CASTLES, Cathedrals, Abbeys and Stately Homes
Chirk Castle, occupied virtually continuously as a castle and stately home for almost 700 years, sits on a hilltop with its best views over the Ceiriog valley to the south. The successor to two known mottes in the area, it was probably built by Roger Mortimer, of the powerful Marcher family, who was granted the area by Edward I after the Welsh defeat in 1282. He was almost certainly given royal assistance in its design and construction, and its similarities to Beaumaris suggest that work may have started as late as 1295, perhaps in response to the Welsh rising of 1294.
The castle may have originally been envisaged as a rectangular enclosure with towers at the corners and halfway along each side. If so, only the northern half of the design survives, stopping beyond the central towers on the east and west. The simple gate through the eastern part of the north wall is probably original. Additional outer defences were dismantled during later landscaping.
The spirit of the 14th century structure is preserved in the Adam's Tower (near the well on the south-west), which has a magnificent dungeon on two levels and a number of upper rooms clearly showing the 5m-thick walls. Two of them contain 'murder holes', through which material could be poured on to anyone trying to batter or burn down the doors below. This tower, like the others, was originally at least one storey higher, the upper parts probably being removed after the Civil War bombardment of 1659.
The south curtain was completed on the present line early in the 15th century, under Thomas, earl of Arundel, probably against Owain Glyndwr's forces, who had strong local support. The chapel in the present south-east corner, possibly begun in the later 14th century, and the adjoining hall are the earliest surviving stone rooms outside the towers. Timber structures probably stood against the other walls.
After the War of the Roses, the castle settled in royal hands on the execution of Sir William Stanley in 1495. The south range was partially rebuilt in 1529, reusing stone from earlier work. The old hall was subdivided and new living accommodation provided to its west. In 1563, the castle was granted to Elizabeth I's favorite, Robert Dudley, soon created earl of Leicester and Baron Denbigh, who held it as part of his extensive north Wales properties until his death in 1588. He may have reroofed it and added some of the square windows.
The castle was purchased in 1595 for about L5,000 by Sir Thomas Myddelton, a son of the governor of Denbigh Castle and successful London merchant. As a founder of the East India Company, an investor in the expeditions of Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins, he had the means to convert Chirk into a comfortable Tudor residence. His new stone north range contained a hall, buttery and kitchen, with upstairs drawing and dining rooms. This range, with alterations, became the main living quarters of the castle, while the old south range was gradually given over to servants.
Sir Thomas' son, the second Sir Thomas, took up residence on his marriage in 1612 and as MP for Denbighshire from 1625, found himself on the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. Royalist supporters seized the castle in 1643, and held it for three years. Sir Thomas' Parliamentary forces meanwhile enjoyed some successes, including the capture of Powis Castle, although he could not bring himself to attack Chirk.
The castle was eventually regained by bribery and Sir Thomas' son (Sir Thomas III) installed as governor. By 1651, however, the general had changed sides, and further payoffs were needed to dislodge the Parliamentarian garrison. Chirk was nevertheless besieged and taken by the Parliamentarians in 1659 as punishment for the Myddeltons' support of the Cheshire Rising. At the last moment it sustained the damage they had for so long sought to avoid. Most of the eastern side was demolished, and much of the rest burnt, leaving the family with a huge rebuilding task after the Restoration in 1660.
Anew stone range was now added on the east, in conjunction with the reconstruction of the curtain wall and towers. The new towers, although externally similar to their predecessors, had much thinner walls, while the range included a drawing room and long gallery at first floor level, with an arcaded walkway facing the courtyard beneath it. The old state bedroom in the south-east tower was given a new entrance from the long gallery. Sir Thomas III predeceased his father, and his son Sir Thomas IV, who came of age in 1672, supervised the decoration of the newly built rooms, completed, possibly with the help of William Wynde, in 1678. Only the long gallery survives to show the original style of this work.
Within the east range, the main structure of the castle was complete, although minor alterations continued to be made. After an abortive episode in 1762-4, when a scheme for a Gothic interior was abandoned at an early stage, the north range was extensively refurbished in neo-classical style by Joseph Turner of Chester in the later 1760s and 1770s, the drawing room being completed by John Cooper of Beaumaris in about 1796. In the 1820s, however, gothic vaulting was added, and from 1845 the interior was almost totally reworked in the Gothic manner by A.W. Pugin, architect of the Houses of Parliament. Most of these alterations have been undone in recent years, with the exception of the Cromwell Hall, where a collection of Civil War arms is displayed. The castle remained in the hands of the Myddelton family, who still own and work much of the estate, until 1978. It is now in the care of the National Trust.
