Caernarfon Castle Climbing Great Buildings


Caernarfon Castle

Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. Next up is Caernarfon Castle, built in 1283.


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Transcript


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I'm 100ft up the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle.

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700 years ago, Welsh rebels tried to invade the castle by scaling these magnificent walls.

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Believe me, they didn't get very far.

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This is Climbing Great Buildings,

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and throughout the series I'll be scaling our most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day.

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I'll be revealing the buildings' secrets, and telling the story

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of how British architecture and construction developed over 1000 years.

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Caernarfon Castle, in the north-western corner of Wales,

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is a magnificent example of medieval castle-building.

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Work began here over 700 years ago, in 1283.

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It's just one of many in an iron ring of castles

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that King Edward I of England built

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to stamp his authority on the rebellious Welsh people.

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I'm going to climb this monster, not only to reveal the secrets of its construction,

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but to find out about its advances in medieval technology,

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so we can understand what it took to defend, and attack, this place.

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'But I won't be going it alone. I'll be aided by Lucy Creamer,

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'one of Britain's best climbers, and her team of riggers,

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'along with fearless cameraman Ian Burton.

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'My climbing skills will be tested as I scramble up these walls,

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'to discover the brilliance behind the layout of this structure.'

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-I'm grabbing hold of anything I can reach!

-Anything that's available!

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'I'll do whatever it takes to get closer to the secrets of its construction.'

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That was a mixture of scary and fun.

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'And I'll be attacking the King's Gate, a defensive barrier

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'that was so ingenious and brutal it struck fear into the hearts of its enemies, as well as mine.'

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Yes. so one bacon sandwich down today, and...I may see it again. Who knows?

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'I'm going to begin my climb on the south wall of the castle.

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'It's a sheer cliff of masonry, as daunting an obstacle today

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'as it would have been during the reign of Edward I, over 700 years ago.'

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The Welsh were a fearsome opposition, so Edward knew he had to build castles

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which were bigger, stronger, more technologically advanced than ever before.

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Caernarfon is built off solid bedrock.

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There's no better place to understand exactly how it met Edward's needs

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than to look at the walls.

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HE GROANS Start of the day, just getting into it!

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Edward chose to flex his muscles by having this stuff quarried.

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It's local, sturdy limestone.

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Taken out of the ground at Anglesey,

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brought over the water in boats by the tens of thousands of tonnes.

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These curtain walls, they're unique in Britain at the time,

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because they contain passages that run between the towers.

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They allow guards to keep a constant lookout.

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And they offer valuable protection to archers.

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Between the outer wall and the inner wall, it's over six metres thick.

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Building Caernarfon Castle was a massively ambitious thing to do.

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It's not just a matter of manpower, it's about getting the right balance

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of specialist engineering and construction skills on site.

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Edward scoured 32 English counties for the best masons and master masons,

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quarrymen, joiners, carpenters, barrowmen,

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and brought 2000 of them here to work on his new castle.

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Carrying on the work that never ends, renovating these castle walls, is the current Banker Mason.

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How do you rate the work of medieval masons?

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Fantastic.

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You look at these buildings and you think to yourself,

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wow, it's unbelievable what they did with simple, basic tools.

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How many feet of this kind of carving do you reckon you do a day?

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One, maybe two maximum.

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-One or two feet?

-Yes.

-Times...

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-Yeah, I get the picture. It's a big job.

-Yep, it is a big job.

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'Those highly-skilled workers were well paid for their talents, as original payrolls show.'

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These tell you all about the people that worked on Caernarfon Castle,

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and how much they were paid per week.

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And some of the little jobs that they did.

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Let's get to know them, shall we? Who are these people?

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These are the top masons, and these are getting paid the most amount of money.

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You can see here, the master mason is there being paid

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14 shillings for the week, which is a nice healthy sum.

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14 shillings a week? That's a lot of money then.

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-These must be the equivalent of City bankers' wages?

-Pretty much, yes.

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-Craft-based fat cats!

-Something like that, yes.

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But I think he was very skilled, so it was worthwhile.

