It has been a number of months since I last visited somewhere in order to ‘blog’ about them, it has been rather chilly – too chilly for me – to go exploring the many historical places of interest in and around Cardiff, however being a long Easter weekend and with the arrival of some much needed sunshine, I braved the bitter cold for a trip down the road, or up the hill to be more accurate, to Caerphilly Castle.
A Little History
Caerphilly Castle is one of the largest castles in Britain, second only to Windsor Castle, and dates back to the thirteenth century. It was constructed by Gilbert de Clare, the 6th Earl of Hertford and 7th Earl of Gloucester as part of his campaign to conquer Glamorgan during a period of unrest between De Clare and rival Welsh forces which resulted in control of the site falling into enemy hands on more than one occasion. Construction began in 1268 and continued on and off for the next 22 years until 1290, after which the castle was temporarily seized by the English Crown following disputes between De Clare and the Earl of Hereford. After regaining control of the castle, De Clare fought local Welsh forces led by Morgan ap Maredudd during a countrywide uprising against English rule, De Clare was able to thwart Morgan’s forces and died the next year in 1295. Following his death, Caerphilly Castle was bequeathed to his son also called Gilbert de Clare, until his untimely death in 1314 battling Scottish forces during the First War of Scottish Independence.
The death of Gilbert de Clare in 1314 resulted in the family’s lands falling back into the control of the English Crown, until Edward II returned control of Glamorgan and Caerphilly Castle to the De Clare family in 1317. Eleanor de Clare, daughter of the older Gilbert de Clare inherited the land and castle Lordship of which fell to her husband Hugh le Despenser, a royal chamberlain and favourite of Edward II. Hugh le Despenser remained Lord of Glamorgan until his execution in 1326 after Edward II’s wife Isabella overthrew the King with the help of Roger Mortimer (Earl of March and owner of Ludlow Castle). Edward II and Hugh fled to the west and resided at Caerphilly Castle before fleeing Isabella’s oncoming forces and their eventual capture. During this time the castle was besieged by Isabella’s forces led by William, Lord Zouche, the supporters of the King did not surrender until March 1327 when a pardon was granted to the Despenser heir.
Following the overthrow of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer in 1330, Edward III took control of England and the Lordship of Glamorgan and Caerphilly Castle was restored to the Despenser heirs. The mid-fourteenth century saw Caerphilly Castle abandoned as a military stronghold and domestic residence, whilst the Castle was in part maintained through this time, extensive repairs took place in 1428-1429 by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, husband of Isabel le Despenser, who also made improvements to Cardiff Castle; their main residence in Wales.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the castle had once again fallen into neglect and disrepair. At this time Lordship of Glamorgan had fallen to Henry Herbert, Second Earl of Pembroke. Henry leased Caerphilly Castle to Thomas Lewis and neighbouring landowner who was granted permission to use stone from the castle to extend his own house ‘Y Fan’, a short distance away from Caerphilly.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century, Caerphilly Castle was little more than a ruin. Though there is no documented evidence it has been suggested that as part of Oliver Cromwell’s campaign to destroy castles to prevent them being used against him, Caerphilly Castle was partially blown up resulting in the leaning tower. In 1776 John Stuart (later the first Marquess of Bute) married into the Pembroke family and acquired Caerphilly Castle. The first Marquess took an interest in the ruins of the castle wanting it to become a site for artists to paint. A hundred years later, the third Marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton Stuart began restoring the castle by re-roofing the Great Hall. The Third Marquess of Bute had restored both Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, however the majority of the restoration of Caerphilly Castle was carried out by John Crichton Stuart, the fourth Marquess of Bute between 1928 and 1939. As part of the restoration work, battlements were restored, towers were repaired and the east gatehouse was almost entirely rebuilt. The restoration of Caerphilly Castle continued after it was taken into State care in 1950, with the re-flooding of the lakes and restoration of the Great Hall being two of the most notable restorations.
When approaching the castle and crossing the moat you will enter the Main Outer Gatehouse. This part of the castle has been well maintained over the years and was used as a prison, the approach to the gatehouse was once protected by two drawbridges though these along with a central pier & tower have long since gone, replaced by two modern bridges.
