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 or by Robert Fitzhamon, 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 Fitzhamon 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 7 years later, and his successor was his son William, who died in 1183 without a 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.
In the 16th century, the castle was taken over 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. Inside, the castle area was additionally divided by a wall into an internal and external ward (upper and lower ward). To the south of the castle developed a medieval settlement, and then the town.
Around 1140, a wooden keep was rebuilt. The top of the mound (motte) was surrounded by a polygonal, stone wall of 9 meters high (shell keep), and a stone wall was erected on the south and west sides of the upper ward. On the other two directions, the extensive outer ward (lower ward) was then protected by wood and earth fortifications.
At the end of the 13th century and at the beginning of the 14th century, during the reign of the de Clare family in the castle, the so-called Black Tower was built in the middle of the southern curtain, flanking the nearby entrance gate to the castle. The north and east external perimeter walls were also rebuilt from wood-earth to stone. After entering the lower ward through the southern gate, at the Black Tower, to reach the upper ward, one had to get through another gate in the inner wall, flanked by two new, then erected towers. The internal wall 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 during their periods of garrison service. In the keep area around 1300, a new residential wing adjacent to the inside of the walls and a polygonal gate tower were erected, which stood on the southern edge of the mound.
In 1430, during the reign of the Beauchamp in castle, the southern gate was reinforced by 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 a new range was constructed in the south-western part of the castle, and an octagonal tower of 23 meters height, equipped with a machicolations. The tower had prominent spurs in the lower parts, characteristic to the south Wales area. On the west side, it touched the city defensive wall, which circled Cardiiff in the south, and was connected with the fortifications of the castle in the south-east corner.
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.
Website cardiffcastle.com, History.