A castle worthy of a Prince of Wales

Edward Ist loved building castles, especially in the north of Wales. When he came to build Caernarfon Castle he had a particular idea in his head…

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When Edward invaded Wales at the end of the 13th century, he planned to make sure the English were here to stay. But in order to subdue the population, he knew he needed more than just soldiers and fortresses. He needed a great story, a unique mixture of politics and mythology.

One of the most famous stories in Wales during the 13th century was about the Roman emperor Macsen Wledig. This Emperor had a dream about a beautiful woman. He woke up and decided that this dream was an omen, and started to search for her all over his empire. He discovered this fair lady in the north of Wales, in a small place called Caernarfon. She was the daughter of a local leader, and she was happy to marry him, and from their descendants, came the first Prince of Wales.

Edward had just killed the last Prince of Wales. His name was Llywelyn, so the role was vacant, and Edward decided to promise the locals that he would present them with a new Prince of Wales, and like the mythological couple, the baby would be born in Caernarfon and would not speak a word of English. What the Welsh did not know was that the king decided that he would give the title of  Prince of Wales to his next son, and in 1284, when the castle was still in the middle of construction, his pregnant wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile arrived from east England to north Wales, and gave birth in the middle of the building site. The newborn child was a boy (very convenient), and like most babies, he did not speak any language when he was born, even English.

Some historians believe that the idea of using the myth came from Eleanor, and they think she had much more influence over Edward than we understand, and you can read more about it in my Caernarfon castle stories.

This naming of the next heir to the throne as Prince of Wales became a tradition that is still current today, and in 1969 the title was given to Charles, the heir of Elizabeth II.

Let’s go back to the 13th century… Edward had just presented his son as the heir, and over 1000 people were busy building Caernarfon and the walled city around it. Unfortunately, Edward was not friendly to the locals making them dislike the new regime (giving them a Prince was not enough). They were forbidden from entering the walled city except for market days, so in 1294 when a new Welsh rebellion occurred, they entered the town during the market day, and they burned down the castle which was still not finished.
Edward invaded Wales again, this time with an army that was twice as large as the first one. He regained all the places he had lost, and this time Caernarfon castle was completed.

In 1400 a new rebellion started (you can read more about it in my Harlech castle stories), led by Owain Glyndŵr. His men managed to capture most of Edward’s, castles including Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris. Owain has crowned the true Prince of Wales, and all he really wanted was to conquer Caernarfon. He attacked the castle twice. The first time in 1401 and then again in 1403, he even got a “little help from a friend”, the French King. He sent his soldiers and siege weapons that were supposed to help penetrate Caernarfon walls. The siege failed, and although the English garrison was really tiny and included only 28 soldiers, that was enough to keep both the Welsh and the French out of the city and the castle.

After the rise of the Tudor dynasty, things got quiet in Wales. Henry Tudor was actually half Welsh, so he ended much of the hostilities between the English and the Welsh. The importance of Caernarfon Castle and the rest of Edward’s castles were gone, they all fell into decay. The final battle that this castle endured was during the English Civil War. It was held by the Royalists and was under siege three times before being surrendered in 1646.  Parliament ordered the destruction of the city walls and to slight the castle, but these orders were delayed until they were finally ignored.

In 1911 the castle again became the centre of attention when it began to hold investitures like the one of the new Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII who later abdicated due to his relationship with the divorced American, Wallis Simpson. The next Prince of Wales, Charles, had his ceremony in 1969, and it was one of the first events ever to be broadcast across the world using satellites.

Caernarfon Castle is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is managed by CADW (the department in the Welsh government that manages historic buildings). For more information: Caernarfon Castle official website

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The only Edwardian Castle you should visit in the region

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Caernarfon during our half-term break at the end of May. Like all of Edward’s castles, Caernarfon looks terrific from the outside. We stayed nearby for an entire week so that we had the chance to see it at any time of the day.

By now we had the opportunity to visit a  few ruins that were managed by CADW (the department in the Welsh government that manages historic buildings), and we were not impressed by the way they introduced their castles to visitors, at first, but this is not the case in Caernarfon. It is by far the best of CADW castles we visited, which makes me wonder what went wrong with the management of the other castles?

Caernarfon is much bigger than the rest of Edward’s castles so visiting it was an almost a physical challenge, especially if you decide you want to explore every tower and every room. Luckily most of the exhibitions are located on the ground floor, so if you are not in good shape (and trust me, some of us are not). To climb medieval steps to the top of 10 towers is no mean feat. I would suggest limiting your climbing time and focusing on the various exhibitions available. I really enjoyed the presentation about the history of the “Prince of Wales” in the bottom of the royal tower, and the exhibition talking about the mythology behind this place which might have brought Edward to invest especially in this castle.

Caernarfon Castle was also home to a museum dedicated to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. I think it was a great addition, and it only goes to show that you can use the empty spaces in all of these castles to add attractions and exhibitions that do not necessarily need to be connected directly with the history of that specific castle. You could use the space and its attractiveness to tell some stories about Wales, about other historical places in it, or just explain a bit more about life in a castle in the 13th-14th century (you can visit Chirk Castle to get some more tips about this).

As always a guided tour would also improve visits to this castle. I have visited the Tower of London 3 times now, and what I mainly remember are all the great stories I heard from the “Beefeaters” there. I am sure a similar tour in Caernarfon would have made this visit ten times better. To sum things up, many people travel to the north of Wales looking to explore Edward’s castles, but to be honest; Caernarfon is probably the only one that is genuinely worth entering. It has enough exhibitions and attractions that could easily entertain the whole family for a few hours and is probably one of the best glorious ruins in the entirety of the British Isles. By now you know that I like to use the example of the Michelin Guide to rank castles and Caernarfon is definitely worth one star.

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