Romantic Castles and Palaces

Caernavon Castle

William Howitt


THE castles of Caernavon, Beaumaris, and Conway, all on this north-west coast of Wales, are monuments of the subjection of the Principality by Edward I. Other castles on this coast he took and strengthened, for instance those of Flint and Rhuddlan, as yokes on the necks of the North Welsh; these three he built expressly for that purpose, and, though all now more or less in ruin, they remain splendid evidences of his power, and of the architectural taste of the age. We have no finer specimens of castellated buildings than in the fortresses of Caernavon and Conway, and what remains of the extensive castle of Beaumaris shows what it once was. Even the Welsh, who do not forget the object of their erection, yet regard them with pride. Edward I., a warrior and statesman of the first rank, cherished, as the great purpose of his life, the reduction of the whole of the magnificent island of Great Britain into one compact and noble kingdom. This could not be done without invading the country and constitutions of Wales and Scotland, which had as much right to maintain their own independence, their own laws and customs as England had. But warriors by nature and possession think little of such rights, and readily persuade themselves that the project which aggrandizes their own country sanctifies the most flagrant usurpations, and renders innocent all the bloodshed and the crimes which irresistibly attend such enterprises. At the present day, the general sense of both England and Scotland, if not of Wales, would refuse to pronounce on Edward I. any other verdict than that of a great benefactor to his nation for what he did, and even for what he attempted yet failed in, towards the consolidation of Great Britain under one crown.

Whilst, however, he endeavored to mollify the spirit of the Welsh by the extension to them of civil, social, and commercial advantages, he did not trust by any means to these, but planned the erection of a chain of strong fortresses which should command the north as completely as the south was commanded by the same means. And thus arose, with others, the three princely strongholds of Conway, Beaumaris, and Caernavon.

The Castle of Conway seems to have been commenced a couple of years later than Caernavon Castle, - Caernavon being begun immediately on the defeat and death of Llewellyn, that is, in 1282, or in the spring of 1283. Conway was not commenced till the following year, 1284, when, finding that these two castles were not sufficient to keep the Welsh in check, Edward erected the Castle of Beaumaris in 1295. There is a great resemblance in the style of the two castles of Conway and Beaumaris — they have round towers; whilst Caernavon has octagonal, hexagonal, and pentagonal ones.

The Castle of Caernavon, which is the one now engaging our attention, differs greatly from these other two; and if not more striking in appearance than that of Conway, — than which Pennant says "None more beautiful never arose," — it is equal in grandeur, and has, in truth, a royal and more stately air. Its situation is very fine; for, though it stands in the not very splendid town of Caernavon, it is placed on the shore of the Menai Straits; and, looked down upon from a rocky eminence called Fort Hill, a good view is obtained of it and the town, of Menai Straits, the opposite shore of Anglesea, with the distant summits of the Holyhead and Parys hills, the blue peaks of the Eiflridge, in the promontory of Lleyn, the group of mountains surrounding Snowdon, and on a clear day the far off heights of Wicklow in Ireland. The architect employed by Edward I., in its erection, was Henry Ellerton, or de Elreton; and, according to tradition, many of the materials were brought from Segontlum, or the old Caernavon, and much of the limestone of which it is built came from Twr-Celyn, in Anglesea; and of the gritstone from Vaenol, in the county of Caernavon; the Menai facilitating the carriage from both places.