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The next rank down, these are the layers and the setters.

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So these are still masons, they're still quite skilled, but they're not quite there at the top ranks yet.

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They're being paid two shillings one pence for a week,

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and the bottom one here is being paid 23 pence and half a pence.

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So, just under two shillings.

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-It's an enormous range, isn't it? It shows the career ladder.

-Yes.

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-Simply in masonry, and how elevated that status was.

-Yes.

-Once you got to the top.

-Absolutely.

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Are there any surnames which tell us where these guys came from?

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Well, there's Robert de Stoke, John de Cheddar.

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So I think you can get some kind of idea that they are coming from all over the place.

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So, Luce, tell me about this thing. What are you looking for?

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Well, I'm looking for really big hand-holds, and I reckon this would be the one I'd go for.

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Just climb up here like that.

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Scaling castles made easy.

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Now, what Lucy describes as her favourite hand-hold

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is known to many as an arrow loop, and of course they're standard parts of castle design.

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And the trick is to fire at people without being fired back on in return.

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Check that one out, Ian, straight ahead of you.

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Now, Caernarfon sees some major innovations in arrow-loop design,

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which makes them more like medieval machine guns.

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I'll show you those later.

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-I'm just grabbing hold of anything I can reach at this point!

-Anything that's available!

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-Well done, Jonathan.

-Thanks, Luce!

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Good effort.

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-Well done, you.

-And you.

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You did well, first top-out.

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Well, that's invaded that. What are we going to do next?!

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That wasn't so bad, actually.

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It was worth it for the view, Luce, wasn't it?

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There are 13 towers at Caernarfon, and I'm about to swing out onto the Queen's Tower to get a closer look

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at its unusual design and decoration.

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Here we go.

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Cool!

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That was fun!

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'I'm 70ft up, and, despite the guide ropes, the idea of leaping

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'from battlements seems insane, and against all my natural instincts.'

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Whey! That was a good one.

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Ooooh!

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How was it?

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That's a mix. That was a mixture of scary and fun.

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That's what it's all about.

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I've got to say, climbing is one thing, because obviously you start from the ground.

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You make your way up gradually and get used to it.

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But swinging up from the top of the wall is contrary to every instinct in my body.

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Because you start by looking down!

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That's freaky. But the guys who built the thing in the first place,

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they were working off pretty rudimentary timber scaffolding.

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No safety, no barriers, no health and safety officers.

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-No.

-You wonder how many people lost their lives building something like this.

-Yeah.

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Good for them. Right. On which note...

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'It was tough enough for the masons themselves to get up to this height.

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'But no medieval invader could possibly have gone over or around these walls.

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'Invaders had worked out that, if they couldn't overthrow a castle

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'by going over the walls, they could go under them.

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'A tunnel would be dug beneath the corners of square towers.

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'This would be propped and packed with kindling, and set on fire, collapsing the tower.

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'To remove vulnerable corners, round and polygonal towers were developed, like those at Caernarfon,

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'which had the added bonus that missiles from catapults tended to ricochet off them.'

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We've climbed halfway up the Queen's Tower now.

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And my feet are on the top of three giant bands of coloured stone.

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You can see it's slightly creamier now.

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That stonework isn't just decorative, and these polygonal towers aren't simply defensive.

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They have a much deeper symbolic meaning,

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and the answer to what that is lies 1500 miles away in the ancient Roman city of Constantinople.

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Edward I, who built this castle, saw himself as more than just a king.

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He modelled himself on Constantine, the first Christian emperor of ancient Rome,

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and builder of the great city of Constantinople,

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Europe's largest and wealthiest city throughout the Middle Ages.

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So, by echoing those coloured bands and towers of Constantinople,

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Edward was saying something quite profound.

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He's more than just a king, he's an emperor.

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And this was the latest of his new dominions in an ever-growing empire.

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So, step up and get your Croll higher if it's possible.

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Good.

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There we go.

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-Good effort.

-Nice.

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-Yeah, that worked, didn't it?

-Yeah.

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'It's a great feeling to have made it up this far,

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'but I'm also just glad to have my feet back on solid ground again.

