The fortress is an imposing medieval stronghold reflected in the waters
of its refilled lakes in a low-lying marshy area surrounded by streams
and hills. It was originally constructed between 1268 and
1271 by Earl Gilbert Clare of Gloucester and Hertford (1245-95) and is
said to be the largest medieval castle in Wales, as well as one of the
most impressive in Europe. It is built adjacent to the site
of a Roman fort and a century after the castle's abandonment, a civil
war redoubt was built slightly to the NW. Possibly the castle can be seen as a successor to the nearby Welsh castle of Machen.
The current remains were mostly completed by 1290. During a
rebellion in 1316 Llywelyn Bren attacked the castle and damaged the south
gatehouse. He also destroyed the town and the castle
mills. Later the castle passed to Hugh Despenser the Younger
(d. 1326), the son-in-law of Earl Gilbert. He remodelled the
great hall to host lavish entertainments, the work being undertaken by
William Hurley and Thomas de la Botaille. Following an
invasion, King Edward II
and Hugh Despenser fled west and took refuge
in Caerphilly castle before fleeing again. They were
subsequently captured in Llantrisant, whilst the castle was surrounded
by William Zouche. After a short siege the castle
surrendered on a grant of mercy by the Queen's government. By the
mid fourteenth century the castle
was effectively disused, although it was maintained for another hundred
years. In 1428-9, extensive repairs were carried out
including to the main outer gatehouse. From the reign of
Henry VII (1485-1507) the castle fell into ruin and was described by
John Leland in 1539 as 'ruinus waulles of a wonderful thiknes with just
a single toure kept up for prisoners'. Unfortunately the east
gatehouse and NW tower were massively over-restored in the 1930s.
The castle consists of a great walled central court, 200' by 170'
with tall round towers at each corner and huge twin-towered gatehouses
on the E&W sides. Within is a magnificent rebuilt great hall and
other grand apartments. The doorways have shallow pointed
arches, and the original structures have trefoil-headed lancet windows
and crossbow slits with small oillets at the base. Dressings
are of Sutton stone and the style of mouldings can be related to the
chronological development of the castle. The only exception
is Despenser's great hall where the dressings are of Jurassic limestone
The inner ward is set within a concentric walled platform that rises
from the waters of the lakes and the whole covers more than 1,000'
in any direction. The meres are held back by a massive fortified
embankment on the east side that presents an unparalelled 900' long
array of walls, towers and bastions with no less than three twin
towered gatehouses protecting its entrances to N, S&E. A
corn mill is set within this area. There is a further walled
platform on the west side of the castle.
Unusually Caerphilly has
mainly standard twin towered gatehouses of which various examples can
be seen around the British Isles. English versions survive at Beeston, Bungay, Clifford, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington. In Wales they exist at Carmarthen, Chepstow, Criccieth, Degannwy, Dinas Bran, Llawhaden, Neath, Oystermouth, Powis, Rhuddlan, Tinboeth and White Castle. In Scotland they can be found at Kildrummy and Urquhart and finally elsewhere in Ireland at Carrickfergus, Castle Roche, Dungarvan, Limerick and Roscommon.
In France they exist at Champtoce, There are also the variations where the towers have twin stair
turrets to the rear to allow access between levels. These are far
more rare, but examples survive at
Aberystwyth, Harlech, Llangynwyd and Llanstephan. In England
there is only Tonbridge castle gatehouse in Kent. Llangibby and Beaumaris
in Wales are elongated versions of this
style, but similar structures do not appear to exist elsewhere,
Ireland, Scotland or France. Here the rear stair turrets are universally missing.
For more detailed descriptions of Caerphilly castle see Archaeologica Cambrensis and the Trans of the Bristol and Gloucs Arch Soc:
Why not join me at Caerphilly and other British castles this October? Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.
Paul Martin Remfry