Tuesday, 1 September 2015

World heritage in Wales - Caernarfon castle

Wales is often described as a 'country of castles', with the remains of perhaps over 600 castles dotting the Welsh landscape. That reminds us the the Welsh were feisty, and pretty keen on defending the territory they held.

Not all Welsh castles were built by the Welsh. Many of the well known and best preserved castles in Wales were built by invaders to hold onto territory they had taken control of. The most famous invaders were the Normans, who built the first stone castle in Wales - Chepstow. They went on to build a number of castles across south east Wales, the remains of which are visible today.

However, Edward I, the King of England in the late 1200s, took castle building to a completely new level. He was so determined to subdue the Welsh, and bring them and their lands under his control, that he built a series of castles along the north and north west coast of Wales, all designed to be supplied by sea. Four of those castles, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy & Harlech, and the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy, were designated a world heritage site in 1986. The reason for this is that is that these are superb examples of castle design.

Caernarfon castle was built as Edward I's administrative centre in north Wales.  It is the largest and most impressive of the castles he had built, but was never finished. The castle sits where the land meets the sea, with the river Arfon alongside. It was once the site of a small Roman fort, and perhaps an earlier Welsh built castle.

Unlike most of Edward's castles, this castle has no curves, or round towers, it is all flat walls and hexagonal sections. It was never designed to be rendered and limewashed, to be a shining white symbol of domination, as many castles were. 

Instead, it was built from huge blocks of finished stone, arranged in bands or stripes, around the walls. 


 The towers are exceptionally tall - imagine building these at a time when everything had to be done by hand? There may have been wooden scaffolding up the walls, and pulleys to lift the stone form the ground to working height, but ultimately each stone was moved and put in place by the hands of the castle builders, who were mainly from the south east of England, and paid pennies each week for doing this work. You can see the bands of different colours in the picture below (click on the image for a bigger version)

The interior of the castle is vast. The walls have corridors within, so that those who lived in the castle could walk around without going outdoors, also great protection in the unlikely event of arrows being shot over the high walls! The tall tower in the distance is the eagle tower, so called because there are carved stone eagles on the battlements. Edward I understood the power of symbols. Eryri - the Welsh name for Snowdon (heartland of the Welsh Princes) means 'place of the eagles'. He made Caernarfon castle the new 'place of the eagles', and home to the new Princes of Wales, beginning with his son, Edward II, the first of the new Princes. There's also a link back to earlier inhabitants of this place - the Romans - who often used the Eagle as one of their powerful symbols.

A closer view of the eagle tower - can you see the eagles perched on the battlements? The castle has recently had new interpretation installed, and there is an amazing life sized chessboard interpreting Edward I and his relationships of power on the ground floor, and an ethereal interpretation relating to Eleanor (Edward's wife) on another floor. Well worth a visit to have a look!

The picture below shows 'the Queen's gate'. The plan for this entrance to the castle was a ramp and drawbridge. Now, there is a viewing platform so that visitors inside the castle can look out over the 'Maes' - the open square in the town centre. When Prince Charles had his investiture here in 1969, he stood on this platform with Queen Elizabeth II and greeted the crowds surrounding the castle.

The castle has wonderful views across the Menai Straits and out to sea.  No boats could pass un-noticed, and the castle was designed to be supplied by sea, with a watergate opening onto the quayside which was built alongside the castle.

The main entrance to the castle is daunting. Above the archway there is a statue of Edward I, leaving no doubt about who the castle belonged to!  The rather beautiful windows above show us how elegant the accommodation within the castle was.

Look at the finely carved stone work. Imagine the hours it took the man with the hammer and chisel to make. Think about the very expensive hand made glass, probably transported from Europe on horseback or by sea, which filled the stone framework. Most ordinary people had never seen glass in the 1290s.

Caernarfon castle was built to dominate the Welsh people, but never fulfilled that purpose. Today it is conserved and is managed by the Welsh Government, and is one of the most iconic images of Wales. IT attracts many visitors to this corner of Wales, and the tourism trade in north west Wales would be much poorer without it. I wonder what Edward I would have made of that - the castle he built to subdue providing a living for many Welsh people?

No comments: