Sunday, September 22, 2013

Castles and Customs and Kings Blog Hop

Cardiff and Caerphilly... Ancient Welsh Castles

The characteristic types of castles in the twelfth century were the rectangular keep and the shell keep; in the thirteenth the concentric castle. The square keep seems most characteristic of Norman military architecture; the Tower of London, Rochester, Newcastle, Castle Rising, are well-known examples, and there are many more in a good state of preservation; there are many more solid square keeps than shell keeps well preserved, but this is simply due to the greater solidity of the former; the shell keeps were far more numerous in the twelfth century; and the reasons for this are obvious—the rectangular keep was much more expensive to build, and it was too heavy to erect on the artificial mounds on which the Norman architects generally founded their castles.

The keep of Cardiff Castle is one of the most perfect shell keeps in existence. It is built on a round artificial mound, surrounded by a wide and deep moat—the mound and moat being, of course, complements of each other. Such mounds and moats are common in all parts of England, and in Normandy. They are not Roman, nor British, nor are they, as Mr. G. T. Clark maintained, characteristic of Anglo-Saxon work. They are essentially Norman, and a good representation of the making of such a mound may be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, under the heading—‘He orders them to dig a castle.’ When was the Cardiff mound made? Perhaps the short entry in the Brut gives the answer: “1080, the building of Cardiff began.” It would then be surrounded by wooden palisades, and surmounted by a timber structure, as a newly made mound would not stand the masonry.

The shell keep was probably built by Robert of Gloucester, and it was probably in the gate-house of this keep, that Robert of  Normandy was imprisoned. A shell keep was a ring wall eight or ten feet thick, about thirty feet high, not covered in, and enclosing an open courtyard, round which were placed the buildings—light structures, often wooden sheds, abutting on the ring wall—such as one may see now in the courtyard of Castell Coch. The shell keep was the centre of Robert’s castle, but not the whole. From this time dated the great outer walls on the south and west—walls forty feet high and ten feet thick and solid throughout. The north and east and part of the south sides of the castle precincts are enclosed by banks of earth, beneath which, the walls of a Roman camp have recently been discovered. These banks were capped by a slight embattled wall. Outside along the north, south and east fronts was a moat, formerly fed by the Taff through the Mill leat stream which ran along the west front. The present lodgings, or habitable part of the castle built on either side of the great west wall, date mostly from the fifteenth century. The earlier lodgings were, perhaps, on the same site—though only inside the wall; a great lord did not as a rule live in the keep, except in times of danger.

The area of the enclosure is about ten acres—more suited to a Roman garrison than to a lord marcher of the twelfth century. That the castle was difficult to guard is shown by the success of Ivor Bach’s bold dash, c. 1153-1158. Ivor ap Meyric was Lord of Senghenydd, holding it of William of Gloucester, the Lord of Glamorgan, and, perhaps, had his headquarters in the fortress above the present Castell Coch. “He was,” says Giraldus Cambrensis, “after the manner of the Welsh, owner of a tract of mountain land, of which the earl was trying to deprive him. At that time the Castle of Cardiff was surrounded with high walls, guarded by 120 men at arms, a numerous body of archers and a strong watch. Yet in defiance of all this, Ivor, in the dead of night secretly scaled the walls, seized the earl and countess and their only son, and carried them off to the woods; and did not release them till he had recovered all that had been unjustly taken from him,” and a goodly ransom in addition. Perhaps the most permanent result of this episode was the building of a wall 30 feet high between the keep and the Black Tower—dividing the castle enclosure into two parts and forming an inner or middle ward of less extent, and less liable to danger from such sudden raids.

Cardiff Castle was much more than a place of defense; it was the seat of government. The bailiff of the Castle was ex officio mayor of the town in the Middle Ages. The Castle was also the head and centre of the Lordship of Glamorgan. This was divided into two parts—the shire fee or body, and the members. The shire fee was the southern part; under a sheriff appointed by the chief Lord: the chief landowners owed suit and service—i.e., they attended and were under the jurisdiction of the shire court held monthly in the castle enclosure, and each owed a fixed amount of military service—especially the duty of “castle-guard”—supplying the garrison and keeping the castle in repair. There are indications of the work of the shire court in some of the castle accounts published in the Cardiff Records, e.g., in 1316, an official accounts for 1d., the price of “a cord bought for the hanging of thieves adjudged in the county court: stipend of one man hanging those thieves 4d.” The “members” consisted of ten lordships (several of which were in the hands of Welsh nobles): these were much more independent; each had its own court (with powers of life and death), from which an appeal lay to the Lord’s court at Cardiff: generally they owed no definite service to the Lord (except homage, and sometimes a heriot at death), but on failure of heirs the estate lapsed to the chief Lord. At Cardiff Castle the Lord had his chancery, like the royal chancery on a small scale—issuing writs, recording services and grants of privileges, and legal decisions: practically the whole of these records have been lost—and our knowledge of the organization of the Lordship is mainly derived from the royal records at times, when owing to minority or escheat, the Lordship was under royal administration. The Lord of Glamorgan owed homage, but no service to the king; and (though this was sometimes disputed by his tenants and the royal lawyers), no appeal lay from his courts to the king’s court. The machinery of government was probably more complete and elaborate in Glamorgan than in any other Marcher Lordship.

Caerphilly Castle had not the political importance of Cardiff, but far surpasses it as a fortress. By the strength and position of Caerphilly, one may measure the power of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after the Barons’ War and before the accession of Edward I. The Prince of Wales had extended his sway down as far as Brecon, and Welshmen everywhere were looking to him as the restorer of their country’s independence. Among them was the Welsh Lord of Senghenydd, one of the chief “members” of Glamorgan, and his overlord probably saw reason to suspect his loyalty. An alliance between him and Llywelyn would open the lower Taff Valley to the Welsh prince and give him command of the hill country north of Cardiff. It was on the lands of the lord of Senghenydd that Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, built Castell Coch and Caerphilly.

CARDIFF CASTLE. (12th Century)


Caerphilly has been described as the grandest specimen of its class; it represents the high-water mark of mediƦval military architecture in this country, and was the model of Edward I.’s great castles in the north. It illustrates the influence of the Crusades on Western Europe, being an instance of the “concentric” system of defences, of which the walls of Constantinople afford the most magnificent example, and which the Crusaders adopted in many of their great fortresses in the East.

Caerphilly Castle consists of three lines of defense, and the way in which these supplement each other shows that the work in all essentials was designed as a great whole; it did not grow up bit by bit. There are of course many evidences of alterations and rebuilding at later times; the buildings in the middle ward, on the south side, seem to be later additions; the hall appears to have been enlarged, and the tracery of the windows suggests the fourteenth century; the state-rooms to the west of the hall have been much altered; but such alterations as appear are confined to the habitable part of the castle, and do not affect it as a military work. It has been suggested that the castle may have been greatly enlarged in the latter years of Edward II., when it played an important part in connection with the division of the Gloucester inheritance and the younger Despenser’s ambitions. There are a number of notices of the castle in the chronicles and public records of that time, but apparently no references to any building operations. And the unity of plan is evidence that the whole dated from the same time.

The castle is built on a tongue of gravel nearly surrounded by low, marshy land, forming a sort of peninsula; a stream on the south running eastwards to the Rhymny; and two springs on the north. By damming these waters and cutting through the tongue of gravel an artificial island was secured for the site of the castle. The inner ward, or central part of the castle, consists of a quadrangle with a large round tower at each corner: in the center of the east and west side are massive gate-houses defended by portcullises; from the projecting corner towers all the intervening wall was commanded. The gateways communicate with the second line of defense or middle ward. This completely encircles the inner ward, on a much lower level; it is a narrow space bounded by a wall, with low, semi-circular bastions at the corners; it is commanded at every point from the inner ward; the narrowness of the space would prevent the concentration of large bodies of assailants or the use of battering-rams, and communication is at several points stopped by walls or buildings jutting out from the inner ward. The middle ward had strong gate-houses at the east and west ends, and was completely surrounded by water—east and west by a moat, north and south the moat widens into lakes: note how on the north a narrow ridge of gravel has been used to ensure a water moat on that side, in case there was not enough water to flood the whole lake. These lakes form part of the third line of defence or outer ward, which includes also on the west the “horn-work” and on the east the grand front. The horn-work is about three acres in extent, surrounded by a wall 15 feet high, which is of the nature of an escarpment, the ground rising above it. It is entirely surrounded by a moat, and connected with the middle ward on one side and the mainland on the other by drawbridges. It would probably be used for grazing purposes, and thus would be of great value to the garrison; but so far as the actual defences of the castle are concerned, a lake would have been much more effective; the nature of the ground would however have prevented this. The horn-work was intended to cover the only side upon which the castle was open to an attack from level ground, and to occupy what would otherwise have been a dangerous platform.

