Caerphilly Castle in South Wales occupies 30 acres making it the second largest castle in Britain (Windsor being the largest) and certainly one of the greatest medieval castles in western Europe. Construction on the Castle began in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare as part of the Anglo-Norman campaign to conquer Glamorgan. The task of subduing the Welsh natives had been given to the earls of Gloucester in 1093, the de Clare family had acquired the earldom in 1217. ‘Red Gilbert’ as de Clare was known, on account of his hair or perhaps his fiery temper, had a powerful adversary named Llywelyn ap Gruddudd. During the 1260s Llywelyn had expanded his territory during the English Civil War when many rebel English barons had aligned themselves with him against Henry III. This revolt against Henry III was crushed by the end of 1267 which let de Clare advance north into Glamorgan from his base in Cardiff, he decided to construct the castle to protect his newly acquired lands.
Red Gilbert began to create the massive water defences and lakes that surround the site and constructed the basic shape of the castle, this was somewhat delayed by an attack by Llywelyn on the site in 1270, destroying the temporary defences and stores. Further conflict was prevented due to negotiations by Henry III who sent two bishops two take control of the site and arbitrate in the dispute. The bishops promised Llywelyn that the building work would cease and that negotiations would begin the following summer. However in February of the following year de Clare sent some of his men to seize back the castle and remove the bishops and their soldiers. De Clare denied intervening in the bishops affairs but took control of the castle and neither Henry III or Llywelyn were able to prevent him, de Clare was then able to lay claim to the whole of Glamorgan and work on the castle continued apace. In 1276 Henry’s son Edward I invaded Wales after a dispute with Llywelyn which marked the beginning of the end for the Welsh prince. Edward launched a second campaign into Wales in 1282, causing Llewelyn’s death and the collapse of Independent Welsh rule.
Red Gilbert continued to be involved in local conflicts including a dispute with Humphrey de Bohun, the earl of Hereford in 1290, the case was brought before the King in 1291 and resulted in the temporary royal seizure of Caerphilly. In 1294 the native Welsh began a revolt against English rule led by Madog ap Llywelyn, in Glamorgan Morgan ap Maredudd took up the campaign hoping to regain some of the land he lost to de Clare in 1270. Morgan attacked Caerphilly and destroyed half of the town but was unable to take the castle. Edward I led an assault on Madog in North Wales, killing Madog in the process, this allowed de Clare to attack Morgan’s forces and he retook to region. Gilbert de Clare died during the winter of 1295.
Gilbert’s son, also named Gilbert inherited the castle but died at a young age fighting in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the family lands were placed under the control of the crown. In 1316 another Welsh native Llywelyn Bren rose up against the English and laid siege to Caerphilly but was unable to take the castle fortress though destroying the town in the process. A royal army was dispatched to South Wales and Bren was defeated in a battle at Caerphilly Mountain. In 1317 the castle passed into the hands of Eleanor de Clare who had married a royal favourite named Hugh le Despenser. Hugh expanded his control across the region and continued to improve the defences and living quarters at Caerphilly.
In late October 1326 the wife of Edward II, Isabella of France, overthrew his government and forced the King and Hugh to flee to Caerphilly, Isabella’s forces laid siege to the castle until March 1327 when the garrison surrendered on the condition that Hugh’s son (also named Hugh) would be pardoned, his father having already been executed. Caerphilly survived further Welsh attacks during the Glyndwr Rising of 1400. The castle passed down through marriage and inheritance and by 1486 was owned by Jasper Tudor, the earl of Pembroke.
It seems that after 1486 the castle fell into decline, as Cardiff Castle was seen as a more ‘fashionable’ residence. It was in a ruinous state by 1539 but was still used by Henry Herbert, the earl of Pembroke as a manorial court, in 1583 the castle was leased to a Thomas Lewis who stripped much of the stone from the site.
In 1642 the English Civil War broke out between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. Battles raged across the land and in South Wales the Royalists had much sympathy. It is uncertain if the castle was destroyed by Parliamentarians in case it was to be used as a defence or if the destruction of the castle was mainly due to subsidence, however the majority of the evidence seems to point to the latter.
We are fortunate that so much of the castle remains today and we have the Marquesses of Bute to thank for that as their family spent a considerable fortune protecting the ruins from 1776 to 1950 when the castle was gifted to the state. The lakes were re-flooded and further restoration work was undertaken in the 1950s and 60s. My visit to Caerphilly was incredibly memorable, I got there quite late in the evening and had only an hour or so to marvel at its sheer jaw-dropping beauty. When the castle closed I spent an hour watching the sun set and the lights illuminate Caerphilly. CADW deserve praise for the respectful but interesting interactive elements of the castle making it an adventure for both history fanatics and children.
GPS: 51.57608, -3.22024