Constantinople. This is a play on the visionary 'Dream of Mascen Wledig', a poem celebrating Wales' legendary imperial past. The castle was in decay by the sixteenth century and was abandoned following the Civil War. It was restored and refurbished from the mid nineteenth century.

The castle, together with the walled borough (NPRN 93527), was begun in 1283 and was still incomplete by about 1330 when major work ended. It consists of seven great polygonal towers, two turrets and two great twin towered gates, all joined by massive curtain walls tracing a rough figure of eight. Galleries thread their way through the walls and across the towers. The higher upper ward and Queen's Gate are thought to occupy the earthworks of an earlier castle. At the other end of the castle is the mighty Eagle Tower, crowned by three tall turrets topped by sculptured figures. The grand apartments planned for the castle interior, including a great hall, may never have been built.

Although the castle presents a great display of military might from outside the medieval borough the approach to the great King's Gate (NPRN 302417) follows an indirect line along narrows streets. From this direction the castle appears only in fragments.

From the nineteenth century the castle was extensively restored and the walls and towers renewed. In this way the medieval fortress has become an archetypal castle, a setting for investitures and other grand occasions.

Sources: RCAHMW Caernarvonshire Inventory II (1960), 124-56
Taylor CADW Guide to Caernarfon Castle and Town Wall, fifth edition (2001)

RCAHMW, 6 November 2007.

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The Roman fort of Segontium was established on the outskirts of modern day Caernarfon as part of the campaign to subdue the Ordovices in AD77. This camp is mentioned in the story of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ found in the Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh stories. Following the Norman Conquest, Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, built three castles across the north Wales, including one at Caernarfon, but by 1115 the Welsh had captured Caernarfon Castle alongside the kingdom of Gwynedd.

In 1283, after the conquest of Gwynedd, King Edward I began rebuilding Caernarfon Castle, reshaping it into a visible token of his rule over the newly acquired province. Modelled after the impressive walls of Constantinople, the towers were given a polygonal shape and coloured stones were set into horizontal stripes. To complete Edward’s display of power, stone eagles adorned the parapets of the highest tower in a play on the imperial past of Wales. Edward II was born at Caernarfon Castle in 1284, and Edward I transferred the title ‘Prince of Wales’ to his infant son to establish his dynastic control over Wales.

With the outbreak of the Glyndŵr Rising, the castle and town were repeatedly under siege by Welsh and allied French forces. With the accession of Henry Tudor to the English throne, Caernarfon Castle lost its significance and fell into decay. However, its defences remained in good enough condition to have been of use for the Royalists garrisoned here during the English Civil War. After this brief period of struggle, the castle was abandoned.

During the Romantic period, tourists started arriving in rising numbers as they took particular interest in the ruined, ivy-covered ruins of Wales. As a result, Caernarfon Castle underwent extensive restoration and conservation work in the late nineteenth century. In 1986, Caernarfon was recognised as part of the UNESCO’s Castles and Town Walls of Edward I World Heritage Site together with Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech. Today, Caernarfon Castle is maintained by Cadw.

Record updated as part of the AHRC-funded project 'Journey to the Past: Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany'.
R. Singer (Bangor University) and S. Fielding (RCAHMW), 2017.

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