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 Llywelyn’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, son of Gruffud ap Rhys. His troops in the strength of as many as 10,000 men besieged Caerphilly, capturing of the castle keeper William de Berkerolles, who was just outside the fortifications. Despite this, the stronghold withstood the attack, but the town and nearby mills were 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. The only damages to the castle was suffered by the south gate and its drawbridge.
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 good 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 together with his lover Roger Mortimer, overthrew the hated Despenser 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, while defenders were commanded by Sir John de Felton and Hugh Despenser the younger. Caerphilly defended itself until March 1327, when the 130-strong garrison surrendered, after the promise of a free pardon to Despreser heir. An exact inventory was made on the occasion of the castle’s surrender, so it is known that in its warehouses there were 800 shafts for lances, 14 Danish axes, 1130 crossbow bolts and 118 quarters of wheat, 118 quarters of beans, 78 carcasses of oxen, 280 carcasses of mutton, 72 hams, 1800 stockfish. Treasure value of 13,000 pounds had to be loaded into as many as 26 barrels and an additional large barrel with 1000 pounds owned by Despreser.
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 core of the castle was built of sandstone, on a quadrangle plan with four cylindrical towers, one in each corner. The entrance led from the east and west through huge gates, each of which was formed of two semicircular towers, protecting the passage between them. They had a system of external and internal defense (from the inner courtyard’s side), in the event of an enemy breaking through in another place, which made them independent defensive works. In their interior there were also living quarters, in the inner eastern gate probably serving the castle constable and his family. Thanks to this, they resembled more massive keeps than typical gatehauses (they could be modeled on very similar gate of Tonbridge Castle in England, while they were preceded the gatehouses in the famous castles of Edward I in Harlech or Beaumaris).
The passage of the inner eastern gate was closed with two heavy doors and two portcullises. From each tower in the ground floor an arrowslit was directed towards the moat, and in the vault of the passage there were upper shooting holes so-called murder holes. The only access to the internal rooms led through the side portals in the central passage, but one of the door and portcullis sets (closer to the courtyard or closer to the zwinger) had to be passed to them. From the side of the inner courtyard, the gate was equipped with two communication turrets, enabling access to its top. The rooms in the ground floor next to them were illuminated by small windows with crowns in the form of a trefoils. They probably served the guards. Two rooms on the first floor had a similar form, but a higher standard – they were equipped with fireplaces. Between them, the middle chamber, slightly higher due to the vaulted gateway, contained murder holes and portcullis mechanisms. From the inner courtyard side, under the window, there was also an outlet channel, probably used to shoot attackers or extinguish the fires they put on. The side rooms of the first floor were also connected to the defensive walkway on the adjacent walls, each of these portals was protected by a portcullis. A short corridor nearby led to latrines with outlets in the outer corners of the gate. Most of the second floor was occupied by the main hall of the gatehouse, illuminated by two large, two-light ogival windows, between which there was a fireplace. These windows were placed in deep niches with side benches. An open roof truss was used at the top, making the chamber a spacious, impressive hall. In the southern part of the second floor there was a small vaulted room, accessible from a spiral staircase. It could have been a small oratory or chapel, or a storage room for valuables, from which by a small window the main chamber could be seen below.
The appearance of both gatehouses of the inner perimeter was very similar, but there were also differences. The west gate, unlike the east gate, had a pit with a drawbridge inside. It also had two portcullises, but only single doors. Another difference was the vaulted rooms in the ground floor, accessible not from the gateway, but from the courtyard side. The west gate had only two floors with a five-bay roof truss on the upper, residential floor.
The gatehouses of the outer fortifications of the main castle were similar, only lower, and did not have rear communication towers. Initially, they were open from the back to prevent any attackers from sheltering and allow fire from the main perimeter of the walls, in case the outer perimeter was captured. In the later, calmer period of the Middle Ages, the rear of outer gatehouses was built up to create additional rooms. Its towers flanked the central passage with a drawbridge, which inner part was lowered into a pit and the outer part was raised over the moat. The outer belt of fortifications circled the entire upper castle, adopting semicircular shapes in the corners. In its northern and southern curtain, there were two smaller water posterns, enabling smaller boats to dock to the castle fortifications. Caerphilly was one of the first concentric castles on the British Isles, preceding the famous Edward I concentric strongholds in North Wales for several years.
In the inner courtyard, at the southern curtain of the wall, there was a building of a great hall and a building with the private chambers of the castle’s lord in the southwest corner. In the Middle Ages, the large hall was divided by timber screens (forming a kind of corridor separating the entrance), embellished with colorful decorations and heated by a large, centrally located fireplace, placed between two pairs of large windows topped with ogee arches. Inside, the jamb of these windows were richly decorated with gothic ball-flowers and profiled. An open wooden roof truss of a considerable width of 10.6 meters rested on stone ancillary columns composed of three shafts based on wall corbels. To this day, some of these corbels have survived, carved in the shape of male and female heads, probably depicting the royal court of the twenties of the fourteenth century. From the great hall, two portals led to the eastern pantry and buttery, one in the corner through a diagonal corridor in the thickness of the perimeter wall to the kitchen and another portal to the transverse wing (Braose Gallery) and further to the water postern by the lake. To ensure security, both the postern and the portal to the vaulted gallery were closed by portcullis. On the west side of the great hall, probably on a small elevation, there was a table at which celebrations, feasts and ordinary meals were held. Behind it, the portal led to the private chambers of the castle lord.
From the west, the castle’s private chambers were adjacent to the large hall, accessible both from the hall and directly from the courtyard. This range was divided on each floor into two rooms: larger from the side of the great hall and smaller in the corner of the castle, connected to the cylindrical tower. The upper, main floor was warmed by fireplaces and illuminated from the courtyard side with large ogival windows. A narrow corridor inserted between the rooms from the courtyard side could be intended for footmen awaiting orders from residents of the main chambers.
To the east of the great hall was the castle chapel, located on the first floor above the pantry. Two storage rooms on the ground floor were connected by separate portals with a great hall. One of these rooms could be used for storing drinks, the other for storing food (pantry and buttery). The upper floor was accessed via wooden stairs directly from the courtyard to the chapel’s vestibule. It is not known whether it was used for religious purposes or whether it was an administrative and economic room. Behind it (closer to the perimeter wall) the chapel was higher than the vestibule, and thanks to that it was illuminated with windows of the clerestory with unusual pentagonal frames. In addition, from the east, light was shining through the large pointed window from behind the altar.
Further buildings were erected in the southern zwinger area. It was a huge horseshoe tower, a transverse building connecting a great hall with an external defensive wall on the lake, housing the vaulted corridor of the so-called Braose Gallery, and a rectangular castle kitchen building, next to the south-eastern tower. The Braose Gallery above the corridor had two more upper floors, each with a long, narrow room, probably for economic purposes. The horseshoe tower in the lower floor had a ribbed vaulted room. The upper rooms could be used for residential purposes, especially in summer, as it was not shaded by the outer perimeter walls. Later, the tower was adapted for a brewery and kitchen, placing fireplace niches and a base for a cauldron or vat in its ground floor. The later building was also a rectangular economic house in the eastern zwinger. Its base was made of stone, but the upper part was probably wooden.
The four corner cylindrical towers of the main ring of walls probably had a very similar appearance and internal layout. The best preserved north-west tower was available through the portal in the courtyard’s ground level. It led into a lobby with a spiral staircase on the left and a latrine on the right. The ground floor was low and dark, probably used as a warehouse and for defense purposes, as it was equipped with three arrowslits. Two upper floors have already been equipped with fireplaces and small windows from the courtyard side crown with trefoils. The second floor also had a latrine, while from the first floor portal led to a roofed gallery in the crown of the defensive wall. At the portal, a similar hole or channel was placed as at the eastern gate, with the outlet directed centrally above the entrance portal on the ground floor.
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.
Entrance to the east island was possible through the outer main gate from the east. It consisted of two towers that protected the passage between them. The towers at the base were four-sided, but above they turned into spurs – buttresses that gave them the shape of half an octagon. Each gate tower had three floors with arrowslits, the gate passage was protected by a portcullis, six upper narrow shooting holes so-called murder holes and a drawbridge located inside the gate passage. This internal footbridge was located above the canal (spillway) connecting both lakes. The canal itself was also secured by a portcullis, but working in the opposite way from usual – when raised it blocked the passage and opened the lower spillway. Lowered it opened the passage and blocked the spillway. On both sides of the gate passage there were vaulted guard rooms, accessible only from gateway through the side portals. The arrowslits placed in them covered the moat, the entrance and the gateway itself. Another portal from the gate passage led to the gatehouse range equipped with a staircase, connected to the upper floors of the gatehouse. In the room on the first floor there was a mechanism leaving the main portcullis, and from a smaller room the stairs led to the defensive walkway in the crown of the northern dam. The passage was secured by a drawbridge and a smaller portcullis, both raised from the upper floor. Another room on the first floor of the gatehouse probably housed the guard’s kitchen, as it was equipped with a fireplace and corner stove. From there, a spiral staircase led to the upper floor of the gatehouse. In the outer central niche above the passage, two square holes housed ropes or a chains used to lift the external drawbridge, leading to the protruded foregate, surrounded by a moat on all sides. Its octagonal structure was equipped with another drawbridge, connecting the castle with the mainland.
On the north side of the eastern island was a dam, protected by three huge towers and gatehouse – one floor lower and shallower, but also a two-tower. The role of the dam was to maintain the waters of the northern lake and ensure its proper depth. The three towers protecting it were protruded entirely in front of the face of the wall and reinforced with spurs. Interestingly, there were pits behind each of the towers, from which wooden footbridges were removed in case of danger to cut off each of the towers from the sidewalk of the rear defensive gallery. The northern side of the lake was protected by a long, several-bent curtain of the wall, ended with a small gate on the west. Probably its fortifications watched over the mouth of the stream which fed the nort lake, crucial in maintaining the water barrier.
The southern dam was a massive 152-meter-long structure ended with a huge wall with buttresses. On its platform was a water mill for grinding corn, driven by large wheels moved by the water flowing between the lakes. Right next to it, there was a small room in the building in the shape of a four-sided turret, equipped with latrines with outlets directed straight to the moat. Buttresses up to 91 meters long ended at the so-called Felton Tower, a square fortification intended to protect the lock and regulate water levels. On the southern edge, a horseshoe tower was erected to protect the most protruding part of the dam. On its north-eastern side there was a gatehouse leading to the town, called the Giffard Tower. It was also a two-tower structure with a passage in the middle and a drawbridge, as well as a long neck along the foregate.
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.
Gravett C., English Castles 1200-1300, Oxford 2009.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Renn D., Caerphilly Castle, Cardiff 2002.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Caerphilly Castle.