Late eleventh century Wales was a collection of small Kingdoms rather than a single political entity. Furthermore the border with England was ill-defined. These factors enabled the Normans, who had conquered England with remarkable speed, to start encroaching upon Welsh lands. A piecemeal conquest followed led by a number of baronial families - so-called Marcher Lords as their respective territories were regarded as frontier lands beyond the normal framework of Royal control. One of these magnates was Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. In 1093 he seized an opportunity to expand control into South West Wales when Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth died leaving a power vacuum. Roger sent his son - Arnulf de Montgomery - to take control of Pembrokeshire. As the de Montgomery family sought to consolidate and expand their control of the area, Roger built the first castle at Cardigan in neighbouring Ceredigion. Raised in 1093 it was most probably built on a site now known as the 'old castle' around one mile downstream from the later castle. This structure was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification and it didn't survive long - Roger died in 1094 and the Welsh subsequently captured and destroyed it.
With the original castle gone, Cardigan was in Welsh hands but Gruffydd ap Rhys, King of Deheubarth sought to entrench good relations with the Normans and married his daughter - the Princess Nest - to Gerald de Windsor, Constable of Pembroke Castle. A medieval soap opera then followed when, in 1107, she was abducted by Owain ap Bleddyn, son of the ruler of Ceredigion. This prompted Henry I, who considered he had overlordship of all Wales, to declare Ceredigion forfeit and authorised Gilbert fitz Richard de Clare to invade. In 1110 he duly did so and founded Cardigan building both a new town and castle. The latter was an earth and timber structure constructed on the site of the current castle. It is not certain whether this new castle had a motte - a map dated 1611 suggests this was the case but, if so, traces have now been obliterated by later modifications. Situated on the frontier between the Norman controlled Pembrokeshire and the fiercely independent Welsh of Ceredigion, an uneasy peace followed with the new arrivals only sustaining their presence by maintaining a large, well equipped military force in the region.
Henry I died in 1135 without leaving a male heir. Although his barons had pledged their support for his daughter, Matilda, medieval England was no place for a female ruler and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, took the throne instead. The Marcher Lords, including de Clare, shifted their focus to England prompting withdrawal of military forces from Wales. This resulted in a Welsh uprising against Norman control which saw most of the castles in the region fall. Gilbert fitz Richard de Clare was killed in an ambush on his way back to stabilise the situation and when a Norman force rode out from Cardigan Castle, which by September 1136 was the only fortification in Ceredigion still in Norman hands, it was decisively defeated at the Battle of Crug Mawr (1136). Remnants of the shattered army made it back to Cardigan Castle which withstood the subsequent siege despite the rest of the area now falling firmly under Welsh control. Trapped inside during the siege was Adeliz de Mesolin, widow of the late de Clare - forcing King Stephen to send a relief force to escort her to safety in England.
Despite the collapse of Norman rule around the area, Cardigan Castle remained in English hands. In 1138 the exasperated Welsh recruited Dublin based Danish mercenaries to seize the castle. Their attack - consisting of 15 ships - was repulsed with the pagans seeking alternative plunder by looting St Dogmaels instead. A further Welsh attack on Cardigan Castle in 1145 also failed.
Cardigan Castle finally fell to the Welsh in 1165 when it was taken by Rhys ap Grufford, Lord Rhys. He forged an agreement with Henry II confirming his entitlement to the lands of Deheubarth on condition he accepted Norman rule of Pembrokeshire. He occupied Cardigan Castle and the town allowing Norman settlers to stay provided they agreed to be subject to Welsh law. The castle was then rebuilt in stone with clay bonding - the first recorded stone castle built by a Welsh Prince. A key event during his tenure was a great feast with artisans, poets and musicians invited from across the British Isles and beyond. This event, first held in 1176, would evolve over the centuries into the Eisteddfod. However, Lord Rhys' attempts at unity started to falter towards the end of his reign when he was imprisoned by one of his own sons at Nevern Castle in 1194. Although released, the powerful Marcher Lord William de Braose sensed weakness and launched an attack on Cardigan from his stronghold at Abergavenny. The attack failed and the castle remained in Welsh hands.
Cardigan Castle was sold back to the English in 1200 by Maelgwn, son of Lord Rhys, and subsequently upgraded by King John in 1205 and 1208. However, in 1215 England descended into civil war - the First Barons' War - and Cardigan Castle was captured by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. It was re-taken by William Marshal, Second Earl of Pembroke in 1223 but changed hands again in 1231 when it was seized by Maelgwn ap Rhys. It was re-captured by the English for the final time in 1240 and was subsequently completely rebuilt.
