The first castle on the site of the later Castell Coch was built in the 80s of the 11th century during the Norman invasion of South Wales. It was established as one of a series of wood and earth strongholds (Twmpath, Morganstown) protecting the newly conquered Cardiff and controlled the route along the Taff Gorge. Perhaps at the end of the eleventh century, it was abandoned due to the establishment of Norman lordship in Glamorgan, changing the course of the border. It is also possible that in the mid-twelfth century it was taken over by the Welsh, who recaptured some of the lost land after the successful raid of Cardiff by Ifor ap Meurig (Ifor Bach) in 1158. Ifor control the uplands of Senghennydd and perhaps under his rule the castle was strengthened by the first stone fortifications. In the following years, Rhys ap Gruffud of Deheubarth and then Prince of Gwynedd Llywellyn ab Iorweth had supreme power over South Wales (Glamorgan) petty rulers. In 1217, Glamorgan passed through marriage to the powerful de Clare family, the earls of Gloucester and Hertford. Under their strong control, more minor Welsh rulers of the uplands were forced into submission, and in the mid-thirteenth century only part of Senghennydd was owned by the descendants of Ifor Bach.
In 1267, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, armedly seized the uplands of Senghennydd, and a year later, to secure his gains, began building the castle of Caerphilly. It is assumed that this was also the period when Gilbert thoroughly rebuilt Castell Coch, which was to secure the area between the newly built Caerphilly and Cardiff. Most probably, new stone fortifications of Castell Coch were built before 1280. They were built of sandstone, the color of which gave them the name Castrum Rubeum, meaning the Red Castle. The newly built stronghold did not function long, because it was attacked in 1314 by Welsh rebels under the leadership of Llywelyn Bren, the son of the ruler whom Gilbert taken the Senghennydd in 1267. Castell Coch was then captured and destroyed.
In 1760, abandoned and forgotten ruins were bought by Earl of Bute. The third Marquis of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart, inherited the castle and the great family fortune in 1848. In 1871 he turned to his chief engineer, John McConnoch, to dig up from debris and cleanse the ruins of the castle from the vegetation. Marquis then employed the architect William Burges, and the reconstruction of the castle began in 1875. Although Burges died in 1881, his plans were continued by a team of his craftsmen and assistants, and the reconstruction was completed at the end of the 19th century.
The first castle from the end of the 11th century probably had the form of a timber keep or wooden ringwork placed on an artificial mound (motte) of about 34 meters in diameter at the base, 25 meters in diameter at the top and 9.1 meters in height. One of the oldest stone buildings, possibly built in the 12th century, was a rectangular building in the southern part of the mound. This is evidenced by covering its eastern window by a later added tower. Fragments of the older stone phase can also be found in the perimeter walls of the castle, which on an oval-like plan, running along the edge of the mound delineated an internal courtyard. At some point in the castle’s expansion their thickness was increased by adding arcades creating niches with access at the ground floor to the arrowslits. At the crown of the wall was a defensive walkway, probably originally crowned with battlement. The outer zone of the defense was a ditch surrounding the castle.
In the thirteenth century, the castle was expanded and strengthened by three cylindrical towers located in the corners, two of which adjoined the older southern building (hall). Of these, the north-east tower known as the Well Tower, which was the only one that was not reinforced at the base with prominent buttresses or spurs and was the only one that did not receive stone vaults inside. Its simpler form indicates a slightly earlier building (before the mid-thirteenth century) than the southern towers, while a strong protrusion beyond the perimeter of the walls suggests that its task was to flank the entrance gate. It had a rather straight wall from the courtyard side, which gave it a horseshoe-like shape.
In the years 1268-1277, two more cylindrical towers were added: the south-west called Kitchen Tower, the south-east called Keep Tower, and a four-sided gatehouse with a drawbridge located between the eastern towers. The cylindrical southeast tower was 12 meters in diameter and had the massive spurs at the base. In the 13th century a turret containing latrines adjoined it from the south-west. Its today’s name – Keep Tower is a nineteenth-century idea, it is uncertain whether it performed such a function in the Middle Ages, although as the only one it had a polygonal interior, not a circle one, and it also had stone vaulted rooms. The south-west tower called Kitchen Tower was also 12 meters in diameter and had base with spurs. On its northern side, the small projection contained latrines with outlets facing the ditch. Originally, it had at least three floors topped with rib vaults and perhaps it contained a medieval kitchen. Such a conclusion was made on the basis of as many as three fireplaces in it. The walls of both these two towers were about 3 meters thick at the base. The older Well Tower with a diameter of 11.5 meters was slightly narrower, and its name comes from the well in its lowest chamber.
Today’s castle is largely a 19th-century reconstruction, but by the standards of that period, its final appearance did not go away from the medieval original. The external façades of the towers are the most compatible with it, while their conical finials are more reminiscent of fortifications in France or Switzerland, than Anglo-Norman castles. Such finals were probably chosen because of their “greater pictoriality” and providing additional rooms in the castle. The lower parts of the towers with the vaulted basements are original, especially the southern hall, the north-eastern and south-western towers (Kitchen and Well) have a lot of original, medieval walls. The interiors of the castle are already only in the Victorian neo-gothic style. Currently, the castle is under government protection and is open to visitors.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
McLees D., Castell Coch, Cardiff 1998.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Castell Coch.
Website wikipedia.org, Castell Coch.