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'All the towers here at Caernarfon performed specific functions.

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'The Well Tower retrieved fresh water from the bedrock.

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'One tower stored and processed grain, another housed the treasury.

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'Others, such as the lookout towers, held more traditional, defensive roles.

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'But the greatest of all has to be the Eagle Tower, which contained the royal apartments,

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'where King Edward intended to stay with Queen Eleanor.

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'Everything about it was designed on a regal scale.'

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-Hello, sir.

-Hello, Jonathan. Welcome to Caernarfon Castle.

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My name's Tristan, I'm the Head Custodian.

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-That's a warmer welcome than I'd have had 700 years ago.

-Absolutely.

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What does Caernarfon mean to the Welsh today?

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It's moved from being a symbol of imperialistic oppression, status of the English,

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to being accepted as part of the Welsh psyche.

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It is a World Heritage Site, and it's gone from being

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what would have been a royal palace to now being part of Caernarfon.

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-Thoroughly absorbed landmark in the fabric of Wales?

-Absolutely.

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But the Eagle Tower is the ultimate symbol of that royal authority, isn't it?

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Absolutely. King Edward brought his heavily pregnant wife across.

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He wanted the next future king to be born in Wales.

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Edward I ensured his eldest son was born at Caernarfon to legitimise his claim over Wales.

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He was later given the title Prince of Wales, since conferred on every first-born royal son.

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Our own Prince Charles was invested here at Caernarfon in 1969.

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-This heir to the throne was born at Caernarfon as a statement of imperial authority?

-Absolutely.

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It was a political statement.

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And that transforms this place from being just a castle

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into both a seat of government as well as a palatial residence?

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Definitely. It's not just a castle, it's a grand palace.

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And here we have a lavish royal apartment.

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-I don't think I've ever seen a beam that big.

-Huge vaulted beams.

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-Beautiful big space.

-It's huge, fit for purpose.

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Massive great big fireplace. We've got en-suite facilities.

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A kitchen.

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-The Privy Kitchen, so that you don't poison the king?

-Absolutely.

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-He's got his own royal cookery.

-Nice.

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What else has he got?

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-Wonderful sea views from the windows that we're coming up against now.

-This one?

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-This one here. A lovely bay window.

-Oh, a window seat! Let's have a look.

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-Charming.

-There we go. Anglesey.

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-Beaumaris over in the distance.

-You can see Beaumaris!

-On a good day.

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-King of all he surveys.

-Absolutely.

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Right, what else has he got, then?

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'They made brilliant use of space

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'and even managed to fit each living area

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'with its own mini chapel.'

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You wash out the holy vessels here?

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That's right, and then obviously the water drains away.

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There are still bits of plaster that can give us an indication

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that the walls and possibly the ceiling would have been lime-washed.

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-I bet this was a little jewel box, this room.

-It would have been quite cosy at the time, I think.

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'Edward spared no expense in providing

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'all the mod cons of the day to the residents of the castle.

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'The kitchens had hot and cold running water, and even a waste disposal unit.

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'Edward's grand designs for Caernarfon almost bankrupted him.

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'Several planned elements to the castle had to be abandoned.'

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How much of the castle was eventually built remains an open question.

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You can see on the north side that inside the walls there are several stories imagined.

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Downstairs there's a whole row of arrow loops

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and then there are corbels, those chunky stones

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just sticking out of the wall to accept a timber floor deck.

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Then, over the top, you see that upside down V-shape on both sides?

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They were built to receive a roof.

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But the regularity of the toothing

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means that those walls that butted up to the tower,

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that formed the inside of those chambers, was never built.

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Had it been built and demolished, it simply wouldn't look as neat.

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Maybe something timber was built there that just rotted away.

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Some questions we'll never have the answers to.

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'At the base of the Eagle Tower

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'there are elegantly cut Gothic arches.

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'These would have taken weeks to construct

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'but, with hundreds of windows to be built, there was simply no time.

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'At Caernarfon, we see introduced a clever French solution.

