Abundant natural resources in and around the Menai Straits enabled human habitation in prehistoric Britain. The Ordovices, a Celtic tribe, lived in the region during the period known as Roman Britain. The Roman fort Segontium was established around AD 80 to subjugate the Ordovices during the Roman conquest of Britain. The Romans occupied the region until the end of Roman rule in Britain in 382, after which Caernarfon became part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. In the late 11th century, William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a motte-and-bailey castle at Caernarfon as part of the Norman invasion of Wales. He was unsuccessful, and Wales remained independent until around 1283.
In the 13th century, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ruler of Gwynedd, refused to pay homage to Edward I of England, prompting the English conquest of Gwynedd. This was followed by the construction of Caernarfon Castle, one of the largest and most imposing fortifications built by the English in Wales. In 1284, the English-style county of Caernarfonshire was established by the Statute of Rhuddlan; the same year, Caernarfon was made a borough, a county and market town, and the seat of English government in North Wales.
The ascent of the House of Tudor to the throne of England eased hostilities between the English and resulted in Caernarfon Castle falling into a state of disrepair. The city has flourished, leading to its status as a major tourist centre and seat of Gwynedd Council, with a thriving harbour and marina. Caernarfon has expanded beyond its medieval walls and experienced heavy suburbanisation. Its population includes the largest percentage of Welsh-speaking citizens anywhere in Wales. The status of Royal Borough was granted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1963 and amended to Royal Town in 1974. The castle and town walls are part of a World Heritage Site described as the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.
The present city of Caernarfon grew up around and owes its name to its Norman and late Medieval fortifications. The earlier British and Romano-British settlement at Segontium was named for the nearby Afon Seiont. After the end of Roman rule in Britain around 410, the settlement continued to be known as Cair Segeint ("Fort Seiont") and as Cair Custoient ("Fort Constantius or Constantine"), of the History of the Britons, cited by James Ussher in Newman's life of Germanus of Auxerre, both of whose names appear among the 28 civitates of sub-Roman Britain in the Historia Brittonum traditionally ascribed to Nennius. The work states that the inscribed tomb of "Constantius the Emperor" (presumably Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great) was still present in the 9th century. (Constantius actually died at York; Ford credited the monument to a different Constantine, the supposed son of Saint Elen and Magnus Maximus, who was said to have ruled northern Wales before being removed by the Irish.) The medieval romance about Maximus and Elen, Macsen's Dream, calls her home Caer Aber Sein ("Fort Seiontmouth" or "the caer at the mouth of the Seiont") and other pre-conquest poets such as Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd also used the name Caer Gystennin.
The Norman motte was erected apart from the existing settlement and came to be known as y gaer yn Arfon, "the fortress in Arfon". (The region of Arfon itself derived its name from its position opposite Anglesey, known as Môn in Welsh.) A 1221 charter by Llywelyn the Great to the canons of Penmon priory on Anglesey mentions Kaerinarfon; the Brut mentions both Kaerenarvon and Caerenarvon. In 1283, King Edward I completed his conquest of Wales which he secured by a chain of castles and walled towns. The construction of a new stone Caernarfon Castle seems to have started as soon as the campaign had finished. Edward's architect, James of St. George, may well have modelled the castle on the walls of Constantinople, possibly being aware of the town's legendary associations. Edward's fourth son, Edward of Caernarfon, later Edward II of England, was born at the castle in April 1284 and made Prince of Wales in 1301. A story recorded in the 16th century suggests that the new prince was offered to the native Welsh on the premise "that [he] was borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English", however there is no contemporary evidence to support this.
Caernarfon was constituted a borough in 1284 by charter of Edward I. The charter, which was confirmed on a number of occasions, appointed the mayor of the borough Constable of the Castle ex officio. The former municipal borough was designated a royal borough in 1963. The borough was abolished by the Local Government Act 1972 in 1974, and the status of "royal town" was granted to the community which succeeded it. Caernarfon was the county town of the historic county of Caernarfonshire.
