This moat is
defending an outer eastern island, and dams forming the lakes.
Caerphilly Castle is the largest castle in Wales and second largest in Britain, and one of the largest in Europe, in Britain only Windsor is larger. It is a concentric castle with extensive water defences, built between 1268 and 1271 for Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, a powerful, redheaded nobleman of Norman descent, as a response to a dispute between him and the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Last. The history of the developments in Wales that brought about the need for this and the other castles is covered in the article Wales - a potted history.
Cardiff was built by an English King, and at the time the whole of Glamorgan and up to some point north of Brecon was considered part of England. Although the Prince of Gwynedd, recognised the King as being over him, there were disputes over where his lands and influence ended, following a treaty that had given him control over Welsh lands. Caerphilly Castle along with Castell Coch, and later Morais Castle, north of Merthyr Tydfill, were developed to control the expansionist plans of this Welsh Prince into English lands.
Most castles are developed, one upon an older one, but with Caerphilly a new site was chosen allowing more scope to design the optimum. It was Britain's first concentric castle, with a ring of shallow lakes surrounding it. It was constructed on a gravel spur, by cutting through to form a moat and using the spoil to form a bank or dam holding back the south lake, slightly after, the design was modified to also include a north lake as well.
Concentric castles have a number of rings of defence, with some outer ones lower so that archers can fire over them from the taller inner structure. In this case we have a central keep with lower walls around on the central island, sounded by a moat that merges with the south lake, beyond the north moat is a lake, to the east is an island defended by a curtain wall and towers, with a moat in front with the water level controlled by sluices from the south lake, and to the west is a flat island and a further moat. Impressive gateways, and double drawbridges controlled entrances. In addition there was a watergate on to the south lake from the main island. It has a very large number of portcullises, and passages and wall walks allow defenders to move rapidly around the castle.
Caerphilly Castle - some
views of the water defences
He got the idea of the lakes from seeing Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, which originally had a great lake, with water defences on three sides and was said to be the most well defended in the land and a garrison including some of the Earls men, his son and possibly himself had held out in a major siege in 1266 from Easter to Christmas after losing a battle at Evesham and escaping there. Today there is little water in the Kenilworth defences, but you can walk around the edge of it.
The main entrance originally and today was the east gate, it however also has a north, south and west gate as well, of these the north and south come off the outer eastern island as does the main east gate.
This design is not only difficult to attack but keeps any enemy a long way back from the central part of the castle, and out of the range of most of the weapons of the time. On the east island are a number of replica siege engines that would have been the large showing machines of the time.
A little bit of history
Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, a powerful, redheaded nobleman of Norman descent, who built this castle was in dispute with the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Last, who had lands to the north, with ambitions to control the area.
Gilbert de Clare built other castles on the northern fringes of his territory for the same purpose, such as Castell Coch. He had seized the upland district of Senghenydd, in which Caerphilly lies, from the Welsh in 1266 to act as a buffer against Llywelyn's southward ambitions. Llywelyn realised the threat and tried but failed to prevent the castle from being built; it was begun on 11 April 1268, was attacked by Llywelyn in 1270, and was begun again in 1271. This time it was completed without hindrance.
The dispute was mediated by Henry III (1216-1272), who sent a Bishop to take temporary control of the castle until matters were settled. However, Gilbert soon regained control of the castle.
Gilbert retained control of the castle until the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). When Llywelyn failed on five occasions to provide services demanded of him by the King, he was stripped of his Lordship and his lands were invaded by King Edward. This removed much of the requirement for the castle, and from then on it was principally used as a base of operations for the de Clare's and later the de Spensers.
Minor Welsh attacks took place in 1294-5 and 1316 but failed to make any impact. Caerphilly castle was in the war between Edward II and his queen, Isabella. Intent on destroying the power of her husband and his favourite Hugh le de Spenser, Isabella besieged the castle from December 1326 to March 1327. But by this time Edward had fled and Hugh had been hanged.
Towards the end of the 14th century, the family moved to a more comfortable location and much of the castle was abandoned as a major fortress.
The forces of Owain Glyndwr captured Caerphilly Castle in 1403, but the occupation lasted only one hundred days. They returned two years later with additional French forces in 1405 at the height of the rebellion and retook the castle holding it for a year, the garrison only leaving after setbacks elsewhere changed the complexion of the revolt in South Wales.
Where this bridge is now there would have been a double drawbridge
Some maintenance was done by its subsequent owners, Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), Richard Neville (d. 1471) and Jasper Tudor (d. 1495), probably because of its strategic usefulness, but this petered out at the end of the 15th century. The castle gradually fell into disrepair though some maintenance was done on parts of it, notably the Eastern gatehouse which was used as a prison.
Despite being mostly untouched by the Civil War of 1642-1648, Cromwell ordered in 1648 that the castle be slighted so that it could not be used by those opposed to his regime. Some say this led to one of the most notable features of the castle, its leaning south-east tower, others say its the result of subsidence. The tower stands 20 metres high and leans 3 metres out of the perpendicular. The castle's condition worsened until the latter part of the 18th century. By the 18th century the lakes were dry and houses had been built against the foot of the south dam. The first Marquess of Bute began preservation work. Three generations of Marquesses recorded the details of the castle, cleared structures built against its walls as leases ended and eventually undertook painstaking analysis and restoration of the fallen masonry. Finally it was handed over to the Government in 1950 and the lakes re-flooded in the 1950's; its restoration and preservation is continued today by Cadw, who have restored large sections.
Visiting the castle you find some remains but also very large parts intact including the great hall, a section of parapet, some of the towers, the top walk around a part of the castle, and a range of other features. Except for the remodelling of the great hall and other domestic works in 1322-6, the castle retains its 13th century design.
Please note that algae bloom in the moat and lakes can cause mild respiratory problems and skin irritation to some at some times of the year.
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