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 from Bristol.

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.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry