Dark and brooding – Caerphilly Castle
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It broods like some sleepy stone giant in the heart of the town; it has a dark, massive presence, which almost seems to negate the bright summer sunshine; it is Caerphilly Castle (Castell Caerffili).
The history of the subjugation of the Welsh peoples, first by the Romans, then later by the invading Normans and English, lasted more than a thousand years. You can find excavated remains of Roman structures at Caerleon, Gwent, and Barry, South Glamorgan, for example, but the evidence for the military presence of the English is far more visible. From the coastal fortress of Harlech Castle on the Irish Sea, to the imposing Caernarfon Castle, where the Princes of Wales are crowned, Wales was ringed by garrisons designed to subdue the turbulent country. Norman knights, charged with keeping the Welsh Marches (the border areas in the south and west of Wales) quiet, quickly erected ‘motte and bailey’ castles, earthen mounds, topped by a wooden palisade, and a central stronghold – the bailey. These were replaced as soon as possible with more permanent, stone, structures.
Caerphilly Castle came into being during the very last wave of major castle building. Started in 1268, during the reign of Henry III, it was intended to defend the lands of a powerful baron, Gilbert de Clare, who controlled the whole of Glamorgan. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, a native Prince of Wales (1222 – 1282), saw the likely danger and attacked the castle during the building phase, but was repulsed. As completed, Caerphilly Castle consisted of a double ring of walls, massively thick, with towers at strategic spots, and covered an area of 30 acres, one of the largest in Europe. There were few points at which an attack might be mounted against the fortress, and a series of dams and earthworks across a local stream (the Nant Gledyr) caused an impressive moat to form. Here we can see the eastern gatehouse, and the bridge across the moat, which now forms the main access to the town centre. The gatehouse itself is a ‘double’ one, with the inner towers built higher than the outer ones, giving defenders a clear shot at any attackers. The covered passageway between the inner and outer walls is protected by a strong portcullis at either end, and would have been transformed into a killing field, as the defenders had specially designed openings in the roof of this passage to rain down rocks, arrows, and boiling water or oil onto the hapless attackers. Careful examination of the arrow slits shows that they have rounded apertures at the end of each arm; these are called oillets, and make aiming arrows easier for the defenders. The oillets did not appear as a feature until the 13th century, so this is a useful way of quickly confirming the date of the building.
The castle did not see a great deal of military action, with only skirmishes and a siege or two during the Middle Ages. Despite being taken by the forces of Owain Glyndwr (who Shakespeare named as ‘Owen Glendower’) and held for a few months in 1403, the need for this massive fortress waned by the early 16th century. Ruin and disintegration followed, until John Stuart, 1st Marquis of Bute, PC, FRS (1744-1815) acquired the castle and began a slow restoration. As an aside, the 2nd Marquis, John Crichton-Stuart, KT, FRS, (1793-1848), became fabulously wealthy when coal was discovered under most of his estates in South Wales, and he was responsible for the major development of the city of Cardiff! Caerphilly Castle was finally presented to the nation in 1950, by the 5th Marquess; it is now in the hands of Cadw (it means ‘to keep’, in English), the national heritage organisation set up by the Welsh Assembly, and is a major tourist attraction.
You can see a couple of successful invaders in the photograph – a pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), that ubiquitous waterfowl which has successfully conquered almost every part of Great Britain!