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'Masons built rounded-off stone shoulders.

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'These supported a straight lintel across the top.

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'This was so successful that an extended version was used

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'for the construction of many of the corridors within the castle.

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'This smart and efficient solution

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'would become a standard feature of later castle design,

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'but it would always be known as the Caernarfon Arch.

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'To really appreciate the design and the strategic layout of this place,

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'I'm going to climb to the very top of the majestic Eagle Tower.'

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Now...

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Remember you can push your jammer up higher if you want to, Jonathan.

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The terminology in climbing!

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-"You can push your jammer up as high as you want to." What's my jammer?

-Sorry, your Jumar.

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My Jumar? Oh, my handle.

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-Is that good?

-Yeah, it just means you can go a bit further...

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I felt my jammer was fully operational there.

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-You're jammin'!

-Yeah!

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Ian, is your jammer in full operational mode?

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There's a window there, I have to be careful about this.

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'The designer of Caernarfon Castle

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'was Master James of St George from Savoy in the Alps.

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'Master James was a visionary architect who'd worked on a number of great European castles.

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'One of the innovations he brought with him from the Continent was the concentric castle.'

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To understand where Caernarfon comes from and the brilliance of Master James of St George,

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we need to wind it back a bit

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and understand what castle design was like in the couple of centuries leading up to Caernarfon.

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Lucy, I need my drawing pad, please.

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Time to draw at this point.

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Thank you so much, that's great.

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Righty.

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Let's start here.

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After the Norman Conquest,

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a Britain which didn't really have many stone castles,

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a typical castle was something like this.

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It's called a motte-and-bailey.

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And you have a castle on a hill...

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Motte...

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..is not the word for a moat but for a mound

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and then the bailey is at the bottom of the mound

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and that's where the little ancillary buildings would be.

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So, a motte-and-bailey castle.

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In the 12th century, we make a move toward concentric castles.

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'The main tower would be surrounded by walls for extra defence.

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'Caernarfon goes even further.

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'The central tower or keep is done away with.

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'The town itself is within this concentric castle

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'and its towers are so strong and fine they could double up as living areas for the king's subjects.'

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It's a very brilliant solution.

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HE GROANS

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-Are you managing?

-Just about.

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I'm holding on by what feels like my toenails.

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'That's the first stage of the Eagle Tower complete, but I still need to scale one of its three turrets,

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'which will take us to the very highest point of the castle.'

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That is quite...beautiful.

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At Caernarfon, Master James made best use of the natural defences.

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The river runs to the south of the castle and opens out onto that estuary with Anglesey beyond.

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But from the land entrance you arrive at the town before the castle.

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The town itself is defended by a circuit of wall

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snaking around the outside, with gatehouses and defensible posterns.

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You have to get through that before you arrive at the castle itself.

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In that respect, Edward I was the first king to build a fully fortified town.

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Well done. HE LAUGHS

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-I lose so many points on the dismount!

-Beautiful.

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Just like a baby elephant.

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-That is some view.

-It's pretty amazing, yeah.

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I feel quite privileged to be up here.

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On top of the Eagle Tower you come face to face

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with the eagles that gave this tower its name.

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They're pretty weathered, they don't look much, but they're important evidence for Edward I's self-image,

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using this symbol of Ancient Roman imperial grandeur to show his own ambitions as an emperor.

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'As well as the eagles, there are carved heads all along the battlements.

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'At first glance the stone heads may have looked like helmeted soldiers

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'and deterred would-be attackers.

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'On permanent lookout, they certainly symbolise the strength of the royal garrison within.

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'You'd have thought that only the foolhardy would have attacked this monster of a castle

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'but in 1293 Welsh rebels, resentful of the occupation of their country by the English,

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'lay siege to Caernarfon.

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'Under the command of Madog ap Llywelyn,

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'hundreds of Welsh rebels attacked the north face of the castle,

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'which was still under construction.'

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We're on the highest point of the castle on the west side

0:21:210:21:25

and we need to get to where the invaders broke in in the 1290s on the north.

0:21:250:21:29

-What have you got lined up?

