Caernarfon Castle is one of the great medieval military fortifications. This magnificent structure in North Wales attracts thousands of visitors every year. It is a place steeped in history, but who has called Caernarfon Castle home through the centuries following its construction?
King Edward I was the first resident of Caernarfon Castle. Constructed to help subjugate the local Welsh population, the castle continued to be a military garrison for many years. Caernarfon Castle remains a Crown property but is now maintained by the Welsh Government’s historic environment service Cadw.
Caernarfon Castle was built at great expense by Edward I. Work commenced in 1283 and the final phase was only completed in 1330. It formed part of the iron ring of castles stretching across the coastal region of North Wales. In this article, I will look at the history of this imposing medieval fortress.
Before the Arrival Of Edward I
Caernarfon was no stranger to invading parties before the English king Edward I conquered Wales.
Caernarfon’s first fortification was a timber-built motte and bailey affair. This was constructed toward the end of the 11th century as the Normans continued their push into Wales.
It was constructed on the orders of Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester. However, ownership of this newly constructed stronghold was short-lived. The town and the fortification were back in Welsh hands in 1115.
Among the early residents were the famed Welsh princes, Llywelyn the Great, and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
A New Castle and a New Royal Resident
The English king, Edward I, rarely missed an opportunity for a slice of symbolism.
Once he had subdued the troublesome Welsh in the north of the country he set about building a series of castles to deter future uprisings. One of these was the imposing Caernarfon Castle, built on the site of the former Norman structure.
Designed by Edward’s castle builder-in-chief, Master James of St. George, Caernarfon became Edward’s administrative capital of North Wales.
Royal apartments befitting the King and his wife Eleanor of Castile were designed within the formidable Eagle Tower.
A New Prince of Wales Is Born
If the castle itself wasn’t enough of a statement of intent, the birth of the future King Edward II at Caernarfon was another powerful signal.
The prince was born on 25th April 1284, just a year after construction on the castle began (source). He was known as Edward of Caernarfon and was the fourth son of Edward I
However, Edward I had another trick up his sleeve. In 1301, the English king gave the title of Prince of Wales to his son. He was the first English Prince to hold the title. It was more symbolism from the English King.
The castle and the bestowing of the title of the Prince of Wales to his son was the king saying that it is my royal family that rules Wales now.
Caernarfon was not the permanent residence of the English monarchy. The royal family was back in England a few months after the birth of their son, whose next visit was for his investiture as Prince of Wales.
By then he was the heir to the throne, and the tradition of the heir as Prince of Wales has continued.
Temporary Welsh Ownership
For all the power of the English monarchy that the building of Caernarfon Castle exuded, it was never going to deter uprisings completely. The Welsh were used to their independence and fiercely proud.
In 1294, a fresh rebellion broke out under the stewardship of Madog ap Llywelyn.
Caernarfon was top of the list of priorities for the leader of the rebellion.
It was a town and castle which stood for English power. Take it and you could show that the English grip on Wales was not invincible. And take it they did.
The Castle was still under construction at the time and had temporary timber barricades.
Madog ap Llywelyn held ownership of Caernarfon Castle for the best part of a year.
However, there was an air of inevitability about what happened next. Edward I was not going to be best pleased with this new challenge to his authority in Wales.
The English were back in Caernarfon the following year and the castle was back in Edward’s hands by September 1295. Work on the castle was stepped up, rebuilding the areas destroyed by the rebels.
A Military Garrison
Caernarfon Castle was a military defensive stronghold. Therefore, it was permanently garrisoned, with a constable in residence who was usually also the Mayor of the town of Caernarfon.
When the rebels stormed the castle in 1294, they killed the castle’s constable.
The constable and the garrison of between 30 and 40 men maintained the administrative status quo at Caernarfon Castle for the next 200 years.
It was an uneasy relationship between the English and their Welsh ‘subjects’. Now and then it spilled over into open revolt, with the castle a prime target.
The major rebellion of this period occurred at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Led by Owain Glyndwr, it saw Caernarfon Castle besieged in 1401, and again in 1403 and 1404.
The latter sieges were aided by the French. However, the castle was much better prepared than back in 1294 and the castle remained in English hands.
Quieter Tudor Period
Just as the Tudor age was a historically significant time in British history, so it was for the fortunes of Caernarfon Castle.
In 1485, Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, faced off against King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry triumphed in what was the last major conflict of the War of the Roses.
Why this was so significant for Caernarfon Castle and the rest of Wales was Henry Tudor’s Welsh ancestral background. He was born in Pembroke Castle in 1457 and never forgot his roots. Indeed, he was proud of his Welsh roots and enjoyed Welsh culture.
Therefore, when Henry Tudor became King Henry VII a thawing of relations between the English and Welsh occurred. Previously, the locals were often discriminated against when it came to administering Wales for English benefit.
Henry VII had no problem with the inclusion of Welsh nationals into administrative positions. The Welsh economy benefited too.
