This week’s journey takes us back to our first and regrettably only family visit to the beautiful country of Wales. It documents our travels through two of the nation’s most spectacular medieval fortresses: Conwy and Caernarfon Castles.
We began our exploration in the royal town of Caernarfon, in County Gwynedd, on a cloudy November morning in 2013. The first fortifications at Caernarfon were established by the Romans, who built their settlement – known as Segontium – on the sheltered banks of the river Seiont. Although significant portions of its foundations remain, little is known about the fate of this settlement after its occupants departed Britain in 382AD. A motte-and-bailey castle was erected on a peninsula a short distance from the former settlement during the Norman invasion of Wales in the late 11th century, an ultimately unsuccessful incursion that left the castle in Welsh hands for the next one hundred years.
It wasn’t until the English conquest of Gwynedd in 1283 that the present castle began to take shape. In an effort to establish and consolidate English rule in northern Wales, Edward I ordered the construction of a sprawling fortress, town walls, and quay in Caernarfon, as well as fortifications in nearby Beaumaris, Harlech, and Conwy. Edward appointed his chief military engineer and architect, James of St. George, to oversee the castle’s design and construction. The earliest reference to building at the castle site dates from June 1283, when ditches were dug and a temporary stockade was erected. Timber was shipped from as far away as Liverpool, and stone was quarried from around the town and nearby Anglesey. Hundreds of workers were utilized to dig the moat and castle foundations, and timber-framed apartments were built for the month-long visit of Edward and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, in July 1283. Construction continued throughout the winter of 1283-84, and Edward II was born at Caernarfon on April 25, 1284. The young Edward was created Prince of Wales in 1301, a title that remains held by the eldest son of the monarch to this day.
By 1285, the town walls were nearly complete, but work continued on the castle for the next four years. Construction slowed in 1289, and was eventually halted altogether in 1292. Rebel Welsh forces targeted Caernarfon in 1294, heavily damaging the town walls and portions of the castle. The English successfully moved to retake the town the following summer, refortifying its walls and resuming the construction of Caernarfon Castle. The building process continued at a steady rate until completion in 1330, a project that ultimately cost the Crown a staggering £25,000.
Tensions between the Welsh and their English conquerors spilled over in the early 15th century, as Caernarfon was again besieged and held by Welsh forces in 1403 and 1404. The accession of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne in 1485 eased hostilities between the Welsh and English, and the Edwardian fortresses became less important as both military garrisons and administrative centers. Many Welsh castles – Caernarfon included – fell into significant disrepair in the centuries that followed. While the walls of the town and castle masonry remained in good condition, timber decayed and roofs collapsed. By 1620, the castle’s domestic buildings were reportedly stripped of all valuables, including textiles, glass, and ironworks.
Caernarfon Castle was abandoned and neglected until the late 19th century, when the local government – and eventually historic preservationists – began undertaking various projects and repairs. In 1911, the castle was used for the investiture of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) as Prince of Wales, a precedent repeated by Prince Charles in 1969. Caernarfon was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986 as part of the “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” (a designation it shares with the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech, as well as the castle and town walls of Conwy). Caernarfon Castle is a major tourist attraction, and is cared for by Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environmental division responsible for the maintenance and care of the country’s historic buildings.
We arrived at the castle just as it was opening, and entered through the King’s Gate. In the 14th century, a visitor would have crossed two drawbridges, passed through five doors and under six portcullises – all overlooked by numerous arrow loops and murder holes – to access the inner courtyard. Today, one need only walk beneath a statue of Edward II, and pay a modest admission fee, to do the same.
The Upper Ward, consisting of the Queen’s Gate, North-East Tower, and Granary Tower, among others, opens to the immediate east of the entrance. The royal lodgings, no longer present, were located in this area.
The Queen’s Gate, Black Tower, and Cistern Tower all offer lovely views over the town.
The Lower Ward, including the Queen’s Tower and Eagle Tower, as well as the foundations of the Great Hall (R, photo below) and kitchens (L, photo below), is positioned to the west of the entrance.