In 1911, David Lloyd George, then Member of Parliament for Caernarfon boroughs, which included various towns from Llŷn to Conwy, agreed to the British Royal Family's idea of holding the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. The ceremony took place on 13 July, with the royal family paying a rare visit to Wales, and the future Edward VIII was duly invested.
In 1955 Caernarfon was in the running for the title of Capital of Wales on historical grounds but the town's campaign was heavily defeated in a ballot of Welsh local authorities, with 11 votes compared to Cardiff's 136. Cardiff therefore became the Welsh capital.
On 1 July 1969 the investiture ceremony for Charles, Prince of Wales was again held at Caernarfon Castle. The ceremony itself went ahead without incident despite terrorist threats and protests, which culminated in the death of two members of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Welsh Defence Movement), Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, who were killed when their bomb – intended for the railway line at Abergele in order to stop the British Royal Train – exploded prematurely. The bomb campaign (one in Abergele, two in Caernarfon and finally one on Llandudno Pier) was organised by the leader of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, John Jenkins. He was later arrested after a tip-off and was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment.
The history of Caernarfon as an example where the rise and fall of different civilizations can be seen from one hilltop, are discussed in John Michael Greer's book The Long Descent. He writes of Caernarfon:
Spread out below us in an unexpected glory of sunlight was the whole recorded history of that little corner of the world. The ground beneath us still rippled with earthworks from the Celtic hill fort that guarded the Menai Strait more than two and a half millennia ago. The Roman fort that replaced it was now the dim brown mark of an old archeological site on low hills off to the left. Edward I’s great gray castle rose up in the middle foreground, and the high contrails of RAF jets on a training exercise out over the Irish Sea showed that the town’s current overlords still maintained the old watch. Houses and shops from more than half a dozen centuries spread eastward as they rose through the waters of time, from the cramped medieval buildings of the old castle town straight ahead to the gaudy sign and sprawling parking lot of the supermarket back behind us.
Caernarfon is situated on the southern bank of the Menai Strait facing the Isle of Anglesey. It is situated 8.6 miles (13.8 km) south-west of Bangor, 19.4 miles (31.2 km) north of Porthmadog and approximately 8.0 miles (12.9 km) west of Llanberis and Snowdonia National Park. The mouth of the River Seiont is in the town, creating a natural harbour where it flows into the Menai Strait. Caernarfon Castle stands at the mouth of the river. The A487 passes directly through Caernarfon, with Bangor to the north and Porthmadog to the south. Llanberis at the foot of Snowdon can be reached via the A4086, which heads east out of the town to Capel Curig. Heading north out of the town is the Lôn Las Menai cycle path to nearby Y Felinheli. Heading south out of the town is the Lôn Eifion cycle path, which leads to Bryncir, near Criccieth. The route provides views into the Snowdonia mountains, down along the Llŷn Peninsula and across to the Isle of Anglesey. The restoration of the Welsh Highland Railway or Rheilffordd Eryri, a narrow gauge heritage railway, was completed in 2011 and runs from Caernarfon to Porthmadog where it connects with the Festiniog Railway.
Caernarfon's historical prominence and landmarks have made it a major tourist centre. As a result, many of the local businesses cater for the tourist trade. Caernarfon is home to numerous guest houses, inns and pubs, hotels, restaurants and shops. The majority of shops in the town are located either in the centre of town around Pool Street and Castle Square (Maes), or on Doc Fictoria. A number of shops are also located within the Town Walls.
The majority of the retail and residential section of Doc Fictoria (Victoria Dock) was opened in 2008. The retail and residential section of Doc Fictoria is built directly beside a Blue Flag beach marina. It contains numerous homes, bars and bistros, cafés and restaurants, an award- winning arts centre, a maritime museum and a range of shops and stores.
