Caernarfon Castle, overlooking the River Seiont and Menai Strait, looks today, much as it would have done when building was finished in 1330. With its massive curtain wall with different coloured bands, and its hexagonal towers, the design is reminiscent of the great Roman city of Constantinople.
- At the western end of the town centre, overlooking the Menai Strait
- Caernarfon Castle, Castle Ditch, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL5 2AY
- CADW. Open to the public. Admission fee
- For further information visit cadw.wales.gov.uk
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Caernarfon Castle, as we see it today, was built for King Edward I of England (1272-1307) as one of a number of impressive castles he had constructed in North Wales after his defeat of Llywelyn, prince of Wales. However, it was not the first fortification to make use of this stretch of land next to where the River Seiont meets the Menai Strait.
The Romans had a fort here, from which Caernarfon takes its name; to the Welsh the Roman fort was 'y gaer yn Arfon', the stronghold in the land over against Môn' - the island of Mona or Anglesey. A variant was Caer Segeint, for the name by which the Romans knew their fort was Segontium, from the ancient British word for the River Seiont.
In 1090 the Norman, Earl Hugh of Chester (d.1101), established a castle at Caernarfon. It was a motte and bailey type, with steep earthen banks and heavy timber palisades, probably with a wooden tower at the top of the motte. After 1115, a number of Welsh princes, including Llywelyn the Last (d.1282) retained possession of Caernarfon until the final collapse of native power in 1283. It is probable that some parts of the castle would have been rebuilt in stone over this period.
In 1283, after defeating Llywelyn, Prince of Wales (d.1282), and Llywelyn's brother Dafydd (d. 1283), King Edward I of England set about consolidating his gains in Wales by building a series of immense castles, including those at Conwy, Caernarfon and Caernarfon.
The new castle at Caernarfon was designed to be the seat of Edward's government in Wales and as his official residence. In keeping with its special role the design of the castle differed from that of the other castles being built at the time. Its great stone walls with bands of a different colour and its hexagonal towers were in the style of the great Roman city of Constantinople.
Caernarfon Castle is shaped like an hour glass, originally divided into two wards by a cross wall at the narrowest point. The massive castle walls are honeycombed by continuous wall-passages at two separate levels. These are well equipped with arrow-loops. The curtain wall is punctuated by nine towers and two great gatehouses, though neither of the two gates was ever fully finished. The defences of the castle were formidable. In order to gain access to the courtyard, visitors had to cross two drawbridges, pass through five heavy doors and walk under six portcullises, the entire way protected by arrow slits and murder-holes.
In 1284, Edward's son, Edward of Caernarfon, was born within the castle precincts. Tradition states that King Edward I presented his infant son to the people of Wales as a prince 'borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English'. In 1301 the young Edward was invested as the Prince of Wales and endowed with the rule and revenues of all the Crown's Welsh lands. From that date the title has traditionally been accorded to the eldest son of the reigning monarch.
Ten years after construction of the castle started, the castle was overrun and heavily damaged during a Welsh rebellion. King Edward I swiftly and decisively ended the rebellion and immediately accelerated the repair and construction of Caernarfon Castle. Building work continued until 1330, when most of the castle structure that we see today was complete.
For two centuries Caernarfon remained the effective capital of North Wales, providing a safe residence for government officials and a center for their activities. In 1485 a king of Welsh lineage, Henry Tudor - King Henry VII (1485-1509) - acceded to the English throne. Under Tudor rule the old animosity between England and Wales softened, leading to a measure of assimilation of the governmental systems of Wales to that of England, and to the diminished need for English castles in Wales. From the sixteenth century onwards these great castles were increasingly neglected.
In the latter parts of the nineteenth century the castle began to be rescued from centuries of neglect, and a new programme of repairs was undertaken at government expense. Since 1908 the castle has been maintained as an historic building, and in 1987 Caernarfon Castle and the town walls were inscribed on the World Heritage List as an historic site of universal value.
In 1911 the castle was the scene of the Investiture of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales, and was later the setting for the Investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969.