The foundations of this castle are surrounded on three sides by water. It is bounded on one side by the Menai Straits, on another by the estuary of the Seoint, the river which runs hither from the Lake of Llanberis. As you approach the castle, its walls and towers have an air of lightness, which deceives you completely as to its strength, for these walls are immensely thick and strong. The doorways in the gateway towers and the windows are more lofty and graceful than the doors and windows generally in castles of that age. The walls enclose an area of about three acres, and are themselves from seven to nine feet thick. They have within them each a gallery, with slips for the discharge of arrows, and are flanked by thirteen towers, all angular, but differing in the number of their angles. The very massive pentagonal tower, called the Eagle Tower, guards the south of the Seoint, and is so called from a now shapeless figure of that bird, said to have been brought from the ruins of the neighbouring Roman station of Segontium, but probably placed there simply as being one of Edward I.'s crests. This majestic tower has three turrets, and its battlements display a mutilated series of armour heads of the time of Edward II. This tower is the only one of which the stair-case remains perfect, and by 158 stone steps you may ascend to the summit, and obtain a splendid view thence over the straits, the town, and the surrounding country. In the lower part of this tower is shown a small, dark room, measuring twelve feet by eight feet, in which Edward II. was born. That unfortunate prince was most probably born in the castle; but it has been endeavoured to be shown that it could not possibly be in this tower, as it would appear not to have been built for some years afterwards, and, indeed, only to have been finished by Edward II. after he became king of England. The Rev. C. H. Hartshorne, of Cogenhoe, in Northamptonshire, asserted at the annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society, held in Caernavon in September, 1848, that this castle, instead of being built, as Pennant and others represent, in about two years, was not completed in less than thirty-eight years — that it was begun in 1284, and only completed in 1322.

As Edward first entered the town of Caernavon on the 1st of April, 1284, and his son was born on the 25th of the same month, twenty-four days only are left for the building of the Eagle Tower, which would be work, not for English or Welsh builders, but for the Afrits of the Arabian Nights and would seem to put an end to the whole tradition of Edward of Caernavon having been born in the room assigned him by popular affection. And yet tradition so often maintains itself against statistics, and against theories started long afterwards, that we should not be surprised if, after all, the first Prince of Wales was actually born in that little, dismal room. In the then disturbed condition of North Wales; amid the intense indignation of the Welsh at the murder of their beloved prince, and the barbarous execution of his brother David; under the well-known spirit of revolt and revenge which was fiercely fermenting in the minds of the natives, it is not likely that Edward would risk the safety of his wife and his infant in the open town. No doubt he had ordered the erection of a stronghold here immediately on the fall of Llewellyn. This was in the autumn of 1282, and Edward was born, it is said, in the Castle of Caernavon, on the 25th of April, 1284. Here was a good part of two years in which a strong building might have been raised sufficient for a stout defence: and this is probably what is meant when it is said by the historians that Edward commenced this castle in a. d. 1282-3, and completed it in two or three years. It is most probable that he did commence and complete such a castle as answered his immediate purpose, and that in this Castle his son Edward was born; that Edward I., however, contemplated and erected a much larger and more imposing castle on the spot — the present structure; and that he caused the part in which his son's birth took place to be incased in the larger building, and that it forms an internal part of the present Eagle Tower, just as the poet Thomson's cottage at Richmond now forms a portion of the larger villa of the Earl of Shaftesbury. It may be remarked that there is no appearance of any different masonry on the exterior of this part of the Eagle Tower. Of course not. The architect would new-front that part in uniformity with the rest; but that need not in the least disturb the existence of this room.

That is our opinion of the real fact; and it is the one which at once reconciles the tradition and the proofs that the present splendid fabric was not completed in two years, but in two reigns. All Mr. Hartshorne's statistical facts may be fully admitted, and the tradition of the place remain untouched. We ourselves have just as much, or rather more, faith in tradition, than in statistics; for, in scores of cases, tradition has asserted itself successfully against apparent facts, and, in scores of cases, statistics have proved very delusive. That Edward I. would be very sure to preserve the locale of his son's birth, and that the Welsh would vividly retain a knowledge of it, may be inferred from the part which Edward meant to play with his son, and the delusive hope which his plan excited in the minds of the Welsh. He presented this infant son to them, and told them that they should have a native Welshman for their prince. As Alphonso, Edward's eldest son, was still living, the Welsh, in their ardent patriotism, fondly jumped to the idea that they would have their own principality under a prince of their own. Alphonso died, Edward of Caernavon became King of England, and that hope was at once sternly quenched. Under such circumstances, the Welsh were not likely to forget the spot where the prince on whom such hopes were hinged first saw the light. We may, therefore, without much chance of mistake, accept at once the facts that Edward II. was born in this very tower, and yet that the Eagle Tower was not completed till the tenth year of the second Edward's reign.

