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Caernarvon, though designed and built by James, and in all military essentials following the same pattern as his other big castles, has superficially a very different appearance. The towers are polygonal rather than round, and there is a very striking patterning of the walls with bands of different colored stone.
Caernarfon was also designed as a fortress. A edifice of stupendous majesty and strength. It was the keystone of Edward I's military strategy in the conquest of North Wales.
Caernarfon remained in royal service as the administrative center of North Wales until well into the seventeenth century.
Caernarfon Castle was intended by Edward I to be symbolic of his conquest and new government of Wales. There had once been a Norman motte castle on the northern edge of the Seiont River where it flows into the Menai Strait, and this had been captured and held by the Welsh for over a century. Edward constructed his new hourglass-plan castle, with high curtain walls, polygonal flanking towers and great twin-towered gatehouses right round that castle.
His symbol had to be novel, vast, majestic and derived in some way from Imperial Rome because he had visited Constantinople when commanding an army on the Eighth Crusade (1270-72) and seen the great wall outside. Even the masonry was made to look like the wall, by dint of using limestone from the Penmon quarries in Anglesey, whose tiers of courses were interleaved every so often with darker brown sandstone courses, from quarries in Menai. But the whole project must have been a great disappointment to him. Begun in 1283, it was never finished. Severe and extensive damage was done in an attack by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294-5. Edward had had to use press-gang methods to get English craftsmen and workers to come to the wilds of north-west Wales to build it, as he could not trust the native Welsh. By 1304 barely half the work had been done.
Despite this, the castle became the grandest of all his structures in Wales, and the sophistication of its defenses still amazes.
Below the battlemented parapet along the south side, upper and lower shooting galleries were constructed, with access to arrow slits in the curtain, which meant that a rain of missiles could be discharged against attackers from three levels and at several angles at once. To enter the lower courtyard by means of the King's Gate, a vast twin-towered fortress in itself, it would have been necessary to go across a drawbridge, through five doors and under six portcullises, turn right, and then across a second drawbridge. This progress would be subject to continual attack from defenders using arrow slits and spy-holes flanking all approaches at various levels, and in the gatehouse vaulting a collection of murder-holes presented yet another obstacle.
Although Caernarfon is one of the most sophisticated castles in all Britain, it is nonetheless a simple enclosure with curtain walls, towers and gatehouses. Its site on tidal waters meant it could be supplied by sea, like Harlech. There is a water-gate access to the huge polygonal Eagle Tower (at the west) with its three projecting turrets above the crenellations. The access led to a basement above which are three stories of a residential kind. The masonry of the whole enclosure was tailored to fit the rock on which the castle was built, which explains its figure-of-eight plan. In the eastern half, a little higher than the west, was the original Norman motte, and this mound explains why the entrance through the Queen's Gate (a twin-polygonal gatehouse) is so high up, at firsts-storey level, reached by a ramp up to a drawbridge leading to it. The gatehouse sits across the slope of the motte, and sloping stonework continues to the left and right of it.
The arrangement of the polygonal towers and gatehouses in the curtain, each one well equipped with loops at several levels, ensured maximum covering fire on every part of the castle, not only upon attackers outside trying to get in, but also upon them once they had entered the upper or lower bailey.
The building work fell into two main periods: the west, south and east curtain lengths with their towers and the Queen's Gate were raised mainly between 1283 and 1292, with top work to the Eagle Tower added afterwards; and the north side with the great King's Gate was built, although never completed, between 1296 and 1323.
Caernarfon Castle was part of a larger defensive arrangement incorporating the town which was enclosed inside a fortified wall with towers all around.
Kate Everson, 52, from Ontario Canada, wrote:
I just came back from a two week visit of the castles of Wales and was very impressed! My favorites were 1: Caernarfon 2.Harlech and 3.Conwy, because of their size and complexity. You could feel the power of the days of old when men fought in these castles, and it is wonderful to be able to walk inside these walls and climb the towers. It is an experience I will never forget! And another favorite castle was Dinas Bran, high on the top of a windy hill near Llangollen, well worth the walk!
Dave Basford, 35, from England, wrote:
Caernarfon was built to impress fear into the Welsh as Edward I's centre of government in North Wales. And impress it certainly does. It is all around you in the heart of the town with walls that emcompass part of it. The towers are taller than most of the Edward I castles (particularly the Eagle Tower) and this was done more as a show of power than of any practical use. It's awesome as pictures can often not show. Because it so easily accessible it is a 'must visit' for anyone in the area. It is however, for the same reason, very crowded most of time…
Nancy, from USA wrote:
I visited Caernarvon in 1966 when they were preparing it for Prince Charles coronation as Prince of Wales. Please include the information in your site on Caernarvon that explains the current use and significance to Great Britain. Thanks.