Caerphilly Castle was built in the second half of the thirteenth century by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, one of the most important magnates during the reign of king Henry III and his successor Edward I. Its construction was associated with Anglo-Norman expansion in South Wales. The task of conquering the Glamorgan region was handed over to the Gloucester earls in 1093, and throughout the 12th and early 13th centuries, battles between Anglo-Norman lords and local Welsh rulers continued. The powerful family of de Clare won the earldom in 1217 and continued to try to conquer the Glamorgan region. Gilbert de Clare inherited family lands in 1263, when the chaos of the civil war in England between Henry III and the rebellious barons grew. In 1265, the Welsh ruler Llywelyn ap Gruffudd allied himself with the baronial faction in England to expand his power in Glamorgan. Gilbert de Clare, in turn, allied himself with Henry III against the rebellious barons and Llywelyn. The rebellion of the barons was crushed between 1266 and 1267, leaving Gilbert free to expand northwards from his headquarter in Cardiff. In 1268, de Clare began building a castle in Caerphilly to be able to control his new achievements. The castle was located in the Rhymney valley, in the vicinity of the former Roman fort. Work was imposed on a very fast pace. The architect of the castle and the exact cost of construction are unknown, but modern estimates suggest that it cost the same as the castle in Conwy or Caernarfon, maybe even 19,000 pounds, which was a huge sum at the time. In 1270 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd attacked the construction site, burning stored materials and unfinished buildings. The following year, de Clare continued to work on the castle, but he had to accept the royal mediation in a dispute with Llywelyn and let two bishops to join Caerphilly: Roger de Meyland and Godfrey Giffard. However, at the beginning of 1272, Gilbert’s people threw out the mediators and took control of the castle, and the construction was continued. In 1276, Henry’s son, king Edward I, as a result of a dispute with Llywelyn, attacked and deprived him of South Wales, and in 1282 Edward’s second campaign ended in Llwelyn’s death and the fall of independent Welsh rule.
In 1294, Madog ap Llywelyn rebelled against English rule. In Glamorgan, Morgan ap Maredudd, who was disinherited by Gilbert de Clare in 1270, led the local insurgency fight, counting on regaining his lands. Morgan attacked Caerphilly, burning half the city, but could not get the castle. In 1295, Edward I conducted a pacification campaign in North Wales, and de Clare attacked Morgan’s forces at Glamorgan, regaining lost terrain and defeating the enemy. De Clare died at the end of 1295, leaving the Caerphilly castle with a small town in good condition.
Gilbert’s son, also known as Gilbert de Clare, inherited the castle, but died fighting in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when he was still young. Care for family grounds was taken over by the English Crown, but before the decisions on the inheritance were made, another revolt in Glamorgan broke out. Due to the actions of the royal administrators, in 1316, Llywelyn Bren raised the rebellion, attacking Caerphilly Castle. The stronghold withstood the attack, but the town was destroyed and the rebellion spread. The royal army had just been sent, defeated Bren at the Battle of Caerphilly Mountain, and eliminated the Welsh siege of the castle.
In 1317 king Edward II established Eleonora de Clare as the heir of Glamorgan and Caerphilly, who married the royal favorite Hugh le Despenser. He used his relationship with the king to expand power throughout the region, taking over lands in southern Wales. He also hired master Thomas de la Bataile and William Hurley to enlarge the Great Hall in the castle. In 1326, Edward’s wife, Isabella of France, overthrew the authority, forcing the king and Hugh to flee west. The couple stayed in Caerphilly from late October to early November, and then escaped from Isabella‘s upcoming forces. On behalf of the queen, the castle was besieged by William La Zouche. Caerphilly defended itself until March 1327, when the 130-strong garrison surrendered.
In 1416 castle through the marriage of Isabella le Despenser, first went to Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester, and then to her second husband, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Isabella and her second husband invested heavily in the castle, carrying out repairs and making it the main residence in the region. In 1449, the castle went to Richard Neville, and in 1486 it was taken over by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. From that moment, the stronghold began to decline, in the sixteenth century it was already in ruin, and the surrounding water was transformed into swamps. In 1583, the castle was rented by Thomas Lewis, who began its demolition to enlarge his home.
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, an earthwork or a small fort was built near Caerphilly Castle. It is uncertain whether it was raised by the royalist forces or by the army of the Parliament, that occupied these areas during the last months of the war in March 1646. It is also uncertain whether the castle was deliberately demolished by Parliament to prevent its further use by royalists. Although in the eighteenth century, several towers collapsed, it was probably the result of damages caused by slipping, not due to earlier deliberate actions.
