Cardiff was originally fortified by the Romans who constructed a succession of military outposts on the site and the Normans re-used these defences in the early eleventh century when they built Cardiff Castle. That fortification was slighted after the Civil War but was restored and stylised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The first fortification at Cardiff was built by the Romans as they expanded their conquest into Wales. The site was a key nodal point offering strategic control over the Rivers Taff and Ely as well as dominance over the primary overland route running east/west through South Wales. At this time south-eastern Wales was occupied by the Silures tribe who violently opposed the Roman occupation prompting military activity in the area. Accordingly the first Roman Fort, which was built around AD 55, occupied a large footprint of 25 acres and was intended to serve as a base for a substantial military force consisting of a full battle group of both Legionary and Auxiliary troops. However, such a structure would have had a relatively short lifespan as the force would have moved on as the campaign progressed and it was replaced with a much smaller Auxiliary fort enclosing around 5 acres. This probably served as an outpost of the Legionary fortress at Caerleon which was established around AD 75. The fort was rebuilt again later in the second century AD. This new fort was reduced in size to just 4 acres which probably reflected the increasing political stability in the area at this time.
The third century AD saw an increasing threat from Irish pirates who raided Wales and the West Coast. Combined with significant Roman military re-structuring, which included the withdrawal of the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) from its base at nearby Caerleon around AD 290, Cardiff Roman Fort was rebuilt to garrison a force to deal with the pirates. The new fortification was similar to the contemporary structure at Portchester. It enclosed an area of 9 acres and was built with a substantial stone rampart, backed by an earth bank and augmented with polygonal corner plus interval towers. Gatehouses on the north and south sides provided the only means of access. The garrison assigned to the unit is unknown but may have included elements of the British arm of the Roman Navy (Classis Britannica). The fort was abandoned as the Roman army withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century.
The site remained abandoned until the arrival of the Normans. William I campaigned in South Wales in 1080/81 and he probably founded Cardiff Castle at this time although the wider area remained in the hands of the native Welsh. However, in the late eleventh century William II invited Robert Fitzhamon, Baron of Gloucester to seize the Welsh Kingdom of Morgannwg in South Wales. Supported by twelve Knights and their retinues, he advanced from Gloucester around 1089, built Newport Castle and then moved west into the Vale of Glamorgan where he established his administrative centre at Cardiff Castle. The fortification raised at this time was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey structure. The mound was raised within the north-east corner of the third century Roman fort whilst the earthworks of that structure were re-used to form the perimeter of the bailey. This was also divided internally with the western third portioned off to create an Inner Bailey. Robert also built the Town Wall around this time (see below).
Fitzhamon died in 1107 by which time he and his retainers had occupied much of the Vale of Glamorgan. These Welsh estates, including Cardiff, passed through marriage to the illegitimate son of Henry I, Robert (later Earl of Gloucester). It was probably he who built the shell keep perhaps before taking custody of the King's imprisoned brother - Robert, Duke of Normandy - who was held at Cardiff between 1126 and 1134. The structure was similar to the contemporary keep at Arundel and consisted of a polygonal curtain wall and gatehouse. A barbican provided additional protection for the entrance into the Keep.
Throughout the twelfth century both the Normans and the native Welsh vied for control. The death of Henry I in 1135, without a male heir, led to a protracted period of civil war in England which the Welsh sought to exploit. Although there is no evidence that Cardiff Castle was attacked at this time, the fortress was undoubtedly prepared for it as Norman power contracted across Wales. The accession of Henry II in 1154 ended the civil war allowing the Normans capacity to re-assert themselves. However, this inevitably caused resentment and in 1158 a native Welsh ruler, Ifor Bach of Senghennydd, mounted an audacious raid on Cardiff Castle. He seized the then owner, William FitzRobert, along with his wife and son, all of whom were then held in some discomfort in a Welsh forest until they conceded to territorial demands.
Following William's death the castle passed through the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to Prince John (later King John). Although he divorced her in 1199, he retained her properties until his death in October 1216. Thereafter Cardiff was returned to her and, when she died the following year, it passed to her nephew, Gilbert de Clare (he acquired the Earldom of Gloucester in 1225). He sought to end the political situation that had existed in the area until this time - namely where the Glamorgan lowlands were under Norman control whilst the uplands were in the hands of the Welsh. Periodic warfare followed as first Gilbert (d.1230), then his son Richard de Clare (d.1262), expelled the Welsh from the uplands immediately to the north of Cardiff. Gilbert's grandson, also called Gilbert, later marched into central Senghennydd where he built Caerphilly Castle as well as nearby Morlais Castle. Throughout this period it wasn't just the Welsh who posed a threat - in 1233 Cardiff Castle was briefly captured by Richard Marshal, Earl of Pembroke during his rebellion against Henry III.
Later Medieval History
In 1314 the castle's then owner - Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester - was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn. His estates were taken into Crown ownership and came into the possession of Edward II’s unpopular favourite, Hugh Despenser. In 1321 many of the Marcher Lords joined the rebellion of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and they raided Cardiff Castle along with other Despenser held properties in Wales and the border region. Although the rebellion was defeated and Hugh's properties restored, he was executed in 1326 following the overthrow of Edward II. Nevertheless, the Despenser family retained control of Cardiff Castle and held it for the reminder of the fourteenth century. They were still owners in 1404 when both Cardiff Castle and the town were sacked by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr.