Pool Street and Castle Square (Maes) contain a number of large, national retail shops and smaller independent stores. Pool Street is a pedestrianised street and, as such, serves as the town's main shopping street. Castle Square, commonly referred to as the 'Maes' by both Welsh and English speakers, is the market square of the town. A market is held every Saturday throughout the year and also on Mondays in the Summer. The square was revamped at a cost of £2.4 million in 2009. However, since its revamp the square has caused controversy due to traffic and parking difficulties. During the revamp, it was decided to remove barriers between traffic and pedestrians creating a 'shared space', to try and force road users to be more considerate of pedestrians and other vehicles. This is the first use of this kind of arrangement in Wales, but it has been described by councillor Bob Anderson as being 'too ambiguous' for road users. Another controversy caused by the revamp of the Maes was that a historic feature of the town was taken down, namely a very old oak tree, situated outside the HSBC bank. When the Maes was re-opened in July 2009 by the local politician and Heritage Minister of Wales, Alun Ffred Jones AM, he said, "the use of beautiful local slate is very prominent in the new Maes."
There are many old public houses serving the town, including The Four Alls, The Anglesey Arms Hotel, The Castle Hotel, The Crown, Morgan Lloyd, Pen Deitch and The Twthill Vaults. The oldest public house in Caernarfon is the Black Boy Inn, which remained in the same family for over 40 years until sold in 2003 to a local independent family business. The pub has stood inside Caernarfon's Town Walls since the 16th century, and many people claim to have seen ghosts within the building.
In and around the Town Walls are numerous restaurants, public houses and inns, and guest houses and hostels.
Gwynedd Council's head offices are situated in the town. The local court serves the town and the rest of north-west Wales, and in 2009 moved to a multimillion-pound court complex on Llanberis Road. The Caernarfon UK Parliament constituency was a former electoral area centred on Caernarfon. Caernarfon is now part of the Arfon constituency for both the UK Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. The town is twinned with Landerneau in Brittany.
The population of Caernarfon Community Parish in 2001 was 9,611. Caernarfon residents are known colloquially as "Cofis". The word "Cofi" / is also used locally in Caernarfon to describe the local Welsh dialect, notable for a number of words not in use elsewhere.
Within Wales, Gwynedd has the highest proportion of speakers of the Welsh language. The greatest concentration of Welsh speakers in Gwynedd is found in and around Caernarfon. According to the 2001 Census, 86.1% of the population could speak Welsh; the largest majority of Welsh speakers was found in the 10-14 age group, where 97.7% could speak it fluently. The town is nowadays a rallying-point for the Welsh nationalist cause.
The present castle building was constructed between 1283 and 1330 by order of King Edward I. The banded stonework and polygonal towers are thought to have been in imitation of the Walls of Constantinople. The impressive curtain wall with nine towers and two gatehouses survive largely intact. Caernarfon Castle is now under the care of Cadw and is open to the public. The castle includes the regimental museum of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
The medieval town walls, including eight towers and two twin-towered gateways form a complete circuit of 730 metres around the old town and were built between 1283 and 1285. The walls are in the care of Cadw but only a small section is accessible to the public. The town walls and castle at Caernarfon were declared part of a World Heritage Site in 1986. According to UNESCO, the castle and walls together with other royal castles in Gwynedd "are the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe".
Dedicated to Saint Peblig, the son of Saint Elen and Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), the church is built on an important early Christian site, itself built on a Roman Mithraeum or temple of Mithras, close to the Segontium Roman Fort. A Roman altar was found in one of the walls during 19th century restoration work. The present church dates mainly from the 14th century and is a Grade I listed building.
The statue in Castle Square was sculpted by W. Goscombe John and was erected in 1921 when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. David Lloyd George was the Member of Parliament for the area from 1890 to 1945.
The Old Market Hall in Hole-in-the-Wall Street and Crown Street was built in 1832, but the interior and roof were rebuilt later in that century. It is a Grade II listed building.
The old court buildings, replaced in 2009 by a new complex designed by HOK on the former Segontium School site in Llanberis Road, are situated inside the castle walls, next door to the Anglesey Arms Hotel and to the Gwynedd County Council buildings in Pendeitch. They are grand buildings, especially the exterior of the former magistrates' court, which features a gothic architecture style of decoration. The old buildings adjoin what used to be Caernarfon gaol, which has been closed since about the early 20th century and has now been converted into further council offices.
