Building a Castle When You Don’t Really Need One…

After the Norman invasion, William and his men stopped at the edges of Wales. William bequeathed the areas on the border to some of his earls and encouraged them to spread their land west. The De Clare family was one of these families and for several generations they fought against the Welsh and gained more and more land. The 6th Earl managed to capture all the area to the north of Cardiff, and it was his son, the 7th Earl, who built Caerphilly Castle.

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The castle was built by Gilbert “The Red” De Clare who was the Lord of Glamorgan and had a long term dispute with Llewelyn, the Prince of Wales. Gilbert needed to build  a castle to protect his lands and it and the size of Caerphilly and the man-made lake ( the primary influence being Kenilworth castle) offered him this. Much like that castle, the moat meant that the castle could not be hit with the traditional siege engines of the period.


When Henry III died and his son Edward became King, the relationship between him and the Prince of Wales deteriorated and eventually, Edward stripped the Prince from his titles and lands and later would kill him in battle when he conquered Wales.

The castle faced its first test in 1294 when the Welsh rebelled against the English and one of the descendants of the last Prince of Wales led them. They attacked Caerphilly Castle and the town next to it which was not protected. The castle withstood the attack, but the city was burned to the ground. It took Gilbert a year to recapture the land he lost in the rebellion.

The De Clare male line ended with Gilbert’s son who died fighting the Scots for Edward II. Gilbert’s daughter, Eleanor,  married non-other than Hugh Despenser the younger, one of King Edward’s most notorious favourites and received the castle and De Clare titles through that union.

Hugh Despenser has managed to gain a lot of land and titles in all sorts of ways. You can read my story about how he obtained Goodrich Castle to understand what sort of person he was. King Edward II and his favourites managed to enrage most of the barons in England, but it was Edward II’s Queen Isabella of France who brought their demise when she invaded England in 1327.

Hugh Despenser’s end was extremely violent. He was executed by Isabella who also besieged Caerphilly Castle. Eleanora De Clare asked the queen for mercy and she decided to pardon the garrison and Hugh Despenser’s son as well ( shall we call him Hugh Despenser the youngest?).

The Castle moved hands through marriage again to the Earls of Worcester, but by now it was already neglected. The rise of the Tudor dynasty at the end of the 15th century eased the tension between the English and the Welsh and brought about the need to maintain the castle. By the time the English Civil War started by the middle of the 17th Century, the castle was not in any use, but it was still slighted by the Parliament soldiers at the end of the war and the result is the leaning tower at the castle. This tower leans at a more extreme angle than even the famous Tower of Pisa. The manmade lake was drained and new houses were built where it stood.

The Castle was on the brink of total ruin, but it was saved by the 3rd Marquess of Bute who was passionate about history and spent an enormous amount of money on rebuilding several castles in the area, including Koch and Cardiff Castles. In Caerphilly, the Marquess really focused on bringing back the castle to its medieval state by using traditional building methods. He even managed to buy all the houses that were built on the site of the previous and to rebuilt it.

Today the castle is managed by CADW and is open to the public. For more information, please check Caerphilly Castle official website 

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Who needs the Tower of Pisa when you have Caerphilly Castle?

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Caerphilly Castle during the Christmas break. By now, we had gained a lot of experience of castles managed by CADW so we were not sure what to expect from this castle. From my previous research, I knew that parts of the castle were rebuilt by the 3rd Marquess of Bute who did the same to Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch. This means that there are places in the castle where all sorts of exhibitions could be presented, but were they? The English Heritage did manage to use similar spaces in Kenilworth Castle and partially in Bolsover Castle and I had seen did good work done by CADW in Caernarfon Castle. And so I waited in anticipation to see Caerphilly.

The leaning tower of Caerphilly Castle

The results are somewhere in between. Caerphilly is a gigantic castle with plenty of place to explore and many rooms- most of them empty. As expected, there was no guided tour on offer, but there were several signs, as well as a short introductory video in English and in Welsh. There was also some sort of audio-video presentation in another room. You can definitely see an effort has been made to tell the story of this castle and its fascinating history, mainly the part when it was owned by the notorious Hugh Despenser the younger. I love this story and I have explored it in many other castles that were relevant to the tale, such as Berkeley, Goodrich, Chepstow and Corfe. But to be honest, if I was hearing the story for the first time at Caerphilly Castle, I would not really understand it completely, which is a shame. I think that the creative ways this story is presented in the great hall and in the room with the four sculptures were charming, but they did not fully tell it, which is a great miss. The same goes with other parts of the castle’s history and I can only be sorry that the simple solution that is usually used by English Heritage, an audio tour, was not available because it could have helped in not only unlocking the history of the castle, but also in navigating its unique colossal structure: after all it is the biggest castle in Wales.

We visited the castle during the school holidays and so we also had to entertain our kids. Caerphilly has several things to offer, including a display of siege engines (again, where are the explanations about each weapon?), a moving and roaring statue of a dragon and the story behind it, and finally, one of the best kids trails I have ever seen in a castle. The trail clearly showed that someone in CADW is exceptionally creative, perhaps they should let this individual develop more ideas on how to engage with visitors? My kids absolutely loved the trail, and to be honest, so did I, along with some other adults who followed it.

To sum things up, Caerphilly Castle is one of the best castles of CADW, probably second only to Caernarfon. It could be much better if they could offer an audio tour or an app to help unlock some of its history and secrets, but you can clearly see that in the case of this castle, there is a genuine attempt to try and help visitors be engaged.

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Want to read more? Click here to discover the top 20 stories we found so far.