The medieval castle in Cardiff was erected on the site of a Roman fort from the first century BC who guarded the then border, during the conquest of the Celtic tribe of the Silures. As the Roman border moved west, the fortifications became less needed and were replaced by two smaller defensive objects north of the original site. In the middle of the third century, in the face of the threat of Irish pirate raids, the Romans erected another, fourth fort, whose remains were later incorporated into the castle. The fort was probably garrisoned at least until the end of the 4th, early 5th century, but it is not known when it was finally abandoned.
From the late 60s of the 11th century, the Norman conquest of southern Wales began. The progress of the invaders was marked by the construction of castles, often in the areas of ancient Roman buildings. Their re-use meant significant savings of time, money, and especially building materials. The Norman castle in Cardiff was erected by king William the Conqueror in 1081 on his return from St Davids, or by Robert Fitz Hamon, Earl of Gloucester and follower of the king in 1091, after defeating Iestyn ap Gwrgan, the last independent ruler of Glamorgan. Over the following years, it became the main center of Robert’s reign over the region. Cardiff was then located near the sea, which solved the supply problem, was also well protected by the rivers Taff and Rhymney, and controlled the old Roman road running along the coast.
Robert Fitz Hamon was killed as a result of after battle injuries in 1107, and his daughter and heiress, Mabel, married Robert, the illegitimate son of English king Henry I. The king gave Robert the earldom of Gloucester and made him Lord of Glamorgan. The new ruler of the castle at the request of king Henry, imprisoned in his fortress the second prince of Normandy and the elder brother of the king, also Robert, who stayed in the castle against his will from 1126 to the death in 1134. Around 1140, Robert, Earl of Gloucester rebuilt the central part of the castle from timber to stone, probably because of the Welsh revolts a few years earlier.
Robert died in 1147 and was succeeded by his son William. In 1158, he was abducted from Cardiff with his wife and son after a surprising night attack on the castle by the Ifor Bach, Lord Senghenydd. Eventually they were freed, but when William died in 1183, he had no male heir. The castle then passed to the prince and later king John, through engagement with William’s daughter, Isabel. In 1217, the castle passed into the hands of Gilbert de Clare, the son of Isabel’s sister. It was from now an important family seat in South Wales, although de Clares preferred to live in their castles in Clare and Tonbridge. Gilbert’s son, Richard de Clare, the sixth Earl of Gloucester, at the end of the thirteenth century began another construction works to raise the castle’s defenses. It could have been caused by the threat of hostile Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
Richard’s grandson, the last heir of the family, Gilbert de Clare, died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and the castle was given to Hugh Despenser, the favorite of king Edward II. Poor harvest and severe Despensers rule triggered a Welsh rebellion led by Llywelyn Bren in 1316. After his fall, two years later, Llywelyn was hanged, stretched and dismembered at Cardiff Castle. Execution aroused many criticisms, both on the English and Welsh side. Looking for a scapegoat, in 1321 Hugh arrested Sir William Fleminge, first arresting him in the Black Tower of Cardiff Castle and then performing the execution. Shortly thereafter, there was a conflict between the Despensers and other marcher lords, during which the castle was plundered. Eventually, the Despensers recovered Cardiff and kept it until the end of the century, despite the execution of Hugh Despenser for treason in 1326.
In 1401, rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr broke out in North Wales, spreading rapidly to the rest of the country. In 1404 Cardiff and the castle were captured and burned by rebels. The rage of the attack was to some extent due to the hatred still felt by the Welsh against the Despensers for the murder of Llewelyn Bren. Despite initial successes, after a few years the Glyndŵr uprising was suppressed, and by the time of surrender in 1415 all lost castles had already been recaptured.
The new stage in the history of the castle began when the heiress, Isabel Despenser, married Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester in 1411, and then after his death in 1423, cousin of Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. During their reign, the castle has expanded into new buildings on the south-western side. After the death of their son in 1444, and especially during the War of the Roses started in 1455, the title of Lord of Glamorgan and control of Cardiff changed frequently. As all the owners of the castle belonged to the leading families of the kingdom, they did not live in Cardiff or not invest in repairing the castle, which gradually began to decline.
In the middle of the 16th century, the castle was taken by William Herbert, a member of one of the most powerful medieval families in England. During the English Civil War, the Herbert family stood on the side of king Charles I, offering him shelter at the castle in the summer of 1645. During the fights, the stronghold passed from hand to hand, but it avoided major damages. Eventually it was taken over by Cromwell’s army, which, unlike many other Welsh castles, did not order its destruction. After the war, Herbert was able to make the necessary repairs to the castle, but began to spend more and more time outside, and in 1776 the last heiress, Charlotte Jane, donated the property to her husband John Stuart. John Crichton-Stuart, the second Marquess of Bute, then its successor, the third Marquess of Bute and his son, made in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, thorough rebuilding of the castle, due to which it received, in large part, the character of a neo-gothic Victorian mansion.
The castle was situated on the eastern bank of the Taff River, near its mouth in the south into the Bristol Channel. In the 11th century it was a motte and bailey stronghold with a keep placed on an earth mound, about 12 meters high, surrounded by a timber palisade and 9 meter wide moat at the foot of the mound. The mound was one of the largest built in Wales. The Normans used the old, damaged Roman walls as the basis of the outer perimeter of the castle, digging defensive ditches and erecting an earth rampart of 8 meters in height. In this way, the outer circumference of the fortifications on the square plan was created, covering the area of 3.34 ha (approx. 200 x 180 meters). Medieval builders did not use only 18 polygonal towers from Roman times, two of which flanked the northern and southern gates. Inside, the castle area was additionally divided by a wall into an internal smaller upper ward and external larger lower ward. To the south of the castle developed a medieval settlement, and then the town, fortified with a stone wall in the 13th century.
Around 1140, the wooden keep was rebuilt. The top of the mound was then surrounded by a polygonal, stone wall 9 meters high and 1.7 meters thick (shell keep), separating a courtyard with a diameter of about 24 meters. A stone wall was also erected on the south and west sides of the upper ward. On the other two directions, the extensive outer bailey (lower ward) was then protected by wood and earth fortifications.
At the end of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, during the reign of the de Clare family, the so-called Black Tower was built, flanking the nearby entrance gate to the castle. In plan, this tower had dimensions of 8.6 x 8.6 meters and about 18 meters high to the level of the parapet with battlement. It housed a vaulted ground floor and three upper floors, initially reached by external wooden stairs, and from the 15th century by a polygonal communication turret.
In the 13th or 14th century, the northern and eastern outer wooden and earth fortifications were also rebuilt into a stone wall. After entering the lower ward through the southern gate at the Black Tower, in order to reach the upper ward, one had to get through another gate in the transverse inner wall, flanked by two quadrilateral towers erected at that time, also located in the length of the transverse wall, which connected the keep with the Black Tower in the south. In the lower ward there were permanent quarters for the knights of Glamorgan and their grooms and armed men during their garrison service periods. The upper ward was probably filled with residential and economic buildings of the higher nobility and the castle owners.
In the keep around 1300, a new residential wing with a hall was erected, adjacent to the inner side of the walls in the south-eastern part of a small courtyard, and a polygonal gate tower, which stood on the edge of the southern slope of the mound. The entrance to it created an unusual, long neck leading down the mound through the moat, parallel to the transverse wall separating the upper and lower wards. The southern end of the gate passage was closed with a portcullis and a door that could be blocked with a bar. In the fifteenth century, on the western side of the keep’s gate passage, a slender polygonal turret was erected, housing the well.
In 1430, during the reign of the Beauchamp family, the southern gate was reinforced with another tower, flanking the passage from the east (the Black Tower was located on the west side of the passage). In the years 1425-1439, new buildings were constructed in the south-west part of the castle, and an octagonal tower adjacent to its west side. The tower had a diameter of 7 meters, and was equipped with machicolation set at a height of about 23 meters. It had prominent buttresses in the lower parts, characteristic of the region of South Wales. On the west side, it touched the town defensive wall, which circled Cardiiff in the south and was connected with the fortifications of the castle in the south-east corner. The south-west building housed the economic ground floor and two upper representative and residential floors. Its characteristic element was the eastern facade, facing the courtyard with four polygonal turrets. Three of them were pierced with large pointed windows to form bay windows, while the fourth one housed a spiral staircase connecting all three floors. In the 16th century, to the south of the 15th-century polygonal tower, another tower was erected, this time a four-sided with a side length of 6 meters, also extended in front of the perimeter towards the ditch.
The castle has survived to modern times in very good condition, but unfortunately a large part of it was thoroughly rebuilt in the 19th century. The biggest changes affected the south-west wing, but the core still contains original 15th-century walls, among which, a polygonal Beauchamp Tower from the fifteenth century is hidden. The external peripheral wall has changed considerably, its towers on the eastern side and the north gate, stylized as Roman, are also a modern addition. Part of the original Roman wall is visible only in the lower parts on the south side, near the main entrance. The most interesting element is the preserved Black Tower along with the second tower from the fifteenth century on the western side. The tower on the eastern side from the gate is already a nineteenth-century building. Above the castle’s interior dominates the mound with a Norman keep, one of the best preserved in Great Britain, but unfortunately without internal housing.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Salter M., The castles of Gwent, Glamorgan & Gower, Malvern 2002.
Website cardiffcastle.com, History.