A tour of Caerphilly Castle

My next tour is of Caerphilly Castle in south Wales, a huge imposing fortress that is a marvel to see. The castle was constructed in the late thirteenth century by the powerful Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare. It was acquired by the Crown following the death of Gilbert’s son and heir at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Two years later, the heavy-handed actions of Edward II’s officials in the lordship prompted a rebellion led by the Welsh lord Llywelyn Bren. Caerphilly was attacked by the rebels, who succeeded in burning the outer ward, but the garrison held firm. The castle was later besieged in 1326, as part of Queen Isabella’s successful attempt to overthrow her husband Edward II. Over the course of the following two centuries the castle gradually fell into decline, with the lords of Glamorgan favouring Cardiff Castle as their principle residence in the lordship. In the late sixteenth century, its owner, Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, leased the castle to Thomas Lewis, who was permitted to remove stones from the site to be used in the building of his new nearby mansion of Y Fan. Damage to the site suggests that it may have been slighted by the Parliamentarians in the mid-seventeenth century. Caerphilly later became a popular subject for antiquarians, with restoration work carried out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The castle later came into the possession of the Ministry of Works and is currently managed by Cadw.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at Caerphilly was the sheer size of the castle. It is a huge site! Undoubtedly it is one of the most imposing castles in the United Kingdom. This is due to both the impressive ruins of the buildings within the castle and the extensive water features that surround it. The artificial creation by its medieval builders of two large lakes, a northern and a southern one (that were reflooded in the 1930-40s), means that the castle is situated across multiple islands that are accessed via fortified bridges. The inspiration for these water defences was almost certainly Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, which was formerly surrounded by a huge lake. Gilbert de Clare was present at the great siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266 and must have appreciated both the defensive and aesthetic value of these features. It takes some time to walk around the castle, but it is well worth it as you can get some stunning views from different angles. There is adequate parking near to the entrance of the site and a nice tea room for refreshments.

The present entrance to the castle is via a modern bridge which leads you to the outer main gatehouse. Originally the approach to the gatehouse was preceded by a barbican, both of which had their own drawbridges, thereby presenting a formidable obstacle to any attackers. Once you are inside the outer ward the south dam and gatehouse are to your left, with the north dam and gatehouse to your right.

Directly in front of you is the outer east gatehouse, leading to a rather cramped middle ward, behind which looms the towers of the inner east gatehouse. The latter is the most imposing part of the castle due to its sheer size (although the façade of the towers was reconstructed in the early 1930s). Inside the gatehouse are multiple small rooms, with a grand chamber on the second floor. To the left of the gatehouse is the south-east tower, also known as the ‘leaning tower’ due to its severe outward tilt (this happens to be one of my favourite structures at Caerphilly due to its striking appearance).

After entering the inner ward, you find yourself in a courtyard, with a series of structures to your left, including apartments and the great hall. The latter is a huge building, which, according to the guidebook, is one of the biggest non-royal halls ever constructed in the country. It has been subject to restoration work in the modern era, including the insertion of a roof in the late nineteenth century and masonry work to its exterior in the 1960s. Features of interest include the triple-headed corbels on the south wall, that may depict Edward II and Hugh Despenser.

The wall walk of the inner ward provides some great views of the castle. One of the most interesting features is on the north side, which incorporates reconstructed wooden hoarding. Documentary sources reveal that these edifices were often installed at castles during times of conflict during the Middle Ages. Yet as these were temporary wooden structures they do not survive, so it is intriguing to get a sense of how they would have looked.

Visiting information

Further reading

Rick Turner, Caerphilly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016)

Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018).

Images

All photographs taken by Dan Spencer ©

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