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History of Caerphilly Castle

The Castle was originally constructed by the nobleman Gilbert ‘the Red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan, so known because of his red hair. Inheriting the family lands in 1263, when he was 18 years old, Red Gilbert, mindful of the threat of the Welsh ruler Llywelyn ap Grufudd, began building the Castle as a means of defence and as a way of subduing the region of Glamorgan. In 1265, Llywelyn allied himself with the rebel barons of England, in exchange for being granted authority over the local Welsh magnates within the region, including Glamorgan. In retaliation, De Clare allied himself with King Henry III. The baronial revolt was crushed and de Clare advanced into Glamorcan and started to construct Caerphilly Castle in 1268.

In 1270, Llywelyn attacked the Castle’s construction site, burning a large part of it. Despite this, Gilbert de Clare continued building the Castle at a very fast pace, completing it by 1271. Additional water defences, towers and gatehouses were also built with the aim of securing the area and preventing lowland South Wales from falling into Welsh hands and act as a buffer.

Ironically, by the time Caerphilly Castle was finished, the threat of the Welsh Prince had diminished. In 1277, King Edward I stripped Llywelyn of his Lordship and drove him out of the surrounding lands. Caerphilly Castle was no longer on the frontier of political dispute, and it started filling the role of the administrative centre for de Clare’s estates. The rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, led to the castle to be attacked once again. Half the town of Caerphilly was burnt, however Madog ap Llywelyn’s forces did not take the Castle which withstood the assault. The following year, the King suppressed the revolt, arresting Madog. Red Gilbert died in 1295, leaving Caerphilly Castle to his son, also called Gilbert de Clare, and who died in 1314 fighting in the battle of Bannockburn. The family lands passed under the control of the Crown for a while. In 1316, what is known as the Llywelyn Bren uprising took place. The rebellion, caused about by unrest due to certain administrative decisions, caused Caerphilly Castle to be attacked once more. Although the town of Caerphilly was destroyed during the attack, the Castle itself wasn’t. The rebellion was defeated by the Royal army in a battle at Caerphilly Mountain.

Red Gilbert had no son, and the Castle floundered for some years with no obvious heir. Eventually, in 1317, Eleanor de Clare, wife of the royal favourite Hugh le Despenser, was granted Glamorgan and Caerphilly Castle as part of her inheritance. Hugh expanded the Great Hall at the Castle, however he was forced to flee in 1326 when Isabella of France, King Edward II’s wife, overthrew government. Intent on destroying the power of her husband’s favourite, Isabella’s forces besieged the Castle from December 1326 to March 1327. Hugh le Despenser’s son, also called Hugh, was cornered inside the Castle by a force of 425 soldiers against his 130 men and was forced to surrender. Hugh le Despenser himself was hanged. Slowly, the Castle started falling into a state of decline. Later in 1416, the Castle passed through Isabel le Despenser to her first husband Richard de Beauchamp, the Earl of Worcester, and then to her second husband, the Earl of Warwick, who invested a lot in the Castle, handling repairs and making it their main residence in the region. In 1449, the Castle was given to Richard Neville, and in 1486 to Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke.

Its usefulness as a home and defence had diminished and by the 15th century, it was gradually more or less vacated, until it started being used as a prison by the end of the century. After the Civil War, in which it played no real part, Parliament decreed that the Castle be ignored and ‘slighted’, in order to prevent it from being used as a fortification. This resulted in the damage which cased the famous ‘leaning’ south-east tower, which can still be seen today. In 1583, the Castle was leased to Thomas Lewis, who stripped it of much of its stone to extend his house, causing severe damage. By the 16th century, the lakes had drained away and the walls had been robbed of their stone.

In 1776, the Marquis of Bute acquired the property, and the family started to restore the Castle. John Stuart, the first Marquis, protected the ruins, while his great-grandson John Crichton-Stuart, the third Marquis, was very rich and passionately interested in the medieval period. He reroofed the great hall in the 1870s and began the process of buying back properties around the Castle. The fourth Marquis was a restorer and builder and began a major restoration project in 1928 which lasted 11 years. He repaired the stonework, and rebuilt the Inner Gatehouse, along with a number of towers. He also carried out some landscaping work with the intent of eventually re-flooding the lakes. In 1947, when the fifth Marquis inherited the Castle, the Bute family had sold most of its holdings in Wales. In 1950 he donated Caerphilly Castle to the state. The lakes were re-flooded and the last stages of the restoration were completed.

At present, the Castle is managed by the Welsh heritage agency known as CADW and it is a popular tourist attraction.