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CAERPHILLY in Glamorganshire has no great reputation among British castles. It is a hollow shell without sufficient historical or human interest to draw large numbers of tourists. Nevertheless, with the exception of Windsor it was the largest of our castles in area, as it was also the first and finest of the concentric type in these islands. As at Kenilworth, the imagination receives little assistance in reconstructing the mediæval fortress. Its scheme was one of islands protected by the lakes they stood in, but the water has been drained away. Long ago every trace of metalwork and woodwork was removed; gunpowder was used either to quarry its stones or to destroy its military value, and the towers without battlements, the buildings without roofs, present a mass of walls in which it is difficult to detect a concentric, or indeed any, plan.
Caerphilly was a Marcher castle, an outpost of the lords of Glamorgan to protect Cardiff and the coastal plain from the forays of unbeaten Welshmen in the Brecon hills. It lay on a knoll in the plain between two rivers, the Rhymney and the Taff, the knoll jutting out like a peninsula into swampy ground between two small rivulets on their way to join the larger streams.
Perhaps the tradition is correct, that this was the site of a Welsh stronghold, Senghennydd, but it was Gilbert de Clare, third Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, who built the concentric castle there at the end of the reign of Henry III. For some time de Clare had quarrelled with Llewelyn over this land, and the castle could hardly have been half-completed before Llewelyn laid siege to it, and would only withdraw when the King himself intervened. After that, the great strength of the castle was really wasted, for immediately after it was erected Edward conquered and fortified North Wales, so that Caerphilly sank to a position of the second rank. The attacks it suffered were not launched by Welshmen against the English, but in the hurly-burly of rebellion and civil war.
The plan of Caerphilly is difficult to describe, owing to its complexity and its refinements. Its gravel peninsula projected eastward into a swamp shaped not unlike a horseshoe, and divided the low ground into two parts. The damming of two rivulets turned the swamp into a lake, and the peninsula, by two cross-cuts, became two islands. The inmost island, facing the arch of the horseshoe, held the main buildings of the castle. Between the castle and the root of the peninsula, and connected with them by drawbridges, was formed a horn-work or platform, its banks surrounded by ramparts. But the main approach to the castle was from the east, and the whole eastern side of the lake was protected by a long straight curtain wall, equally a barbican and a fortified dam upon which the lake system depended. This east front was an impregnable defence. It had towers at either end, those on the south across the rivulet to form a tête-du-pont. It was defended by bastions and buttresses, by a strong gatehouse, and by a broad moat along its front. Before the gatehouse, in the middle of the moat, was a stone pier; and the two sections of the drawbridge met and rested upon this. The gatehouse gave access to the platform behind the eastern curtain wall, and from there to the castle buildings was a third drawbridge. In addition to these defences, there was a thin tongue of land curving from the hornwork towards the east front, with which it was brought into connection by a wall.
The defences of Caerphilly, then, consisted of an outer moat and outer wall, a north and south lake, an inner moat, the hornwork, and the two wards of the actual castle buildings. In addition, to the north of the castle is a well-defended redoubt, but this must date from the Stuart wars. The details of Caerphilly’s fortifications were well thought out. The castle mill was on the platform behind the east front, and in the middle ward was a large water tank, probably used as a vivarium for the supply of fish.
The eastern or Grand Front of Caerphilly was, in itself, a very complete line of defence. The end towers prevented it from being outflanked, and protected that part of the curtain which controlled the river waters flowing through it. The gatehouse controlled the whole line, while the pier before it did duty as a barbican. But in addition, the wall 20 ft. high and 6 ft. thick, which connected the bank of the inner moat with the eastern front, also cut the latter into two halves at a point just north of the gatehouse. If either end of the eastern front were captured, the rest could hold out by itself. This division of the front allowed also for a narrow postern at that point, to which entrance could only be gained by boat.
The eastern front and its system of defence is generally taken as the outer ward of the castle. The middle ward — the outer ward of the castle buildings — was surrounded by a low wall with bastions at the angles. It possessed its own turreted gatehouses, east and west, and the kitchens were housed in a tower in this ward, adjacent to the south wall of the inner ward where the hall was situated.
The inner ward was surrounded by a lofty curtain wall with four corner towers, and again two strong gatehouses gave access to it. Against the south side were the hall, a beautiful building in the decorated style, attributed to Hugh le Despenser, which is one of the better preserved parts of the castle; and at either end of the hall were the chapel and the dwelling apartments.
The striking feature of Caerphilly was the provision for easy egress, but formidable obstacles were thrown in the way of any one seeking to effect an entrance. While an enemy was attacking the main gateway in the eastern front, he could easily be taken in the rear by a party from the western gateway or from the postern in the tête-du-pont.
It cannot be said that all this castle was built at one time, but it is obvious that it was constructed according to the original plan. Probably the military parts of the castle buildings were first completed, but the architects must have provided for the defences on the eastern front and the horn-work, or else the position would have been untenable. The complicated system of defence is a single whole, probably the product of one mind.
Caerphilly had no great part in history, partly because it was not the seat of a feudal barony, but merely an appendage to the lords of Cardiff. Through marriage the castle came into the hands of the Despensers; during 1326 King Edward II, fleeing from the Queen and her confederates, was twice at Caerphilly, which was afterwards besieged by Isabel, as we learn from a pardon made out to John de Felton for withstanding the Queen and Prince Edward at the castle of “Kerfilly.” But any historical references to the castle are incidental. In some way it was connected with Owen Glendower at a later period; a royal writ, on the one hand, commits Caerphilly to the keeping of Constantia, Lady de Despenser, for the suppression of Glen dower; but, on the other hand, tradition (though wrongly) attributes the famous leaning tower of the inner ward to the period when Glendower held and destroyed the castle.
Leland, in his Itinerary, speaks of “Caerfilly Castelle sette amonge marsches, wher be walles of a wonderful thickness and tower kept up for prisoners. . . .”
The destruction of Caerphilly was already begun when Leland wrote, and the story of its spoliation, so far as it can be pieced together, is a parable of how closely the lives of men are connected with the buildings they erect. About three-quarters of a mile from the castle is the ruin of a manor house, the Ffanvawr, of which now only the outer walls and a dovecote remain; but much of the hewn stone built into its walls is obviously from the castle. The manor house was built in Tudor times, and it belonged to the family of Lewis, whose ancestors had been the native lords of Senghennydd long before Caerphilly Castle was built. And there is a document dating from the time of Henry VIII giving to the family of Lewis the right “to take out and carie awaie from the within namyd castle of Caerfilley suche and so many of the stones thereof as ... shall seeme convenient and mete for the necessearie buildings of the saide Thomas Lewys at his house called the Vann.”
So we may suppose that the old enemies of Caerphilly at last despoiled it. They took away the fireplaces and the woodwork, the lead and iron, they threw down the towers with gunpowder and dislodged their stones, for the building of a peaceful manor house where the old Welsh family would live when the Marcher lords were the forgotten enemies of the past. There is almost a touch of Russian fatalism in the rivalry of these stone buildings, both now broken and in decay.