The Eagle Tower, located at the western corner of the castle, was its grandest. It has three turrets which were once surmounted by statues of eagles. A basement level – one of four stories – contained a water gate, through which visitors traveling up the River Seiont could enter the castle.
After wandering through the magnificent ruins for several hours, we headed northeast toward another Edwardian stronghold: Conwy Castle. Its history is similar to that of Caernarfon, in that it served as one of the English monarch’s key ‘iron ring’ fortresses following the annexation of Wales in the late 13th century. Construction of the castle began on the site of a former Cistercian monastery at an important crossing point between the coastal and inland areas of North Wales, in 1283. The work was again overseen by master mason James of St. George, with the first phase focused on creating the exterior curtain walls and towers. In the second phase, from 1284 to 1286, the interior buildings – including a large royal suite – were erected, and work began on the walls for the neighboring town. By 1287, the project – totaling approximately £15,000 – was complete. Despite its astronomical price tag, Edward I only stayed in the castle on one occasion; Eleanor of Castile died abroad in 1290, and never stepped foot inside.
Conwy Castle survived two Welsh rebellions – one in 1297, by forces loyal to Madog ap Llywelyn, and a second in 1401, by the supporters of Owain Glyndŵr. In 1655, the Council of State ordered the castle to be slighted, or put beyond military use; the remaining iron beams and lead fixtures were thus stripped and sold off, and the erstwhile fortress fell into ruin.
At the end of the 18th century, the castle – perched on a picturesque promontory beside the River Conwy – began to attract painters and artists eager to capture its haunting beauty. Tourists continued to visit in increasing numbers over the following centuries, and in 1986 Conwy Castle joined the other Edwardian strongholds of its time as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While now more than 700 years old, the castle is exceptionally well-preserved, including the most intact set of medieval royal apartments anywhere in England or Wales.
The visitor’s guide describes Conwy as “by any standards one of the great fortresses of medieval Europe”, and we certainly found that to be true. We arrived for our visit at 2pm, which in hindsight was a mistake on our part; while it made for rather solitary exploration, it also wasn’t nearly enough time to examine every nook and cranny of this incredible place. The rectangular castle – constructed primarily of locally sourced gray sand- and limestone – features an Inner and Outer Ward separated by a cross-wall, buttressed by two barbicans and surrounded by eight round, well-preserved towers.
Entrance to the castle is made through the western barbican. When first built, the castle interior was reached over a drawbridge and masonry ramp that came up sharply from the town below; the modern path cuts east along the outside of the walls.
A gate passage provides access to the Outer Ward, site of the castle’s former kitchens, brew-house, bake-house, service accommodations and stable block.
A porch on the ward’s southern exposure leads – via a large passageway – to the chapel, a small anteroom, Great and Lesser Halls, and now-exposed cellars. The stubs and one surviving stone arch from the 1340s can still be seen. Behind the Great Hall stands a tower used for detaining prisoners; this included both a “debtor’s chamber” utilized in the 16th century and an underground dungeon.
The Inner Ward was originally separated from the Outer Ward by an internal wall, a drawbridge and a gate, protected by a ditch cut into the rock. The ditch was filled in during the 16th century and the drawbridge removed.
Inside, the Inner Ward contained the chambers for the royal household, their immediate staff, and service facilities. They were designed to form a royal palace in miniature; one that could, if necessary, be sealed off from the rest of castle and supplied from the eastern gate by sea almost indefinitely. In practice, they were rarely used by the royal family.
On the east side of the Inner Ward is another barbican, enclosing the castle garden. This was overlooked by the royal apartments, and changed in style over the years: in the early 14th century there was a lawn, in the late 14th century vines, in the 16th century crab-apple trees and in the 17th century formal ornamental flowers.
The charming market town of Conwy lies to the north of the castle. The massive stone wall enclosing the town – 1.3 kilometers in length, and one of the finest and most complete in Europe – can be viewed from any castle tower and walked during daylight hours.
The four northern towers – particularly the Stockhouse and Chapel Towers – offer spectacular views over the River Conwy to Deganwy and Llandudno Junction.
Thank you for joining us on this historic tour of northern Wales! -T. & B. June
Our next journey: Mount Whitney, CA – USA