At either side of the main gatehouse are the North and South Dam’s providing extra defence to the main castle. Walking through the gatehouse you will see a modern building housing the gift shop and entrance and to the right is an archway to the north dam.
Upstairs in the gatehouse tower there is a permanent exhibit displaying the history of Caerphilly Castle, from a nearby Roman fort to the Marquess of Bute’s restoration of the castle. As well as the exhibit battlements allow a view of Caerphilly Town Centre and the central island castle.
After crossing another bridge you will arrive on the central island and directly in front of the East Gatehouses.
The east gatehouse was almost entirely rebuilt during the castle’s restoration, walking through the door on either side of the passageway, you are able to traverse the spiral staircases and enter the upper floor; a generously proportioned room which may have been the Constable’s Hall.
The constable’s hall spans the whole of the second floor allowing you to ascend/descend the opposite tower’s staircase. Walking down the stairway and through the gatehouse, you will enter the Inner Ward.
The Inner Ward is a essentially a courtyard and located at the heart of the castle grounds. When entering from the East Gatehouse, to the left is the Great Hall, ahead; the Private Apartments and West Gatehouse, and to the right, the North-West Tower and Curtain Wall Walk.
The Great Hall is a large enclosed space would have been used for feasts and other celebratory occasions. The Great Hall has received a great deal of restoration work particularly the roof, windows and fireplace, the last of which was only recently restored.
After exiting the Great Hall through the door next to the Lord’s Table, you enter what is left of the Private Apartments, exiting these, you will be directly in front of the Inner West Gatehouse.
Walking through the left doorway, you will enter a small round room. Directly in front of you there is, for some reason, a large mirror reminiscent of the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter. The mirror unfortunately did not show me my inner most desire.
Exiting the room and walking through the Inner West Gatehouse’s doorway, you will exit the Inner Ward and arrive in front of another gatehouse; the Outer West Gatehouse.
The Outer West Gatehouse is an area of the castle that has had little or no restoration work. Though closed during my visit to the castle, the Outer West Gatehouse’s doorway leads to another bridge allowing access to the Western Island, known in welsh as ‘Y Weringaer’ – people’s fort, suggesting it was intended to be a place of refuge for the town’s population in the event of an attack.
Walking back through the Outer West Gatehouse and towards the tower in the corner to the right of the Inner West Gatehouse (if you are facing the gatehouse from the Inner Ward), you will come to the North-West Tower. Located inside the North-West Tower is an audio-visual history of Caerphilly Castle where a trio of projectors project an animated and somewhat gory history of Caerphilly from the castle’s construction to it’s destruction and subsequent restoration.
After viewing all the Inner Ward has to offer, exit through either the East or West Gatehouse where you can then walk around the majority of the outside of the castle. One area of interest is the South-East Tower located to the left of the Inner East Gatehouse when approaching from the bridge over the moat. The tower is easily identifiable due to it’s leaning at an angle of 10 degrees.
The leaning tower is probably a result of ground subsidence, though the audio-visual history of the castle shown in the North West Tower depicts the tower’s lean being caused by Cromwell’s forces blowing up the castle, for which there is no documented evidence. If you walk around the outside of the leaning tower, you will come upon a wooden knight holding up the tower.
Once you head back over the Inner Moat towards the castle entrance, you can explore the north and south dams. The south dam is little more than a platform leading to another badly damaged gatehouse, but south dam however is much larger, home to the remains of the mill, another gatehouse and replica siege weaponry.
Like the St Fagans National History Museum, Castell Coch and other historical buildings in and around Cardiff, Caerphilly Castle has been used on numerous occasions during the filming of Doctor Who. Caerphilly Castle featured in the episodes Vampires in Venice, in The End of Time for The Master’s resurrection and had a brief appearance in last week’s episode ‘The Bells of Saint John’ as the monastery seen in the first five minutes. Having taken over a week to write this post, I’ll now finish with a selection of other photographs from the day.
- http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/caerphilly-castle/?lang=en – Caerphilly Castle on the Cadw website