Giants of the North – The Historic Welsh Caernarfon Castle is Truly Majestic
Caernarfon Castle, a giant of the North that still may have a role in Welsh HistoryVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Each castle in Edward’s ‘Iron Ring’ is different and each has its own story. Caernarfon Castle came onto the world’s TV screens in 1969 when Queen Elizabeth decided to hold the ceremony there to confer the title of Prince of Wales on her eldest son. Caernarfon was to be the next Giant of the North we would visit. You can be sure I was looking forward to seeing the real thing!
The majestic Caernarfon Castle, one of the most picturesque castles in Britain, was built by King Edward I, at the conclusion of his successful second campaign to conquer the Welsh. Built on the northwest coast of Wales, looking out onto the Welsh island of Anglesey, it is at the heart of a very beautiful, rugged and remote part of the country. Caernarfon was believed to have been designed to resemble the walls of the legendary Constantinople, as a royal palace, the seat of government as well as a mighty military stronghold. The castles of Edward were meant to be symbols of authority and were staffed by a garrison of soldiers. Carnarvon’s permanent garrison consisted of forty men, more than either Conwy or Harlech Castles, showing the importance that was placed on this castle.
Legend has it that in an effort to gain the co-operation of the Welsh people, King Edward I or Longshanks, as he was known, promised that there would be a Prince of Wales, one who was born in Wales and whose first language was Welsh. The Welsh expected one of their own people to be made ‘Prince of Wales; however, the King had other plans. With his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Edward I visited this castle. In July 1283, during the early period of very active construction of the castle, Edward and Eleanor stayed for more than a month, in a comfortable timber frame apartment in Caernarfon Castle. They returned to Caernarfon the following Easter and it is believed they stayed in, what may have been, the partially constructed Eagle Tower, where their son, Edward, was born. At the time of his birth, Edward was their second son; however, four months later, with the death of his ten year old brother, Alphonso, the infant Edward became the heir apparent to the throne of England. Thus, Edward I had produced the answer to his promise. Edward I cunningly gave the Welsh a prince ‘that was borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English’. Edward of Caernarfon was formally created Prince of Wales in 1301 and endowed with the ‘rule and revenues of all the Crown’s Welsh lands.’ Many of the Welsh, even today, feel they were duped by the king they like to refer to, somewhat irreverently, as Longshanks.
In March 1284 under the Statute of Rhuddlan, the three shires of north-western Wales, Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth were joined as a single administrative unit called Gwynedd. Caernarfon became the seat of government for Gwynedd.
Approaching the castle, from a distance I noticed it was difficult to distinguish the castle, with towers and turrets, from the town walls and towers. The combination of the colour-banded grey stone castle and its town walls all appear to be continuous and so very impressive. The southern wall and connecting town walls completed a defensive perimeter around Caernarfon. They were the first built. During construction, the castle’s north wall, adjacent to the town, but within the perimeter walls, was left to be finished later when better fortification would be put in place. In 1294 Madog ap Llewellyn, successor to Llewellyn the Last, led a rebellious attack on Caernarfon. The Welsh sacked much of the town wall and then, gaining access through the castle’s poorly fortified north wall, entered the castle and set fire to whatever they could burn there too. During the summer of the following year, the English again put down the rebellion and regained Caernarfon. They immediately set to work repairing and restoring the town walls and then the castle.
For nearly fifty years after the time construction on the castle began, the work continued. Accounts from 1284 to 1330 show that the amount spent on the castle and the town walls may have been as much as £25,000, an enormous amount for the time. I wondered why some of the walls had a very rough appearance. It seem that much more building had been planned but was never completed. For that reason those walls were left ready for the planned additions to be put into place. Construction, the reason for that construction, and maybe the money allocated for the building, just seemed to peter out. The castle, as seen today, is much the same as it was at the close of Edward’s reign.
The castle became neglected, and at one time orders were given to dismantle the castle and town walls. Fortunately that order was ignored. The only work done on Caernarfon castle and walls since then has been restorative work. Today we see only the curtain wall and its towers around the carefully manicured green expanse of lawns and walks. The only clues to the other buildings that would have been contained within the castle walls are the remains of their foundations. What is left is preserved as part of the World Heritage Site “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd” and well worth visiting. The Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum can be seen in one of the towers at Caernarfon today.
In 1911 a Welshman by the name of David Lloyd George, from the Borough of Caernarfon, was one of King George V’s ministers. Through his intercession George V decided to have the investiture of his eldest son, Prince Edward, at Caernarfon Castle. In 1911 Prince Edward became the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in the ancient ceremony. Edward became King Edward VIII in January 1936, upon the death of his father. However, infamously he abdicated eleven months later to marry “the woman he loved”, Wallis Warfield Simpson.
In 1963 Queen Elizabeth II conferred the title and status of Royal Borough upon Caernarfon, making it the principal borough in Wales.
The Queen chose to continue the tradition begun by her grandfather, George V, when she conferred the title of Prince of Wales on her eldest son, Charles, at Caernarvon Castle. With due pomp and ceremony, the investiture of the twenty-one year old Prince Charles took place in 1969. Today we saw the site of that investiture, a permanent dais, in the centre of a green expanse of lawn, with a backdrop of the ancient, historic castle walls, which will no doubt continue to be used for future investitures of the Queen’s descendants.
In a strange twist of fate, the second in line for the British throne, Prince William, grandson of Queen Elizabeth, lived in Wales. Aside from being a popular prince of the realm, William was a helicopter pilot, stationed with the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue Unit on Anglesey, the island off the Welsh coast, seen off in the mist from Caernarfon Castle. William and his wife, Catherine, chose Anglesey to make their first home together after their marriage. There they lived as ‘Wils and Kate’, a very unpretentious couple. William seemed to have gained the admiration of the Welsh people, not through his royal lineage, but because he was thought to take after his mother, the much-loved Diana who, as Princess of Wales, won the hearts of people throughout the world.
Interest in the succession to the British throne was reawakened. In the countdown to the wedding of Prince William and his bride, Catherine Middleton, British bookies were taking bets on when their first child would be born. The media were all trying to second guess when a pregnancy might be announced, hoping to get a scoop on what will be worldwide news. Next, a change in the succession rules took place. England’s Prime Minister changed the gender-discriminatory succession rules that have been in place in Britain for about three hundred years. He gained the support of all the Commonwealth Countries.
Will the son of William and Kate, Prince George, become the Prince of Wales to again fulfill the promise of Edward I? I suspect if that happens the Welsh will truly take Prince George to heart and rejoice if the investiture takes place at Caernarfon Castle.
Caernarfon Castle and Walls are under the care of Cadw, which is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’ or ‘to protect.’
Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Last updated December 31, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster