In the 11th century, Wales was a collection of many, often fighting each other, small principalities and kingdoms, that did not have a strictly defined eastern border. This situation simplified the conquest of the Anglo-Norman magnates, who in their border marches had great competence and independence from the English king. One of them, Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1093 took control of south-west Wales, using the death of the Welsh king of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Tewdwr. Roger built the first timber – earth castle in Cardigan, in a place known today as the “Old Castle”. This building, however, did not last long. Roger died in 1094, and the stronghold was soon captured and destroyed by the Welsh.
In 1107 Owain ap Bleddyn, son of the then Welsh king of Deheubarth, Gruffydd ap Rhys, abducted princess Nest, whose marriage was supposed to seal the Welsh-Norman alliance. In response, the English king Henry I authorized Richard de Clare to take military action. In 1110 Richard captured Cardigan and erected a new settlement there with the castle, located on the border between the Norman-controlled Pembrokeshire and the independent Welsh Ceredigion. It was supposed to control the crossing on the Teifi River.
When in 1135 the English king Henry I died without a male descendant, it caused an outbreak of civil war between the king’s daughter, Matilda, and her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Taking advantage of the Anglo-Norman situation, the Welsh came out armed and in the shortest time took over the majority of strongholds in the region. Gilbert de Clare, Richard’s son, was killed in a Welsh ambush, and the Norman army was defeated at the Battle of Crug Mawr in 1136. Cardigan remained the only stronghold in Ceredigion that was not taken over by the Welsh. Attempts to obtain it in 1138 and 1145 ended in failure, only the town was burnt. The castle fell into Welsh hands only in 1165, when it was captured by Rhys ap Gruffydd. He made a deal with king Henry II, who confirmed his right to the lands of Deheubarth, providing the acceptance of Norman rule in Pembrokeshire. Rhys also allowed Anglo-Norman settlers to remain, provided they agreed to be subject to Welsh law. Castle Cardigan was rebuilt in stone and it was the first recorded stone castle built by the Welsh prince. In 1176, the castle also made history, because it held the first known eisteddfod, that is Welsh festival of literature, music and performances.
Rhys ap Grufford died in 1197, and Cardigan was sold to the English in 1200 by Maelgwn, one of his sons. Although the castle was extended by king John in 1205 and 1208, it was the Welsh ruler Llywelyn ap Iorwerth who managed to get it in 1215, using the First Barons War in England. Cardigan was recaptured by William Marshall, the second Earl of Pembroke in 1223, but already in 1231 it changed its owner again, due to Maelgwn’s ap Rhys conquering. Eventually, the castle was conquered by the English in 1240, extensively rebuilt by Walter Marshal and then by Robert Waleran, who managed the castle after Marshal’s death in 1241. During Robert’s rule over Cardigan, town walls were also erected. Subsequent modernizations were introduced in 1321, but they were the result of fears of the rebellion of English barons, not the new Welsh war. The expansion of the castle, however, proved to be useful at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the uprising of Owain Glyndŵr broke out. His forces attacked Cardigan in 1405, but despite considerable damages, the castle survived. The rebellion was suppressed in 1409, and repairs were carried out in the following years, despite the fact that the castle’s military significance diminished. The building remained only an administrative center.
The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 meant that the castle was quickly adapted to defend by royalists, who built an embankment on the walls of the castle to use artillery. In 1644, the victory began to tilt in favor of Parliament, and Cardigan attacked forces under General Rowland Laugharne. During the siege, which lasted two weeks, Parliamentary artillery made a breach within the walls and then the castle was stormed. After the war, the destroyed stronghold was additionally deliberately slighted to prevent further military use, the castle was also used as a source of free stone, during the reconstruction of the city.
The castle was built on a riverside ridge, which ended south and east with a low cliff above the water. From the only easily accessible side, that is from the north and the west, it was additionally secured by a moat. There, from the second half of the 13th century, it was in contact with two curtains of the town’s defensive walls, covering an area of about 250 x 250 meters.
In the 13th century, the castle consisted of a single circumference of defensive walls, closing an oblong-shaped courtyard with a clearly cut northern corner, measuring approximately 90 x 47 meters. The northern part of the courtyard was divided by an internal wall, probably separating the upper ward with a shape similar in plan to a triangle.
The main element of the castle was to be the so-called Great Tower, i.e. a keep on the plan of an elongated horseshoe with massive spurs-buttresses in the ground floor, located in the northern part of the castle and fully extended in front of the perimeter of the defensive walls. Such an unusual location and shape would rather indicate that the tower was originally part of a massive, two-tower gate complex, which does not exclude that, like other buildings of this type, its upper storeys served residential functions.
From the east, the Great Tower was adjacent to a corner four-sided tower (perhaps opened from the inside) and a semicircular tower. The latter was built around 1244 and was unique because of the two side passages leading down to separate latrines. The southern part of the castle was defended by a semicircular tower and a cylindrical tower. The main entrance gate, if it was not on the site of the Great Tower, was on the west side. It is not known what form it had, perhaps it was a very popular construction at that time, consisting of two flanking towers.
Until now only the southern part of the defensive wall with partially preserved semicircular tower has survived from the castle. The partially preserved eastern tower and lower, rebuilt part of the keep with spurs is also visible. In recent years, renovation works were carried out and castle was opened to visitors in 2015. A restaurant, a hotel, an outdoor concert hall and a heritage center with educational facilities were opened there.
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Morgane G., Castles in Wales, Talybont 2008.
Salter M., Medieval walled towns, Malvern 2013.
Salter M., The castles of North Wales, Malvern 1997.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Cardigan Castle.
Website castlewales.com, Cardigan Castle.