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Might and majesty – Caernarfon’s fortress-palace

Posted in Caernarfon, Wales by folkestonejack on March 25, 2016

The magnificent castles of Edward I in Wales have long been on a list of home attractions that I have wanted to explore, but for one reason or another it has taken me a while to get around to climbing aboard a train to North Wales. First on the list was Caernarfon Castle, a supremely expensive fortress designed to impose itself on the landscape and signify the power of English rule.

The Eagle Tower

The Eagle Tower

Stepping through the threshold of Caernarfon Castle for the first time you can’t help but be struck by the bold statement of strength infused with grandeur that James of St George, the military architect of his age, conjured up here.

It really is quite unrivalled in Wales and in a select group of the most impressive fortress castles in the UK, though there are no palatial interiors to wow here – only the foundations survive of what must once have been a splendid Great Hall. Although intended to accommodate the great medieval household of the king’s eldest son the castle actually ended up as little more than an arnament and building maintenance depot in the fourteenth century.

The overall look of the castle was intended to tap into the legend of the usurper Roman emperor, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), who ruled Gaul, Britain and Spain from 383 until his capture and execution in 388. This might have been the moment he faded from history but instead he turned into a figure of celtic legend in the Mabinogion. The dreams of Macsen include sight of a great castle on the coast, a vision cleverly adopted by Edward I in the construction of a castle with curtain walls with coloured bands that evoke the walls of Roman Constantinople.

On top of the mythological associations, the status of Caernarfon was further cemented upon the birth of the future Edward II at the castle on 25th January 1284 and the subsequent bestowal of the title of Prince of Wales upon him in 1301. Later histories say that Edward I presented his son as a prince ‘borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English’ which seems a little unlikely, though he certainly gave his son the rule and revenue of the Crown’s Welsh territory.

Since 1301 it has become tradition for the eldest son of the reigning monarch to be given the title of Prince of Wales. A display in the Eagle Tower includes the original thrones used in the investiture ceremonies at Caernarfon for the Prince of Wales in 1911 and 1969. In a corner of the ground floor space a TV set plays the footage of Prince Charles at Caernarfon on an endless loop.

A view of the interior of Caernarfon Castle from outside the Eagle Tower

The upper and lower wards from the Eagle Tower

Construction work on the Caernarfon Castle we know today began in the summer of 1283, in the immediate aftermath of Edward’s victory in the second war of Welsh independence (1282-83), but came under attack during a rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn in September 1294.

If nothing else, the revolt had illustrated the need for the fortresses in North Wales to secure Edward’s newly conquered territories and this now drove the project forward with an increased sense of insecurity. The heavy damage prompted a redoubling of building works with more elaborate defensive measures, though many of the plans still remained unrealised by the time works effectively finished in 1330.

Caernarfon Castle from across the Seiont

Caernarfon Castle from across the Seiont

It is a pleasure to wander the walls, though the place is something of a labyrinth. At one point I got separated from my travelling companion and when we finally emerged we found ourselves on the same stretch of wall but on different levels. On a number of occasions we found ourselves encountering other families that had tried going in every direction but couldn’t find the route that took them forward on the wall walk. Inevitably, it was easy to find the dead end passageways though! A bit of a head scratcher at times given how simple it seems from ground level.

If you have the energy you can climb up any number of towers on your wall walk, though a couple was quite enough for me. The most impressive of the towers is the triple turreted Eagle Tower, which most probably contained the chambers of Edward I’s lieutenant in North Wales. The name comes from the heavily weathered eagle that can be seen on the western turret, along with a selection of equally weathered helmeted heads.

Caernarfon Castle kept us entertained for around two and a half hours. Besides wandering around the walls there is a dramatic audio-visual presentation on a loop, an exhibition about the players in Edward I’s world and a fascinating museum about the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (keep an eye out for the displays about the post of Goat Major and the tattered remnants of the much shot through colours that the regiment carried in the Crimean war). I think that is pretty good value for an adult admission fee of £7.95 (a cost covered for us by our English Heritage cards).

There is more to see in Caernarfon, including the town walls and the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways but for us the visit to the castle filled a half day perfectly. We rounded off our day with a lovely taste of Welsh hospitality at the wonderful Bell Tower Cafe (a family run business established in 1958) in Hole in the Wall Street before setting off on our journey to our base at Bangor.

Bangor is not the most obvious place to stay, not being remotely touristy, but it has the benefit of being roughly equidistant between three of Edward’s castles that we had hoped to visit – Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy. All of these are easily reached by bus. Our accommodation, at The Management Centre, within Bangor University is a little quirky but perfect for our needs.

The next stop on our medieval castle trail will be Conwy Castle, although the forecast does not look all that promising. The very real threat of torrential rain and storms has already forced us to drop plans to visit Edward’s unfinished last castle at Beaumaris (with its demonstration of perfect concentric symmetry) but I am determined to see Conwy Castle whatever comes our way…