Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Caerphilly Castle: huge and imposing

  If the surrounding lakes are taken into account, Caerphilly Castle is the largest in Wales, second largest in Britain, and is stunning in its grandeur. Although guidebooks make much of its not being situated on a crag, it is sufficiently elevated from the town side to have overwhelmed me as I stepped off my bus.
   It was not built by or for a king but by "Red" Gilbert de Clare, a man of enormous wealth and fiery hair, hence the nickname (in the Middle Ages it did not do to have physical oddities or else you were liable to be called Curthose - short-arse - or Wry-neck.) It rose with amazing speed between 11th April 1268 and 1271 to counteract the political and military threat posed by Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to the Marcher lords of South-East Wales, although its function as a fortress was relatively short-lived. The concentric design preceded and inspired that of the castles built by Edward I in North Wales. Although Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, was only 25 when the castle was started, it was a huge and visionary undertaking. It was both the result and cause of strife in Glamorgan.

   This concentricity was a development from earlier castles which had relied on a strong keep for their defence: attack strategies had caught up with that and, from the 12th century onwards, builders trusted instead to double circuits of high walls with even taller round towers thrusting outwards so that arrows could be shot right down to their base. These walls would have crenellations, arrow loops and, at Caerphilly, the main gatehouse is as large as a traditional keep. The idea of having 2 gatehouses was modern, the overhead space being used for the guard and for accommodation.
   The surrounding artificial lakes, which are much wider than a moat, were defensive because they made the castle very difficult to storm directly as it was impossible to bring siege engines close or to undermine the walls. The waters prevented a blind spot at the foot of the walls where attackers could remain hidden. It is thought that de Clare had noted the water defences at Kenilworth and applied similar here.


  De Clare was apparently headstrong and impetuous as a youth and initially supported Simon de Montfort in his struggle against King Henry III. De Montfort, in turn, was backed by Prince Llwyelyn ap Gruffudd. Gilbert then became disillusioned with that faction as the power of the Welsh Prince posed a threat to his massive interests in the Marches. He went over to Prince Edward, later Edward I, and fought with him at the Battle of Evesham in which de Montfort was defeated and savagely slaughtered. His supporters fled to Kenilworth where de Clare, attacking, encountered the defensive value of waterworks in a siege lasting from Easter to Christmas 1266. Edward, on becoming king, reacted with outrage to the failure of the Welsh Prince to obey 5 summonses to pay homage and drove him out of his possessions: his final defeat and death came in 1282.
   Caerphilly Castle could then become a more peaceful site as a centre of administration for the de Clares although there were further less serious troubles including a fine imposed on Gilbert of £6,666 by the king. A later revolt by Llewellyn Bren led to an attack by 10,000 men but the castle suffered only in having its gate and drawbridge damaged or burnt, although the town and its mills were destroyed. Gilbert's son, Gilbert who inherited, was killed at Bannockburn.
   The next main story is that of Hugh le Despenser the younger, a royal favourite, who married Eleanor, Earl Gilbert the Red's eldest daughter. Hated by almost everyone, he caused the surrendering Llewellyn Bren to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which led to a rebellion by powerful Marcher lords against him. He was banished but returned and used his influence over Edward II to amass huge wealth and power: it was at this time that he spent effort and money on the Great Hall at Caerphilly. Isabella of France, Edward's estranged queen, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, then landed in Suffolk and undermined the position of Hugh le Despenser. The king and Despenser sheltered at Caerphilly and left much of the royal treasure there when they moved on, both to barbarous deaths.
   Isabella's force besieged the castle and an inventory shows how well provided the fortress was: 800 lance shafts; 14 Danish axes; 1,130 crossbow bolts fitted with hedgehog quills; 118 quarters of wheat; 118 quarters of beans; 78 ox carcasses; 280 of mutton; 72 hams; 1,856 stockfish; 6 tuns of red wine and 1 white (though the clerk noted that 10 inches of the white were lacking!) In all £14,000 of treasure was found as well as nearly 600 silver vessels. Amongst the king's personal affairs was a black cap decorated with butterflies and pearls - how such details bring history to life! Later again, the castle fell into disrepair and was described by John Leland in 1539-ish as having "waulles of a wonderful thiknes." It became an attraction for seekers of the picturesque, being then restored to some extent by, most importantly, the 4th Marquis of Bute.

Main Features

   For the modern visitor, the general impression of the castle is one of immense power and grandeur and this extends to the Great Hall. In many castles, one has to imagine this amenity but here it is visible and redolent of the lavish entertainment for which it was built and restored.       We have already admired the lakes created by the damming of the Nant y Gledyr stream and have passed under the gateway where once our arrival would have been observed with suspicion by the guard. There are lots of little doorways and nooks to peer into and potter down, murder holes, arrow slits and portcullis grooves to notice but, before you leave and head for your large slice of CAKE, it is worth pausing to gaze at the leaning tower and inspect the 4 impressive replica Medieval siege weapons which include a trebuchet. This war machine is full-sized and has a 20 foot throwing arm which would hurl a 25 pound missile capable of smashing a wooden building in a bailey or crashing through a lead roof. In Caerphilly the missile would drop into the lake - but what a splash! The tower leans probably because of ground subsidence and has attained an angle of 10 degrees. Almost incredibly its outer face is undamaged and its features are original.

Your visit
  Caerphilly is well served by buses, including the frequent no 50 from Newport, Gwent.
To see opening times, click here.  Other castles of interest in South-East Wales include Chepstow Castle and Raglan Castle, whilst, for a sample of the type of entertainment that might be provided in the Great Hall, you could read my article on Roland le Pettour, the favourite jester of the second Henry. Your dog would love a walk in the parklands surrounding Caldicot Castle and could learn a good deal of useful history as it gambols. A little further afield is the impressive Goodrich Castle with excellent walking nearby.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I was born in Caerphilly and I learned something new.