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Cardigan Castle

in the town of Cardigan, Ceredigion, west Wales

Map link for Cardigan Castle

Text copyright 1997 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright 1991 by Paul Adams

Above: general view of the pill box & south east tower from the south west
Below right: general view of the castle from the south west

Because of the "peculiar" relationship between the owner of Cardigan and the public, few people have ever seen the interior of Cardigan Castle. Fortunately, the Castles of Wales web site has joined forces with Mr. Paul Adams, who was given permission to photograph the interior of Cardigan Castle in 1991. Mr Adams has graciously provided us with photographs from his rare expedition. Thus, visitors to the Castles of Wales web site are provided with yet another unique opportunity - the chance to see the only photographs beyond the closed gates of Cardigan Castle available on the Internet. Our profound thanks go out to Mr Adams for allowing visitors to the Castles of wales web site access into this most historically-significant native Welsh castle! Diolch yn Fawr, Paul!


A few years ago, before the by-pass was built (and, thankfully, allowed travelers to avoid the chaotic drive through the town's center), anytime you drove into Cardigan, you met the castle head-on, literally. The roadway crossed a bridge into the town, a bridge that led directly to the castle. Nowadays, in order to get a glimpse of Cardigan Castle, you must intentionally avoid the by-pass (the A487) and head towards center city.

This approach to Cardigan Castle creates a bit of mystery, for most of what is visible from ground level are the remains of the stone wall and remnants of two tower bases. These ruins in and of themselves do not necessarily invoke a feeling of mystery. Yet, as the encroaching shrubbery and overgrown trees camouflage much of the site, a keen eye will recognize the curious masonry of what appears to be someone's home!



Retaining-curtain wall and Castle Green House from the SW

Appearances, in this case, are not deceiving, for in about 1880 a Georgian mansion was erected on the grounds of the inner bailey, along with elaborate formal gardens. Today, Cardigan Castle remains private property, in a progressive state of decline, and is only viewable from the exterior.

The unfortunate condition of Cardigan Castle belies its historical significance, for Cardigan was the site of frequent conflict, particularly between the Welsh princes of Deheubarth and the ambitious Norman invaders of West Wales. The castle's earliest history is quite confusing. Sources refer to a motte castle built here as early as 1093, probably by the Norman, Roger de Montgomery. More than likely though, the original earth and timber castle was built at a separate location, not at the edge of the modern city, but about 1 mile to the west. Remnants of this earliest structure have survived on property called Old Castle Farm.

Below: East tower exterior from the south (left) & western inter-mural passage (right)


The fact of the motte's existence in the late 11th century is clear, but its fate is clouded with discrepancies. Apparently, the Welsh attacked Cardigan Old Castle in 1094, and it may have been occupied for a brief time by Cadwgan (a prince of Powys, who died in 1111). Various sources claim the original motte castle 1) was abandoned shortly after the Welsh uprising; 2) was destroyed in 1165 (Reid); 3) was replaced c. 1110 by another earth and timber castle nearer to the modern city, strategically sited to guard the river crossing (Roberts); or 4) was abandoned "at some unknown time (Thomas)", in favor of the new location. We do know, however, that a second castle was erected in 1110, by Gilbert de Clare, who also founded the adjacent town, relocated to the location where the stone castle was eventually constructed.

The next 100 years were tumultuous, and the second castle changed hands frequently between the Welsh and the Normans. Cardigan Castle's most significant role was as the greatest stronghold in the arsenal of Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Deheubarth better known as the Lord Rhys. Rhys seized Cardigan from its Norman overlords sometime around 1170 and set about transforming the castle into stone. Interestingly, Cardigan was "the first recorded Welsh masonry castle (Davis)", that is, the first stone castle built by the native princes of Wales. It remained the property of the Lord Rhys until his death in 1197.

Below (2): North tower viewed from the north & east

The Lord Rhys was especially proud of his castle at Cardigan. In 1176, he put on an elaborate festival, the forerunner of the Eisteddfod, recorded in the Brut y Tywysogion as follows:

at Christmas in that year, the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle. And he set two kinds of contests there: one between bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders and pipers and various classes of music craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors. And he honoured those with ample gifts.
And, when Gerald of Wales accompanied Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his mission in 1188 to recruit followers for the Third Crusade, the Lord Rhys warmly welcomed the clerics and their entourage to his fine castle at Cardigan.

Below: North tower (1) basement, blocked loop hole from the east &
(2) interior basement from the west

After Rhys's death, Cardigan Castle fell into another state of chaos. As was typical of the times, two of Rhys's sons, Maelgwyn and Gruffydd, disputed their inheritance. Cardigan Castle became a pawn in their struggles, and Maelgwyn seized the castle (and his brother), surrendered Gruffydd to the Normans, and sold the castle to King John "for a small worthless price (Davis)".

North east bastion from the east

This sale, however, did not end the battles for control of the castle. Llywelyn the Great next captured Cardigan Castle (and many others in Welsh Wales), followed by the Norman, William Marshal (the younger), then the Welsh again, and, lastly, the Normans took possession. Repairs were made in the 1240's, after this final Norman conquest, and a new keep, the two towers, and town wall were constructed. By the late 1200's, King Edward I had firm control of the castle, which was sporadically maintained until the English Civil War, when it was finally slighted by Cromwell.

In the early 1800's, a private mansion was built on the property, incorporating some of the earlier masonry, including the keep. It must have been an incredible sight, the tumble-down medieval ruins enclosing a fancy modern home and brightly flowered gardens!

Below: Castle Green House from the east & first floor staircase from the south


Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.


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