Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle

Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle

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By James Turner

A true citadel, Caernarfon Castle casts a long shadow – its meticulously calculated and formidable stonework heavy with the weight of symbolism. Raised by Edward I (and I wince to do this, Longshanks of Braveheart fame) in 1283. Perhaps more than any other castle found within the British Isles, Caernarfon embodies that most terrifying of a castles aspects; a tool for the aggressive and utter domination of territory. Rising from a time of war, every beautifully designed facet of the castle is a manifesto for the imperialistic dreams of the English monarchy whose burning ambition laid a new narrative and shape upon the tumultuous relationship between England and its Celtic brothers.

That Caernarfon is sited in a place which represents a great strategic boon to anyone with designs to exert control upon northern Wales is an ancient piece of wisdom. The Romans in their own campaigns built a fortress named Segontium on the site of the modern town, a literal stone’s throw away from the Castle. Likewise the Normans, in the high water mark of their initial spasmodic yet effective invasion of Britain, also built a castle on the site under the direction of the roguish gourmet, Hugh le Gros, Earl of Chester.

Thirty years afterwards, this modest castle along with many of the bickering fiefdoms of the Norman robber barons fell to the resurgent and squabbling Welsh Princes. Like a middle aged couple trying something new, this up close and personal contact with their new neighbours had a profound effect upon the style and self-image of Welsh aristocracy. Indeed, until the eventually decisive intervention of Edward I, Anlgo-Welsh relations with their frequent dynastic marriages, permeable cultural membrane and fluidic political formations, none of which did much to hinder frequent conflict, resembled nothing more than a grand Punch and Judy show. The same old joke played out again and again with gleeful violence.

From 1066 to the close of the 13th century medieval Wales was the wild west of the British Isles. Ireland was like a larger further away wild west but we’ll ignore it for the sake of a concise metaphor. Into this swaying equilibrium came Edward I, a man with a dream. Like many dreams, once coaxed into the lucid world it was mad. Like the maddest of all dreams and happily for our metaphor it involved the notion of a manifest destiny. Inspired both by the legends of Arthurian romance literature and his less fictitious but less influential Saxon and Norman ancestors, Edward, a martial King hardened by rebellion and crusade, sought to restore English power and hegemony in Britain.

Prior to the great invasion of 1282, Edward had already fought a campaign in Wales comprehensively beating Llywelyn ap Gruffudd the greatest of the Welsh Princes in 1277 when the latter attempted to cling onto the high level of autonomy he had prospered upon under Edward’s father, the inept Henry III. However, in large part due to the harsh peace treaty imposed by Edward and his determination to extend the reality of English royal authority across the border, as opposed to the largely nominal laissez faire overlordship of earlier Anglo Norman kings, Wales exploded into rebellion in 1282.

Although the English invasion struggled to gain traction in the early phases of the war, the tide began to turn when Llywelyn, the figurehead of the Welsh cause was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge. Taking advantage of his superiority in capital and manpower Edward launched another two pronged invasion of Wales in conjunction with his uncle, William da Valence, which finally succeeded in subduing the defenders. In this once and for all move breaking the power of the Welsh Princes, Edward had snuffed out the last remnants of the ancient Sub Roman British Kingdoms glorified as the heroes of the Arthurian tales he loved so much.

In order to safeguard the vast territories he had annexed in the war’s aftermath, Edward embarked upon a program of castle building unprecedented in scale and artistry. Caernarfon is the crown jewel in a chain of strategically placed castles that include the likes of the illustrious Conwy and Harlech Castles. Caernarfon, alongside many of Edward’s castles was designed and constructed (although luckily not single-handedly) by James of Saint George, a master builder from Savoy. It was also, like many of Edward’s castles, a staggeringly expensive undertaking, drawing on vast quantities of material and skilled labour; the enterprise costing somewhere in the region of £25,000.

Edward, implacable though he was in his desire to absorb Wales and later Scotland, was far from adverse to a subtler longer term plan rather than stabbing anything that spoke Welsh to him. Thus when she fell pregnant, a presumably annoyed Queen Eleanor was packed off to the building site that was Caernarfon so that her child could be born in Wales, hopefully developing a politically useful Welsh affinity. On the 25th of April 1284 the future Edward II was born at the Castle and in 1301 the young Edward was created Prince of Wales, a position which it was envisaged would alleviate Welsh discontent and ease the transition to English rule by giving them an alternative centralised power with a strong Welsh influence.

Remaining in royal hands and heavily garrisoned, the Castle was a centre of imposed English governance and a site of significant strategic importance which was targeted by a number of rebellions. The Castle was first sacked in 1294 while still under construction, although it was quickly recaptured. It was later unsuccessfully besieged in 1401, 1403 and 1404. During the War of the Three Kingdoms in 1642, the Castle remained in royalist hands. Even in an age of gunpowder and cannons, the Castle’s ingeniously designed defences remained formidable, enduring three separate sieges by Parliamentary forces before finally surrendering in 1646. In the succeeding centuries while remaining in royal hands, the Castle was largely neglected although luckily significant restoration work was undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th century which is responsible for the Castle’s excellent condition today. In 1911 King George V fittingly enough had his son invested as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle; a tradition which continued with the current heir to the throne Prince Charles who was formally invested at the Castle in 1969.

Physically Caernarfon is a masterpiece, a supermodel of the castle world, all stark lines and inviting subtle curves. Its lofty and segmented polygonal towers and twin turreted gatehouses are a beautiful and technically impressive exemplar of a rare species. Its imposingly muscular curtain wall, which has often been compared to the great walls overlooking the golden horn of Constantinople, gives the Castle a distinct profile sheltering a pleasant grassy interior where once the great hall, kitchens and various outbuildings stood. The views from the towers are breath-taking, as is, I found, the experience of climbing to the top of them. The entire design of the Castle strongly evokes that of a Roman fort, a deliberate affectation on Edward I’s part, likely inspired by the nearby ruins of Segontium.

The Castle’s Roman-ness was yet another item in Edward’s toolkit of ideological weaponry, filling the Castle to the brim with connotations of monolithic dominance and a legitimacy derived from synchronicity with a presumed Arthurian past. Set against the water’s edge, so that it could be resupplied by sea if necessary, the Castle stands in the heart of the town which bears its name. While, of course, only a small fraction of the modern town, the medieval town’s walls remain remarkably intact forming a picturesque district packed with pubs, restaurants and antique shops which could easily give Bruges a run for its money.

While the Castle, which is open to visitors all year round, would be well worth visiting purely on the basis of its spectacle and physique it also contains a number of extremely well executed and informative exhibits. These include a comprehensive outline of the Castle’s history with particular attention lavished upon the means and mechanisms of its construction, a multimedia examination of Caernarfon’s native symbolism and place within Anglo-Welsh relations, as well as fittingly an exhibit upon the history of the title of Prince of Wales. In addition to these, the Castle is home to the fascinatingly in depth, if not a little labyrinthine, regimental museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers detailing every step of their long gallant history and the lives of the generations who served within the Regiment with a venerated and treasured landside of material evidence and regimental relics.

Few if any castles in Britain are as outwardly impressive as Caernarfon. Caernarfon’s true value, though, transcends the physical, it is a living avatar to a vision of Britain’s position in the world whose shadow clings to us still. For all history enthusiasts it is a must see.

Please visit CADW for more information about Caernarfon Castle

You can also follow the castle on Twitter @CaernarfonCadw

Top Image: Caernarfon castle – photo by Kris Williams / Flickr

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