The first protection measures were taken by the Marquis of Bute, John Stuart, who owned the castle ruins at the end of the 18th century. Work was continued by his great-grandson, John Crichton-Stuart, who renovated and covered the great hall in the 1870s. The fourth marquis, John Crichton-Stuart, commissioned a comprehensive castle renovation project in 1928-1939. Rebuilt, among others the eastern gate and a few towers. Works on re-flooding the area around the castle were also started and the houses covering the monument were demolished. In 1950, the fifth Marquis of Bute donated the Caerphilly castle to the state.
The main castle was built of sandstone, on a square plan with four cylindrical towers, placed one in each corner. The entrance led from the east and west through powerful gatehouses, each of which was formed of two semicircular towers, protecting the passage between them. From the side of the inner ward, the gates were equipped with two communication towers, enabling to reach their tops. They had a defense system, both external and internal, in case of an opponent breaking in another place. Inside them were also living quarters, in the inner east gate probably serving the castle constable and his family. The gatehouses of the outer belt of the main castle fortifications were similar, only lower, and did not have any rear communication towers. The outer belt of fortifications circled the entire upper castle, adopting semicircular shapes in the corners. Caerphilly was the first concentric castle in Great Britain, preceding several years of the famous concentric castles of Edward I in North Wales.
In the inner ward, by the southern curtain of the wall, there was a Great Hall building and a two-bay building with private chambers of the castle owner in the south-western corner. In the Middle Ages, the Great Hall was divided by wooden screens, decorated with colorful ornaments and warmed by a large, centrally located fireplace. Some medieval carved corbels in the shape of male and female heads have survived to this day, probably depicting the royal court from the twenties of the 14th century. To the east of the Great Hall was the castle chapel, located above the buttery and pantry. Further buildings were erected in the area of the southern zwinger. It was a huge horseshoe tower, a building connecting the Great Hall with an external defensive wall at the lake, so-called Braos Gallery, and a rectangular building of the castle kitchen, next to the south-east tower.
Behind the central island there was a western island, connected from the north-west by a gate and a drawbridge with the mainland and by a second drawbridge in the east with the main castle. The island in Welsh is called Y Weringaer or Caer y Werin, which means “people’s fort”, so it could be used as a refuge for people from the town of Caerphilly. To the north-west of the island was a former Roman fort, covering about 1.2 ha.
The entrance to the eastern island was possible through the main gate from the eastern side. It consisted of two towers, reinforced at the bottom with prominent spurs, that protected the passage between them. The gate had two drawbridges and advanced foregate. On the north side of the island there was a northern dam, protected by three powerful towers and a smaller gatehouse. The southern dam was a massive 152-meter building, ending with a huge wall with buttresses. There was a castle mill next to it. The southern dam ended with the so-called Felton Tower, a square fortification designed to protect the locks and regulate water levels. On the southern edge, a horseshoe tower and a gatehouse leading to the town, called the Giffard Tower, were erected. It was also a double-tower construction with a passage in the middle and a drawbridge and additionally, a long foregate neck.
The water defense zone in Caerphilly was almost certainly inspired by security at Kenilworth, where a similar set of artificial lakes and dams was created. Gilbert de Clare fought during the siege of Kenilworth in 1266 and saw them with his own eyes. The Caerphilly water protection was a special defense against the undermining, which was one of the most dangerous and effective ways to capture castles.
Surrounded by extensive artificial lakes and occupying a gigantic area of approximately 12 ha, Caerphilly is now the second largest castle in the United Kingdom. It is famous, among other things, for the well-preserved system of medieval dams and locks, which together with the fortifications on the eastern island have been preserved practically in their entirety. The main castle also survived in quite good condition. Until today, all four gatehouses, two of the four corner towers and the third damaged and tilted, have survived or have been reconstructed. One can admire the roofed Great Hall and the ruined, but still legible, buildings of the southern zwinger and the building of the castle’s private chambers.
The castle is open to visitors from March 1 to June 30 daily from 9.30 to 17.00, in the period from July 1 to August 31 daily from 9.30 to 18.00, from September 1 to October 31, daily from 9.30 to 17.00 and from 1 November to February 28 from Monday to Saturday from 10.00-16.00.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Caerphilly Castle.