Occupying the site of an earlier Iron Age fortification, Morlais Castle was built by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester during the thirteenth century. It was located in the northern extremity of his Lordship of Glamorgan and was intended to extend his control into the Brecon estates of a rival magnate.
Morlais came under the control of the de Clare family in 1217. However its remote location which, was far removed from the main lines of movement through Glamorgan, meant the site was of little interest to this powerful Anglo-Norman family. In 1262 the Lordship passed to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester who initially supported Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against Henry III but later changed sides to support Prince Edward (later Edward I) in his campaign that culminated in the Royalist victory at the Battle of Evesham (1265). In recognition of his support, Henry III granted him Abergavenny Castle but Gilbert focused his efforts on a much more elaborate structure and in 1268 commenced building Caerphilly Castle as a vast statement of his status. However, Gilbert's power peaked in 1282 when he led an unsuccessful expedition into Southern Wales as part of the Second War of Welsh Independence. Defeated at the Battle of Llandeilo Fawr, he was relieved of command undermining his position as a Marcher Lord. In an attempt to re-establish his power, he commenced construction of Morlais Castle circa-1288. Its location, at the northernmost limits of the Lordship of Glamorgan, overlooked neighbouring Brecknockshire and was intended to extend Gilbert's influence into the territory of his neighbour Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
The castle occupied the summit of a naturally defendable limestone escarpment overlooking the Taf Fechan. This waterway also gave the castle its name - Morlais deriving from mawr (great) and glais (stream). The site had previously been a fortified settlement during the Iron Age and these defences were enhanced and incorporated into the new castle giving it an unusual configuration. The internal enclosure was divided into Inner and Outer baileys. The former had a triangular layout and was dominated by a large Round Keep whilst access to the Outer Bailey was guarded by a large 'D' shaped tower. Unusually the Outer Ward also had a large Keep-like Round Tower whilst the Great Hall, or some other substantial building, seems to have been built along the inside length of the curtain wall. A cistern, a deep pit for collecting rainwater, was located in the centre of the enclosure.
The building of the castle immediately ignited tensions with Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Lord of Brecknock who claimed it impacted on his sphere of influence. The dispute escalated culminating in a skirmish known as the Battle of Maes Vaynor (1291). In an unwelcome distraction from his other military ambitions, Edward I intervened to settle this local but potentially destabilising conflict. Both Gilbert and Humphrey were fined and spent a short period incarcerated in the Tower of London. However it was Gilbert who was fined the greater sum – 10,000 marks – on account of his building of Morbais Castle. The King's intervention brought work on the castle to a halt and it is not certain it ever resumed although it certainly remained in use as it was captured by the Welsh during the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294.
The Welsh in Glamorgan made peace with Edward I in 1295 and Morlais was eventually returned to Gilbert de Clare. However, his death in December 1295 saw Morlais Castle abandoned and it was left to drift into ruin. Its walls were still standing to a significant height in 1741 for they were captured in an engraving by the Buck brothers but thereafter the stonework was robbed to support local building endeavours.
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Morlais Castle is a ruined thirteenth century castle built on top of a natural summit. The castle's walls are just rubble/lose stonework but the general layout can be appreciated and a vault (originally part of one of the two large Round Towers) is accessible. The most impressive element is the vast dry ditch which was literally cut out of the stone terrain. The low earthwork of Vaynor Motte can be seen a little further to the north.
Morlais Castle Layout. The castle occupied the summit of a hill with the terrain forcing the builders to adopt an irregular layout. The enclosed area was divided into inner and outer wards.
Ditch. The castle is was protected on the north and east sides by a substantial ditch curt out of the rock.
Ramparts. The castle's ramparts no longer stand to any height.
Well. The castle's well was located in the Outer Bailey.
Vaynor Motte. A small motte, probably dating from the late eleventh or early twelfth century, can be seen just to the north of Morlais Castle.
View. The impressive view from Morlais Castle.
Morlais Castle is found to the north-west of Pant off an unnamed road that leads to the small hamlet of Pontsarn. There is a small car park just beyond the settlement. An unpaved track leads up towards the castle site. Vaynor Motte can be seen (from the public road) a little further to the north.
There is a small car park off Cambrian Way. Once you've parked use the gate directly opposite the car park entrance and follow the unpaved track uphill until you intersect with a more substantial (vehicular) track beyond the treeline shown below. Thereafter take any of the tracks off the vehicular track and continue heading uphill eventually emerging at the castle. Beware the cliff edges if you stray towards the quarried array.