Cardiff Castle passed through marriage to Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester in 1414. It remained with the Beauchamp family after his death as the heiress, Isabel, married another Richard Beauchamp, this time Earl of Warwick, in 1423. Their family retained Cardiff until 1445 but then both castle and the Earldom of Warwick passed to the Neville family. In 1461 the then owner - Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick - was instrumental in ensuring the Yorkist Edward IV became King (earning him the nickname the Kingmaker). Neville was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) and his heirs, both daughters, were married to the King's brothers in order to secure their vast estates. Accordingly Cardiff Castle passed to George, Duke of Clarence and, after he was executed for treason, to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). Following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), Cardiff passed into the hands of Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford.
Tudors and Civil War
The Tudor dynasty, having hailed from Wales, adopted a very different approach to Anglo-Welsh relations and Cardiff’s status as a Marcher territory was revoked. Cardiff Castle drifted into ruin. Edward VI granted it to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke in 1551 and his son, Henry, started to convert the castle into a palatial residence in the 1570s. However, the outbreak of the Civil War saw Cardiff Castle placed back onto a war footing. The then owner - Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke - supported the Parliamentary cause and garrisoned the castle accordingly. However, Wales was pro-Royalist and the castle was soon taken. The King's forces then held it until September 1645 when it was besieged and fell to Parliamentary forces. The Royalists made a futile attempt to recover it in February 1646 as they desperately sought to gain control of a port to embark men and supplies from Ireland and the continent. However, they were driven off by a force under Major-General Laugharne. When the second Civil War ignited in 1648, the Royalists once again attempted to seize Cardiff but were thwarted by the intervention of Parliamentary forces who defeated the Royalist army at the Battle of St Fagans (1648).
Following the civil wars, Cardiff Castle was slighted to prevent further military use. It remained in a ruinous condition until the late eighteenth century when John Stuart, Marquis of Bute embarked upon a series of renovations and landscaping. This included employing Capability Brown, the famous landscape architect, and under this individual’s direction much of the medieval castle was destroyed and other elements heavily stylised. This cultural vandalism was continued in 1865 when the then owner, John Crichton-Stuart, commissioned William Burges to undertake a wholesale transformation of the site with much of the castle being rebuilt in a Romano-Gothic style under the direction of William Burges. Nearby Castle Coch was also 'stylised' at this time. During WWII the tunnels within the exterior wall were used as an air-raid shelter.
Cardiff town was laid out by Robert Fitzhamon, Baron of Gloucester shortly after he established Cardiff Castle as his caput. The town was built to the south-east of the castle and extended along the eastern bank of the River Taff (which had a slightly wider path than that seen today). Given the political instability in Wales, the town would have had defences from the start although they were probably initially built in earth and timber and it is not clear whether the western curtain wall existed at this time as the River Taff and the adjacent marshland might have been deemed sufficient.
The town walls were rebuilt in stone during the early thirteenth century probably by Gilbert de Clare (d.1230). They were substantially enhanced during the mid-fifteenth century by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. A charter dated 1451 stated the new defences consisted of a wall fortified with towers, gates and fronted by a ditch. By this time five gates provided access through the walls including Blaunch Gate which led to the town key.
Substantial floods caused damage to the town wall during the seventeenth and eighteenth century which led to sections, particularly along the western length, succumbing to subsidence. Stone was also robbed to support other building projects including construction of the Glamorganshire Canal embankment. As with so many other medieval fortified towns, the gates were deemed to restrict traffic flow and were demolished - East and West Gates in 1781, North Gate in 1786 and South Gate in 1801.
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Cardiff Castle consists of remains from a variety of periods although the highlight is the well preserved medieval polygonal keep. There are also some original Roman remains although the vast majority of the outer defences consist of nineteenth century ‘reconstructed’ Romanesque walls. Tunnels used as an air-raid shelter during World War II are also accessible. There are regular tours of the eighteenth and nineteenth century state apartments. Other than a few small fragments, the above ground remains of Cardiff Town Walls have been obliterated. A reconstruction of the West Gate was built in 1921 and can be found in its original position adjacent to the castle
Cardiff Castle and Town. The castle occupied the same footprint as the earlier third century AD Roman Fort which had itself been built on top of earlier military outposts.
Shell Keep and Motte. The polygonal shaped Shell Keep was probably built by Robert, Earl of Gloucester in the early twelfth century. It is similar in design to contemporary structures such as that at Arundel Castle in Sussex.
Shell Keep. The polygonal Keep was fronted by a entrance tower which was protected by a barbican (now partially demolished).
Inside Shell Keep. The keep would once have been filled with buildings arranged around a small courtyard.
(Roman) Gatehouse. Whilst it make look impressive and was built on top of the earlier Roman foundations, the gatehouse is actually a nineteenth century folly. The original gatehouse into the third century AD fort would have looked very different.
Black Tower and Outer Gatehouse. Black Tower (left) was built in the thirteenth century at the point where the Inner Bailey wall connected with the castle's outer curtain wall. Along with the Outer Gatehouse (right), it was prettified in the nineteenth century.
Curtain Wall. The curtain walls are built on top of the Roman and medieval predecessors but much of what is visible dates from the nineteenth century rebuild. The original Roman walls would have been several metres lower.
Air Raid Shelter. When the curtain walls were 'restored' in the nineteenth century, a tunnel was embedded within them to allow the Marquis to go for his morning run under shelter when it was raining. The tunnels were used as an air raid shelter during World War II.
State Apartments. The state apartments are built upon the site of the medieval Great Hall but what is visible today dates from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Cardiff Castle is located at the heart of the city centre directly on the main road. There is no dedicated car park but there are many options nearby (one shown below). The visible stretches of Town Wall are found to the immediate east of the castle on either side of the A4161.
Car Parking Option
Cardiff Town Wall (x2)
Off A4161, CF10 3FD