The eastern side of the outer ward—the grand front—is a most imposing structure. It is a wall about 250 yards long, and in some parts 60 feet high, furnished with buttresses and projecting towers from which the intervening spaces are easily commanded, culminating in the great gate-house near the centre, and terminating at both ends in clusters of towers which protect the sally-ports. On the outside is a moat spanned by a double drawbridge. The northern part of this front, which was probably occupied by stables, would in dry weather be the least defensible part of the castle; but it was cut off from the rest by an embattled wall running from the gate-house to the inner moat and pierced only by one small and portcullised gate. The southern half was more important and stronger. It crossed the stream at the dam, the walls being 15 feet thick where subjected to the pressure of the water, and the strong group of towers at the end—on the other side of the stream—guarded the dam on which the safety of the castle largely depended; the wall and towers here form a semicircle, curving back into the edge of the lake, so as to avoid the danger of being outflanked.

On the inside of the grand front were various buildings, such as the mill. This eastern line was divided from the middle ward by a moat 45 feet wide—a space which is too wide to be spanned by a single drawbridge, and as there are no signs of the foundations of a central pier, it seems probable that the bridge rested on a wooden support, which could be removed when necessary, and the assailants plunged into the moat below.
There are a large number of interesting details connected with both the military functions of the castle and its domestic economy. There were at least four exits (not counting the two water-gates); this would give the garrison opportunities of harassing assailants by sallies, and would make a much larger army necessary in order to blockade the castle; contrast the single narrow entrance to the Norman keep—high up in the wall and visible to all outside. The water-gates are worth studying, especially the methods of protecting the eastern water-gate—two grates with a shoot above and between them. One should notice, too, the “splaying” of the outer wall, by which missiles from the top would be projected outwards; and also the use of the mill-stream to carry away the refuse of the garderobe tower. And there are many other points, to which one would like to call attention, if time allowed.

The history of Caerphilly in the Middle Ages need not detain us long. It was besieged by Llywelyn in 1271, while it was being built. Llywelyn declared he could have taken it in three days if he had not been persuaded to submit the dispute to the arbitration of the king. It is clear that the castle was not finished; shortly after this Gilbert de Clare obtained license from the king to “enditch” the castle: such license was not, as a rule, required in the Marches (as it was in England) and was only necessary now because the king was acting as arbitrator. The Earl of Gloucester kept possession. We next hear of it in 1315, when it resisted the attack of Llywelyn Bren. It was then in the hands of the king, pending the division of the Gloucester inheritance among the three co-heiresses. In 1318 Caerphilly, with the rest of Glamorgan, was granted to the younger Despenser, who perhaps enlarged the hall and made the other alterations referred to above. Edward II. was there for a few days when flying for his life; had he trusted to Caerphilly, instead of fleeing further through South Wales, he might have saved his head and his crown; at any rate, there would have been a great siege to add to the history of mediƦval warfare. The king’s adherents held out in Caerphilly for months, and only surrendered when, the king being dead, there was nothing more to fight for, and they were allowed to go free. Happy is the castle which has no history. The perfection of Caerphilly as a fortress saved it from serious attacks.


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  1. Thank you, Teresa! I am enjoying these castle posts immensely, and yours is one reason why. So very informative- and I love the picture of Caerphilly. It is exquisite!

  2. Thanks first for the many free gifts... I love puzzles! I would truly enjoy a copy of A Merry Chase and look forward to reading it.

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  3. Wonderful detail, thanks Teresa. Makes me want to visit it.

  4. Must admit rarely visited Wales in my long time living in Britain strange since I was born close to the English Welsh border - so thanks for the information

    Meikleblog at gmail dot com

  5. These castles are amazing - such classic, constructions - and wonderful pictures of them.
    G x

  6. Thank you for the gifts. I, especially, enjoyed Georgette Heyer's The Black Moth. Thank you for the giveaway.