Caernarfon isn’t the largest or the most expensive of Edward I’s castles, but for my money it is probably the most striking. Conwy is more impressive in many ways and Beaumaris more intricate, but the sheer immense bullishness of Caernarfon is literally breath taking, not necessarily in a good way. Edward I’s castle wasn’t the first castle on this site. The motte of Hugh Earl of Chester’s original motte and bailey castle, built in 1088, was included inside the 1283 castle.
This was a castle that Edward I had begun after the defeat of Llywelyn the Last, the grandson of Llywelyn the Great, in 1282. Caernarfon, as an area, has a strong Roman and Welsh mythic history with the old Roman fort of Segontium on the hill above today’s town. The fort was associated with the legend of Magnus Maximus, a real usurping Roman Emperor, who became the figure of Macsen Wledig in the collection of 13th century Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion. In the Mabinogion, Macsen Wledig has a dream and describes journeying to a land of high mountains facing an island and
“at the mouth of the river he saw a great castle, the fairest that anyone had seen, and he saw the castle gate was open, and he came into the castle. He saw a hall in the castle. He thought that the roof-tiles of the hall were all of gold. The sides of the hall he thought to be of valuable, sparkling stones.”
It has been argued that Edward I used this legend in his construction of Caernarfon to help cement his own position within Welsh mythology. While the walls are not golden they are quite intentionally built with different coloured patterned stone, which is something that is done at none of his other castles. The walls and towers are also angular and this is unique amongst his other castles, which all boast circular towers. It has been argued that the walls have been built to resemble the walls of Constantinople because in the Welsh tradition Macsen Wledig has been interpreted as being the father of Constantine. It was also claimed that the body of Macsen Wledig was found in the building of the castle and it was suggested in various chronicles that Caernarfon was the site of the tomb of Constantine the Great.
Caernarfon’s mythic past aside its curtain wall is what makes it so dramatic. It’s a single curtain wall, but it is massive as there are no other outer defenses. The highest point of the castle is the Eagle Tower, so called because of the carved Roman eagles mounted on top, which stands at an astonishing 128 feet high. Given its history as a place of a conqueror I have to say I was very pleased to see the Welsh flag flying over Caernarfon.
Site visit 2012
Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307
Castles in wales: 9781847710314
Edward I by Michael Prestwich