Offa's Dyke runs through the park. It can be seen from the air beneath the waters of the artificial lake, and is visible as a low bank as far as Home Farm, west of the castle. South of the castle it is better preserved, running to the west of the track, and out into the fields beyond, beside the footpath. The magnificent wrought iron gate-screen at the entrance to the park was made by Robert and John Davies of Bersham between 1712 and 1719. It originally stood a little way in front of the main castle gate, and was moved to its present position in 1770 during the landscaping of the park.
The interest and extraordinary impact of Caerphilly derive from its enormous size, together with the complexity of its land and water defences. In all, it covers some 30 acres, and represents the might of medieval military architecture on a majestic scale. Seen mirrored in the still waters of its great lake, or rising mysteriously through a morning mist, the castle presents a prospect rarely surpassed in these islands.
Not surprisingly, the strategic qualities of the site were first recognized by the Romans. During their military conquest of south-east Wales, a fort for about 500 auxiliary soldiers was established at Caerphilly around AD 75. Abandoned some 50 years later, the location was not reoccupied during the early Norman invasion of Glamorgan in the late 11th century. At this time, the new conquerors were content to concentrate on the fertile coastal plains, and the mountainous uplands were left largely to the Welsh. Thus, Caerphilly Mountain effectively formed a geographical barrier between Welsh and Anglo-Norman for almost 200 years. Then, in the 1260s, the minor native lords of upland Glamorgan found themselves caught up in the embroilments of national politics. To the north, the ambitious last Welsh prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was in effective control of Breconshire and was poised to move further south. But the powerful Marcher lord, Gilbert de Clare, was determined to avoid such catastrophe, and in 1267 he responded by moving rapidly north. He captured the native ruler, Gruffudd ap Rhys, and in the following year took the opportunity to begin the construction of Caerphilly itself.
Although de Clare must have planned a mighty new fortress, it is doubtful that he had any conception of how large and elaborate the finished work would be. Nor was his conflict with Llywelyn over yet. Construction of the formidable defences had scarcely begun before the castle was attacked and burnt by the prince's forces in 1270. Only through skillful negotiation, and the intervention of King Henry III, was full-scale war avoided. On the withdrawal of Llywelyn, de Clare regained Caerphilly and continued building in 1271. It is unlikely that the work was finished at his death in 1295, and operations must have gone on under his son, another Gilbert, who died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Caerphilly was built to a concentric design with successive lines of defence set one inside the other, so that when the attacker stormed he would find himself face to face with a second. This system of defence saw its fullest development in Edward I's great castles in north Wales. Although the moat is obviously wide and wet enough, and the walls intimidating enough, the defensive principles at the site can only be understood, in their totality, from the air. A seemingly impregnable series of concentric stone and water radiates, in a succession of larger and larger circles, from the central inner ward.
The first line of defence against any attack was the outer moat, spanned by two drawbridges, and backed by a huge curtain wall and gatehouse. The lakes made it almost impossible to use many of the normal methods of siege warfare. Stone-firing catapults could not be brought within range; siege ladders were virtually useless, and it was totally impracticable to tunnel under the waters to undermine the walls.
Below: Gilbert de Clare's great hall at Caerphilly
The inner moat and the gatehouses of the outer ward were the second line of defence. Finally, there stands at the very heart of the castle, the inner ward. This is a very large quadrangle enclosed by four curtain walls, with massive round towers at each corner and yet more gatehouses on the east and west sides. These huge gatehouses protect the points of entry and could be shut off and held separately should the rest of the castle fall. That on the east is by far the more impressive, and contained the constable's hall and other accommodation. In design, it set a pattern later adopted by Edward I at Harlech and Beaumaris.
From the de Clares, Caerphilly passed to the Despensers, and in 1316 it was attacked during the revolt of Llywelyn Bren. Hugh le Despenser the younger earned the hatred of the Welsh by putting Llywelyn to death in 1318. Caerphilly probably saw some further action during the Civil War, but the details are not clear. The effects of gunpowder are perhaps evident in the famous "leaning tower" of the inner ward, though this could be due to ground subsidence.
Today, an exhibition in the outer gatehouse tells the story of the castle and surrounding area in some detail. Models, illustrations and an audio-visual program add to the attractions. Caerphilly also houses an imaginative new Castles of Wales exhibition.
Wales - Castles and Historic Places, by CADW, Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff CF2 1UY, 1990.
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