The Wars of Welsh Independence (1276-7 and 1282-3) saw the complete conquest of the Principality. Further upgrades were made to the castle in 1321 but these were in anticipation of an English Barons' rebellion rather than fears of a new Welsh war. The modifications did however pay dividends during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr. His forces attacked Cardigan Castle in 1405 and, although significant damage was inflicted, the castle held out. The rebellion petered out by 1409 and extensive repairs were made in the decades that followed. In the subsequent two hundred years the military requirement for the castle waned although the site remained a key administrative centre.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 saw Cardigan Castle hastily re-fortified by the Royalists who built an earthwork platform on the castle's ramparts to support artillery. Wales remained staunchly Royalist however and it wasn't until December 1644, by which time the war was shifting in Parliament's favour, when the castle was attacked. A force under General Rowland Laugharne assaulted the site but a determined Royalist defence was led by Colonel John Gerrard. After a siege that lasted a fortnight, Parliamentary artillery made a breach in the walls and the castle was stormed. Now the castle was under Parliamentary control, a Royalist force besieged the site but had to retreat when enemy reinforcements arrived. The castle's defences were subsequently slighted to prevent further military use. In the subsequent decades both the castle and the town defences became a ready supply of stone and was plundered to support building work around Cardigan.
The castle was procured by John Bowen in the early nineteenth century and he landscaped the grounds and built a Georgian mansion called Castle Green House. Further upgrades were made by Arthur Jones in 1827 and David Davies in 1832. The castle was requisitioned during World War II and the last fortification on the site was added at this time when, in May 1940, the Home Guard built a concrete pill-box on the castle's battlements to control the bridge over the River Teifi. Concurrently troops were billeted in the grounds - the South Wales Borderers until 1942 and the Royal Engineers thereafter. The castle remained a barracks throughout the war and was retained as emergency accommodation in the immediate aftermath. It was released in 1953 and left derelict. It was brought by the local authority in 2003, restored and is now open to the public.
Davis, P.R (2007). Castles of the Welsh Princes. Y Lolfa Cyf, Talybont.
Douglas, D.C and Greeaway, G.W (ed) (1981). English Historical Documents Vol 2 (1042-1189). Routledge, London.
Douglas, D.C and Rothwell, H (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 3 (1189-1327). Routledge, London.
Falkus, M and Gillingham, J (1981). Historical Atlas of Great Britain. Grisewood and Dempsey, London.
Griffiths, R.A (1972). The Principality of Wales in the Later Middle Ages. London.
Johnson, G.K (2014). Cardigan Castle: A History. The Teifi Estuary History Man
Lloyd, J.E (1912). A History of Wales. Cardiff.
Matthews, R (2012). Anglo-Welsh Wars: Cardigan / Crug Mawr 1136. Bretwalda Battles.
Morgan, G (2005). Ceredigion: A Wealth of History. Gwasg Gomer.
Murphy, K (1985). Excavation & Survey at Cardigan Castle. Ceredigion.
Philips, A (2014). Castles of Wales. Amberley.
Pryce, H (2005). Acts of the Welsh Rulers: 1120-1283. University of Wales, Cardiff.
Reid, A (1973). Castles of Wales. Philip, London.
Rush Meyrick, S.R (1808). The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardigan. Bensley, London.
Speed, J (1611). Map of Cardigan Shire.
Visit Official Website
Cardigan Castle was extensively modified in the nineteenth century when the grounds were landscaped and a Georgian house built. Nevertheless parts of the medieval castle remain visible. Nearby the site of the original motte-and-bailey castle can be seen across the River Teifi but there is no public access to the earthworks.
Cardigan Castle. The curtain wall of the castle was first rebuilt in stone by the Lord Rhys. The 1940 pill-box can be seen on top of the structure.
East Tower. The east tower was built around 1244 and is unique in the British Isles for having twin passages leading down to separate Garderobes.
Castle Green House. The mansion house was built in 1808 and modified in 1827. It is connected to the North Tower.
North Tower. The buttresses of the North Tower date from the thirteenth century and are the oldest surviving parts of the castle.
Old Castle. The site of the original earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle built by Roger de Montgomery in 1093. When Roger died the following year the Welsh captured and destroyed the castle.
Cardigan Castle occupied a strategic site between Norman controlled Pembrokeshire and the fiercely independent Welsh of Ceredigion. It was regularly attacked and changed hands on numerous occasions as the Normans and Welsh vied for control. Held by the Royalists during the Civil War, the castle was subsequently slighted to prevent further military use.
Cardigan Castle is located in the centre of town and easy to find. Numerous car parking options one of which is detailed below. The site of the old castle is not open to the public but there is a car park and short river walk nearby.
Car Park for Old Castle
Old Castle Site (No Access)