-As I said, I've got a little plan for you.

0:21:290:21:34

-We've done lots of climbing and I think your arms need a rest.

-They do.

0:21:340:21:37

So I've got this zip-line rigged up for you and you can swing down

0:21:370:21:40

and it's a really quick way to get to the other tower.

0:21:400:21:43

I'm off. Right, attack.

0:21:450:21:47

Wahey!

0:21:520:21:54

That's marvellous.

0:21:540:21:56

Whey! Awesome.

0:21:560:21:57

It's actually incredibly exciting.

0:21:580:22:00

You get a seagull's-eye view of Caernarfon.

0:22:000:22:04

Not something I expected to do.

0:22:040:22:07

OK?

0:22:080:22:09

Right, I'm going.

0:22:090:22:11

-One, two, three...

-Go on, Luce.

0:22:110:22:13

-Whoo-hoo!

-She's so gung-ho.

0:22:140:22:16

Wheee! HE LAUGHS

0:22:160:22:19

Awesome!

0:22:200:22:22

Oh, that was amazing!

0:22:220:22:25

Oh, wow, I'm buzzing.

0:22:250:22:28

-Welcome.

-Yeah.

-Wow, that was...

-I loved your impressive launch.

0:22:310:22:36

It seemed like the easiest way to go.

0:22:360:22:39

It's brilliant, this place is quite gob-smacking.

0:22:430:22:46

When the Welsh attacked in 1293, this side of the castle wasn't here.

0:22:480:22:53

Only the town walls and a deep ditch were protecting the north side.

0:22:540:22:59

The Welsh exploited this Achilles heel

0:22:590:23:01

and Madog's forces overran an occupied Caernarfon for several months.

0:23:010:23:06

The English managed to regain control and they set about fortifying the north side.

0:23:070:23:13

An embarrassed King Edward was paranoid about further attacks

0:23:130:23:17

and so it was important to get this north side built as quickly as possible.

0:23:170:23:21

The coloured banding on the south side went out the window here.

0:23:210:23:24

It wasn't about exterior decoration, it was about protecting the castle as quickly as possible.

0:23:240:23:30

Master James's instructions were to turn the weakest part of the castle into the strongest.

0:23:300:23:35

To do that he used a mixture of brute force, architectural cunning and refinement in execution.

0:23:350:23:41

Edward I wanted to build the strongest fortress he possibly could.

0:23:430:23:47

The king's desire to avoid any more military humiliation led to another ingenious innovation.

0:23:470:23:54

This is the machine gun of the medieval period.

0:23:540:23:58

As you see, three archers could shoot all simultaneously out of the one slit so you'd have a crossfire.

0:23:580:24:05

-It looks like three windows from the inside.

-That's what it is, but from the outside, it looks like one.

0:24:050:24:11

Three fellows could work in synchronicity.

0:24:110:24:14

-Yep. A medieval machine gun.

-Very clever, very nasty.

0:24:140:24:17

It is. This was the machine that would have been used.

0:24:170:24:20

As you can see, a deadly weapon, and penetration...

0:24:200:24:25

-You're making me nervous because you may kill some tourists if you go any further.

-Yes, a bit scary.

0:24:250:24:31

Let's put that down. This is more my line.

0:24:310:24:34

I'll just replace this one.

0:24:350:24:37

Robin of Sherwood.

0:24:370:24:39

-Thank you, Jonathan!

-Thank you very much.

0:24:390:24:42

Here we are. Low-tech as it is, we'll get some idea of how it works.

0:24:420:24:47

Draw...and loose!

0:24:470:24:49

'Well, you get the idea.

0:24:490:24:51

'But 700 years ago there could have been volleys of 1000 arrows per minute

0:24:530:24:57

'shooting out of the castle at every conceivable angle.

0:24:570:25:01

'Any would-be invaders would have simply been cut to ribbons.

0:25:010:25:04

'It's with some trepidation that I approach the final stage of our journey.

0:25:100:25:15

'A decidedly unnerving descent past the grand entrance of the King's Gate.'

0:25:160:25:21

-Here we go.

