My trip to Caernarfon

Good afternoon everyone! Following on from yesterdays Anglesey antics, I spent the day today at Caernarfon, the centre of Edward I’s castles-of-Wales complex. And what a castle it is! I haven’t really visited this place in six years, so was quite overawed!

The modern town of Caernarfon sits directly on the banks of the Menai Strait in a location that is positively brimming with legend. Settle down, for I’m going to tell you a story…

Macsen Wledig – perhaps better known by his Latin name Magnus Maximus, a later Emperor of Rome – had a dream of a beautiful maiden in a distant land. When he awoke, he sent his men to scour the world for her, and she was eventually found in Segontium, just outside modern Caernarfon. Macsen is so overjoyed that the maiden, whose name is Elen, loved him in return that he made her father king of all Britain. However, in Macsen’s absence, a new Emperor seized power. Macsen, with an army led by Elen’s brother Conan, marched back to Rome and regained his throne, and in gratitude he gave Conan land in Gaul, modern-day Brittany. As for Elen, she became a Saint, often credited with road-building across Britain.

What a lovely tale! Well, at any rate, the story – together with the remains of the Roman fortress at Segontium – proved to be a very evocative symbol of the status associated with the site. While the Normans had built a motte-and-bailey castle here, it had been in Welsh control since the early twelfth century. There is some documentary evidence that the Princes of Wales, while more comfortable at their llys than a castle, also spent time here.

As mentioned in my Beaumaris blog, Edward I was very big on symbolism. Well, the whole medieval world was to a large extent – that’s why heraldry was invented. But anyway. A site associated with the Emperors of ancient Rome, as well as rich in the native Welsh tradition, he didn’t waste any time in making it the administrative and judicial centre of English Wales following the successful subjugation of the Welsh in 1283.

The whole history of the Edwardian Conquest is absolutely fascinating, and one that deserves its own blog, really. So for now I’ll just stick to Caernarfon. Work began around 24 June 1283, with the king and queen arriving the following month. By the following year, it is believed that the massive Eagle Tower had been completed to at least first-floor level.

Caernarfon Castle

The castle was planned and built alongside the neighbouring town, and by 1285 the town walls were largely complete.

Work on the castle continued throughout subsequent building seasons, and surviving documents indicate that expense was almost seen as no object. By 1288, however, expense dropped off noticeably, until 1292, where it ceased. The guidebook tells us that the entire project up to this time cost £12,000 – over £11m in today’s prices. However, by this time the town-facing side of the castle hadn’t really been built properly, largely because it was defended by the town itself.

However, in 1294, rebellion broke out. By the Statute of Rhuddlan issued a decade earlier, Caernarfon had been made the centre of English government. As such, it was the prime target for the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn. Records relate how the walls were ‘thrown down’ and the castle building site was torched. The English response was brutal, and work began immediately on re-fortifying the town – expense accounts suggest that half the town walls had indeed been demolished in the attack.

Building continued apace for the rest of the century, with the distinctive horizontal banding in the curtain walls that was a deliberate echo of the walls of Roman Constantinople. Edward turned his attention to Scotland as the fourteenth century dawned, and work on all of his Welsh projects stalled until the victory at Stirling in 1304.

In 1316, the timber hall from Conwy, known vaguely as the ‘Prince’s Hall’, was dismantled and brought here, where it was reassembled at the Great Hall within the castle (seen as foundations on the right, above). Another gesture pregnant with symbolism – the hall was the traditional centre of a stronghold and the place where the king dispensed his justice. By bringing Llywelyn’s hall to Caernarfon, Edward made his new castle the seat of justice for Wales as well as making it impossible for the Welsh to rule themselves anymore.

By 1330, it seems that the fabric of the castle and the town was largely complete, to the extent that it stands today. Total expenditure is given by Cadw as no more than £25,000 – over £23.5m in modern terms. For the next two hundred years, Caernarfon Castle continued to be the administrative centre for Wales, and the town was off-limits to the native Welsh.

According to legend, following the defeat of Llywelyn at Cilmeri in 1282, Edward I attempted to pacify the Welsh resistance that had continued by offering the natives a prince ‘borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English’, before showing his newborn son Edward to the assembled crowds at the castle in April 1284. Well, whether that scene actually happened or not, Edward did indeed bestow the title of Prince of Wales upon his son and heir in 1301, as well as the earldom of Chester.

Edward I confers the title of Prince of Wales upon his son
Edward I confers the title of Prince of Wales upon his son

Since then, the eldest son and heir of the reigning monarch has been declared Prince of Wales, though of course, with some exceptions. Edward II did not declare his son, the future Edward III, as Prince of Wales; when George II’s son Frederick died after a tennis injury he made Frederick’s son George the Prince. Also of note, Richard of York had himself made Prince of Wales in 1460 in order to secure his succession to the incapacitated Henry VI. It wasn’t until 1911, however, that a ceremony at Caernarfon was instituted, when George V made his son Edward the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Again in 1969, Elizabeth II invested her heir Charles as Prince of Wales, at the famous televised event for which the slate dais was installed in the upper ward. The castle has an exhibition of the Princes of Wales, including the specially-made throne and stool for the occasion:

Caernarfon Castle

So there you have it! Caernarfon Castle in all its imperial pomp and splendour! It really is a fantastic castle, the photos in this blog really don’t do justice to the scale of the place. I was particularly surprised at how easy it is to get lost within the wall passages, though that may say more about my sense of direction than anything else. Perhaps more than any other castle in Wales, it still gives the impression of might that it was originally designed for. Go on, go visit it!

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