The main gateway of the Castle is flanked by lofty towers of vast strength. Over the grand entrance arch stands, in a niche, a mutilated statue of Edward I., with his hand upon a half-drawn sword, as if to intimate that he was equally prepared to pluck it forth on any menace of resistance, or to sheathe it at the desire for peace. In the archway beneath are grooves for four portcullises. The entrance on the east side is called the Queen's Gate, because Eleanor is said by tradition to have entered the Castle by it. On passing into the interior you observe the traces, on the two opposite buildings, of a partition wall having formerly divided it into two courts. Much of the interior is cleared away, leaving exposed one of the fine corridors, which led from one part of the castle to another. On the south-east side is some modern building, which has been raised within the old walls. Several of the dungeons are yet visible; and in one of these was confined, in the reign of Charles I., the celebrated William Prynne.

No more zealous, fiery, and yet honest spirit, certainly was ever confined here than Prynne. He was at once a lawyer of Lincoln's Inn, and a determined Puritan. His famous Histriomastix, or a Scourge for Stage Players, being supposed to reflect on Henrietta, the Queen of Charles I., who had herself acted in a pastoral at Somerset House, Prynne was prosecuted in the Star Chamber; and his sentence and its rigid execution are a striking proof of the savage spirit of the age, though it was already in the middle of the Seventeenth Century, namely, in 1634. He was fined £3,000, expelled from the University of Oxford, and the Society of Lincoln's Inn, degraded from the bar, set in the pillory, both his ears cut off, his book burnt publicly by the hangman, and himself condemned to perpetual imprisonment. But no amount of cruelty could tame that daring soul. Whilst still imprisoned in the Tower, and after three years' durance, he launched forth another book, reflecting severely on the hierarchy generally, and particularly on the popish follies and political despotism of Archbishop Laud, for this he was further sentenced by the infamous Star Chamber to be fined £5,000, to be again set in the pillory, to be branded on both cheeks with the letters S and L, for Seditious Libeller, to have the very roots of his ear dug out by the hangman, and to be imprisoned in this Castle of Caernavon.

But the event showed that there was a spirit afloat which these fierce barbarities of regal tyranny were only rousing into a degree of fury which would sweep both church and throne from the land. The Puritan friends of Prynne flocked to Caernavon Castle in such numbers, that the poor mutilated prisoner sate more like a monarch holding a perpetual levee than a convict who had endured the vilest insults and the savagest brutalities of the law. Only ten weeks had elapsed since Prynne was brought to this royal stronghold when he was illegally removed by a warrant from the Lords of the Council, and removed to the Castle of Mount Orgueil, in the island of Jersey.

There is no reminiscence more lively than that of the short incarceration of Prynne in this castle. One of its earliest historical events was the surprise of it by Madoc, a natural son of Llewellyn, in 1295, and his retention of it till Edward I. expelled him from it. In 1402, Owen Glendower made a successful attempt to seize several of the Welsh castles, but was repulsed from the gates of this stronghold. In the Wars of the Roses it repeatedly changed masters, and, in 1644, Cromwell's forces obtained possession of it, made 400 of the garrison prisoners, and enriched themselves with much spoil. Lord Byron soon after retook it for the king; but in 1646 the Parliament regained it. In 1660, the first year of Charles II., an order was issued for the demolition of the Castle; but, fortunately, it was not completely carried out. The property still continues in the possession of the Crown; and the Marquis of Anglesea holds the office of constable of it, as well as that of Mayor of the town and ranger of Snowdon Forest.

Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.
Caernavon Castle by William Howitt. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.