For a 13th century fortress, Caernarfon Castle has a surprising attention to style. It’s one of a string of castles that King Edward I of England built or upgraded in northwest Wales in the late 13th century as part of a concerted program to exert English rule over the Welsh. All of them are marvels of security and sturdiness. But each is quite different.
These Edwardian castles in Wales were always meant to be about strength, defense, and being outwardly imposing, not about luxury. They were primarily fortresses, not palaces. They were, above all, symbols of English power.
But Caernarfon was envisaged as something special. It was designed to accommodate not only a royal household but also to serve as a seat of regional power.1
Building for the castle began in 1283 on a site that had been used for Roman forts for at least a thousand years before that. Construction was halted in about 1330. Not that it was complete, per se. But it was considered complete enough.
The exterior walls of the castle at Caernarfon are perhaps the best preserved of all of the surviving castles. They’re also the most distinctive, featuring unusual polygonal towers that suggest not just strength but also innovative engineering.
And they’ve worn the centuries remarkably well. From the outside, across the water of the river Seiont, the castle looks complete, imposing, and like something out of a storybook. It has all the romanticism of a castle from the Middle Ages, guarding over the town in its shadow.
As intricate as it may look from the outside, inside the walls it looks quite different. Over time, much of the interior of the castle was either incomplete or gutted. But that also helps lend a strong sense of history and authenticity. It is a romanticism of a different flavor. And the interior is still certainly considered fit for a (future) king. It has been used for the investitures of two princes of Wales: in 1911 for the future Edward VIII and in 1969 for Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales. They continued a long tradition. The first English prince of Wales was born within the walls centuries earlier.1