There is a small hospital in the town, 'Ysbyty Eryri' (i.e. "Snowdon Hospital"). The nearest large regional hospital is Ysbyty Gwynedd, in Bangor.
Previously, Caernarfon had been chosen as the location of a new prison. HMP Caernarfon would have held up to 800 adult males when constructed, and would have taken prisoners from all over the North Wales area. However, in September 2009 the UK Government withdrew plans to construct the prison.
Caernarfon Barracks were commissioned by John Lloyd, County Surveyor of Caernarfonshire, as a military headquarters and was completed in 1855.
Caernarfon was at one time an important port, exporting slate from the Dyffryn Nantlle quarries. This traffic was facilitated from 1828 by the Nantlle Railway which predated far more widely know ventures such as the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Ffestiniog Railway.
Five passenger stations have served the town:
Caernarvon railway station opened in 1852 as the western terminus of the Bangor and Carnarvon Railway. This connected the town with the North Wales coast and the expanding national network.
Carnarvon Castle railway station opened in 1856 as the northern passenger terminus of the narrow gauge Nantlle Railway. This service ended in 1865 when the line being built from the south by the standard gauge Carnarvonshire Railway took over most of its trackbed. The Carnarvonshire Railway's temporary northern terminus was at Pant to the south of the town. Pant station opened in 1867.
At the same time the Carnarvon and Llanberis Railway built its line from Llanberis to Caernarfon. Its temporary western terminus was called Carnarvon (Morfa). It opened in 1869 near the modern road bridges over the Afon Seiont.
For a short period, therefore, Caernarfon had three terminating stations on its edges. Records are contradictory, but this ended in either 1870 or 1871 when they were connected by a line through the town using the tunnel which survives, having been converted in 1995 for road traffic. When the through route was opened Pant and Morfa stations closed and the original station became the town's only station. The London and North Western Railway also took over all the lines mentioned leaving one station and one service provider by 1871.
The services to Llanberis and south to Afon Wen closed progressively from the 1930s, with tracks being lifted in the mid-1960s, but Caernarvon station survived until 1970, becoming one of the last passenger services to be closed under the Beeching Axe; it is now the site of a Morrisons supermarket.
The fifth station was opened on the old trackbed in St. Helen's Road. It is the temporary northern terminus of the narrow gauge Rheilffordd Eryri / Welsh Highland Railway. Work began on a permanent station for the town in February 2017. The new station is expected to be open to passengers in Spring 2018.
Bus services in the town are provided by Arriva Buses Wales, GHA Coaches, Express Motors and Padarn Bus.
Caernarfon Airport is 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to the south west, and offers pleasure flights and an aviation museum.
There are four primary schools in Caernarfon, Ysgol yr Hendre being the largest. The others are Ysgol y Gelli, Ysgol Santes Helen and Ysgol Maesincla.
The single secondary school serving Caernarfon and the surrounding areas – Ysgol Syr Hugh Owen – currently has between 900 and 1000 pupils from ages 11 to 18.
Ysgol Pendalar, a school for children with special needs, serves all of Arfon.
Coleg Menai is a further education college for adult learners.
Caernarfon's stadium The Oval (Caernarfon) has a capacity of 3000 people and 250 seated people.
Caernarfon hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1862, 1894, 1906, 1921, 1935, 1959 and 1979. Unofficial National Eisteddfod events were also held there in 1877 and 1880. Caernarfon also hosted the 30th annual Celtic Media Festival in March 2009.
Cultural destinations include Galeri and Oriel Pendeitsh.
Galeri is a creative enterprise centre that houses a gallery, a concert hall, cinema, a number of companies, and a range of other creative and cultural spaces.
Oriel Pendeitsh is a ground-floor exhibition space adjoining the Tourist Information Centre opposite Caernarfon Castle. The gallery has a varied and changing programme of exhibitions throughout the year.