The Castle Falls on Hard Times
As good as this change in royal dynasties was for the relationship between the two countries, it was not so great for Caernarfon Castle.
With hostilities much a thing of the past, the need for a defensive stronghold diminished.
Gradually, without its previously important role, the desire to spend valuable money on the castle’s upkeep diminished as well. The once magnificent fortress began to fall into disrepair.
By the 1660s, the neglect was so bad that the Eagle Tower was one of the few structures which still had its roof intact.
Under Siege Once More
Although Caernarfon Castle was looking a sad sight in places, the main element of a defensive fortification, the castle walls, were still in decent shape. Therefore, when civil war broke out in England, the castle was once more in the firing line.
Caernarfon Castle has always been and still is a property of the Crown.
When war broke out in 1643 between the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and the Royalists loyal to King Charles I, Caernarfon Castle was garrisoned by royalists.
The castle was besieged on three occasions by Parliamentary forces. In 1646 the castle was under the governorship of Sir John, Lord Byron.
Byron was a military commander loyal to the royalist cause. He had recently retreated to Caernarfon from Chester.
Byron surrendered Chester in February 1646 to the besieging Parliamentarian forces surrounding the city. Intense bombardments and starvation had sealed the deal. Unfortunately, Byron would not fare any better at Caernarfon.
Caernarfon Castle was also surrendered to the Parliamentarians by Byron in 1646, who subsequently fled overseas into exile. This episode during the English civil war marked the last time Caernarfon Castle was involved in a conflict.
Its future was once again in doubt.
In 1660, a government order was given to demolish Caernarfon Castle.
The town fortifications were to be removed while they were at it too. However, the order was either retracted or simply never carried out. Historians and lovers of castles have celebrated this reprieve ever since.
Unfortunately, not demolishing the castle didn’t mean it was going to be properly maintained either. Once the Civil War ended, Caernarfon Castle began to follow a pattern familiar in the years before 1643.
The castle continued to decline and fall further into disrepair.
The castle’s neglect lasted for the next couple of centuries. Yet its fame as one of the great Welsh castles never faded away even while the actual structure did.
The ruins became a focal point for visitors as far back as the 18th century. This was the beginning of the castle as a tourist attraction.
A Victorian Resurgence in the Castle’s Fortunes
Interest in history continued to grow during Victorian times.
Out of this, the government decided to fund a major restoration of Caernarfon Castle. The man who was tasked with overseeing the work was the castle’s deputy constable, Llewellyn Turner.
Some would say Turner overstepped the mark at times. Others would say the alterations he made were necessary. The controversy at the time was that Turner chose to rebuild and restore rather than simply preserve the castle.
From 1908 as the castle underwent more repairs, the task of saving the castle was handed over to the Office of Works.
Ultimately, visitors today are the lucky ones and can appreciate the determination to restore Caernarfon Castle to its former glory.
Castle Constables Remain to this Day
Throughout this period, Caernarfon Castle has continued to have appointed constables.
Today, this position is largely ceremonial. The constable will be on hand to welcome royals and other VIP guests visiting the castle.
Some famous names have held this position.
The former Prime Minister David Lloyd George was the constable of the castle between 1908 to 1945. The photographer and former husband of Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, also held this role until his death in 2017.
The current constable of Caernarfon Castle, Edmund Bailey, was appointed in 2018 by the late Queen Elizabeth II. Bailey has been the Lord-Lieutenant of Gwynedd since 2014.
The following table shows a list of the most recent constables.
|Constable of Caernarfon Castle||Held Office Between|
|John Henry Puleston||?? – 1908|
|David Lloyd George||1908 -1945|
|William Ormsby-Gore||1945 – 1963|
|Lord Snowdon||1963 – 2017|
|Edmund Bailey||2018 – present|
Investiture of the Prince of Wales Returns.
The timing of the repairs to the castle allowed for the return of a significant event. Having the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, as a major proponent helped too.
In 1911 the investiture of the Prince of Wales returned to Caernarfon Castle.
The prince concerned would later become King Edward VIII, before his abdication of the throne in 1936.
Prince Edward donned his ceremonial garb for the public ceremony, although he was officially given the title the year before. The last time Caernarfon Castle witnessed this event was not quite so public, as Edward I introduced the royal title for his son.
Caernarfon Castle once again staged this ceremony in 1969 when Prince Charles was the recipient of the title of Prince of Wales (source). The 20-year-old Prince was under the added scrutiny of the millions watching the event at home on their televisions.
The following footage shows his investiture at Caernarfon Castle.
Transferred to Cadw
The people you will come across within Caernarfon Castle today are mostly the tourists who flock to see its sights.
The Castle can attract over 200,000 visitors every year.
Although still a Crown property, the running of Caernarfon Castle was transferred to Cadw in 1984, the Welsh government’s historic environment service.
The castle is a grade 1 listed structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Since the start of construction in 1283, Caernarfon Castle has seen many residents come and go in a chequered history.
Now under the careful oversight of Cadw, this magnificent Medieval fortress continues to see an upward turn in its fortunes.