-Well done, you're doing brilliantly.

0:25:250:25:28

'My stomach is churning, although perhaps far less so

0:25:280:25:32

'than that of any army faced with the defences we're about to see.'

0:25:320:25:35

Now for the sinking.

0:25:410:25:42

Just sit down on it. You're going to have to put your weight on it.

0:25:450:25:48

Brilliant, well done.

0:25:480:25:51

It's not what you want to do first thing in the morning.

0:25:510:25:54

Not first thing, maybe not even second.

0:25:540:25:56

You just do whatever you want. That's it.

0:26:000:26:04

-Whoo...

-You're doing fine.

0:26:080:26:11

I'm being very delicate because I don't want to touch this sculpture.

0:26:130:26:17

Anything to my mind that's cut by human hand and eye into a meaningful shape

0:26:170:26:23

I really don't want to get too close to,

0:26:230:26:26

but to see it at this distance is fantastic.

0:26:260:26:28

You just don't see major medieval sculpture like this.

0:26:280:26:31

Oh, wow.

0:26:310:26:33

-HE LAUGHS

-He's seen better days, hasn't he?

0:26:330:26:36

He's held together with bronze pins,

0:26:360:26:38

he's like a racing driver after a bad accident,

0:26:380:26:41

but this is a 1321 sculpture of the man who would be Edward II.

0:26:410:26:47

'By placing a statue of his son here, right on this powerful entrance,

0:26:470:26:52

'Edward I was reaffirming that this was the seat of a great regal dynasty.

0:26:520:26:57

'Built into the walls just below Edward II's statue

0:26:590:27:03

'lies a devastating array of medieval defences.'

0:27:030:27:06

It's quite amazing, it's really complex the way that these defences are integrated in the one gate.

0:27:060:27:11

You have the first of five portcullises sliding down here.

0:27:110:27:15

You can see the groove there in the stone, it goes all the way down to the ground,

0:27:150:27:20

but then there are murder holes right above you.

0:27:200:27:23

Any kind of substance or weapon or arrows

0:27:230:27:27

could be raining down from there,

0:27:270:27:29

and then you've got arrow slits everywhere.

0:27:290:27:32

You would not stand a chance.

0:27:320:27:35

'The castle was attacked again in 1304

0:27:350:27:38

'but it's thought that, with the newly erected defensive wall,

0:27:380:27:41

'over 300 soldiers were held off by only 28 castle guards.

0:27:410:27:46

'Ultimately advances in modern warfare such as cannons

0:27:480:27:52

'rendered castles like this obsolete.

0:27:520:27:54

'Because Caernarfon Castle stood as a symbol of the monarchy,

0:27:560:27:59

'following the Civil War, Parliament ordered it to be demolished.

0:27:590:28:03

'But such was its sheer scale, it proved too difficult to dismantle and they gave up.

0:28:030:28:08

'Here it stands, 700 years later and as formidable as ever.

0:28:120:28:16

'A fitting monument to a powerful warrior king

0:28:160:28:19

'and a brilliant architect.

0:28:190:28:21

'Next time we see how the Black Death devastated the population of Britain

0:28:250:28:29

'but also inspired a blueprint for university buildings

0:28:290:28:33

'at New College, Oxford.'

0:28:330:28:34

Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction have developed over 1000 years.

The next step of Jonathan's journey takes him to Caernarfon Castle, built in 1283 and one of the most magnificent examples of medieval castle building in Britain.

Jonathan, aided by top British climber Lucy Creamer, tests his climbing skills to reveal the secrets of this monster of a castle's construction and what it would have been like for anyone foolhardy enough to attack it. On his climbs, he scales over 100 feet up the majestic Eagle Tower to investigate how the architect behind Caernarfon revolutionised castle building in Britain; he discovers how the castle's design and decoration were inspired by the ancient Roman town of Constantinople; and he tests the limits of his courage zip-wiring high above the castle before abseiling down the King's Gate to investigate the fortified main entrance, which housed an innovation so lethal that it's been dubbed a medieval machine-gun.


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