Wales has more castles than anywhere in Europe. Exploring this region really captures the imagination, bringing to life tumultuous times in history when battle was waged and kingdoms defended from impressive fortresses.
In Southern Wales, a 30-minute drive from Cardiff, is the beloved Caerphilly Castle. It was built by Earl Gilbert de Clare starting in 1268 in an effort to diminish the power of Llewellyn—the last native Prince of Wales. When built, Caerphilly Castle broke the mold in castle design in England. It sits on 30 acres and was initially surrounded by large lakes that served as deterrents to attackers. But the lakes were not the only unique feature setting a precedent in English castle architecture.
On my recent trip to the castle, learning of its history was thrilling. My outstanding guide, Bill, from Planet Wales vividly explained what each area of the castle was used for and just how the defense mechanisms worked. I couldn’t help but gain a greater appreciation for the innovative warfare tactics during those days and also how difficult life must have been.
Caerphilly has what historians refer to as, concentric castle defenses. It doesn’t just rely on the exterior lakes and motes but also on multiple drawbridges and gatehouses. These mechanisms made it possible to protect the entrance into the castle as well as capture anyone who tried to get in.
If soldiers survived crossing the waters and bridges, they must get through the gatehouses—where metal grates could descend, trapping them in a corridor. There they would be vulnerable to arrows propelled through slits in walls and heavy rocks falling from over head. As I stood in one of the gatehouses, I shuttered at the mental image.
As you’ll see in this photo of me walking toward a gatehouse, the castle is fortified by many round towers that were constructed in twos. These sturdy structures held up against outside aggression. They also provided spacious accommodations for royalty and other guests and inhabitants of the castle.
A contemporary invention of the day were these arrow slits angled in such a way that allowed soldiers inside the castle to shoot at enemy forces while remaining largely protected themselves. Here, atop one of the towers, you can see the countryside in the distance. Numerous other angled slits were strategically placed throughout the exterior walls of the castle. See if you can find them in the other photos in this post.
Wooden platforms were built to hang over exterior walls of the castle to give soldiers an advantage over any attackers below. Here is a replica of one of these old platforms. Notice the holes in the wood where rocks and arrows could be launched on those underfoot.
Different from prior castles in England, Caerphilly has a courtyard in the middle. In the 13th and 14th centuries, this is where a well for drinking water as well as livestock would have been found. The sanitation of the courtyard and well was essential to the survival of those living inside the castle.
There I am inside the royal quarters, imagining what it might have been like to live in this sprawling castle. As legend has it, these rooms are haunted.
In its heyday, Caerphilly Castle was painted white. Telltale signs of its former hue can be seen still leaking through seams in the stone. I can only imagine what the enormous, bright white castle must have looked like to Llewellyn’s men coming over the hill to attack.
Once fully constructed, the defenses of Caerphilly Castle were virtually impossible to breach. One of the only winning tactics for enemy soldiers would have been to stop the flow of food and supplies into the fortress—and wait for those within to surrender.
The castle was initially attacked even before it was finished. But Earl Gilbert de Clare was persistent and made sure to recommence building once order was restored. Later it was King Edward I who would take inspiration from Caerphilly Castle, building a string of fortresses around Wales. He went on to win the power struggle against Llewellyn and finally unify Wales and England, once and for all.
Today the castle is right next to the modern town of Caerphilly. The juxtaposition of these two worlds is truly fascinating. These days the castle is open to the public for touring. On occasion, festivals are held within the castle walls.
Still today, Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Britain. And many travelers come especially to see the leaning tower of Caerphilly Castle proven to lean even more than the tower of Pisa.
What historic sites would you travel to see?
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