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Caerphilly - Gazetteers

Caerphilly - Extract from A Topographical Dictionary of Wales by Samuel Lewis 1833

"CAERPHILLY, a market town and chapelry, in the parish of EGLWYSILAN, hundred of CAERPHILLY, county of GLAMORGAN, SOUTH WALES, 7 miles (N. by W.) from Cardiff, and 159 (W.) from London, on the old turnpike road from Newport to Neath and Merthyr-Tydvil. The population is returned with the hamlet of Energlyn.

This place was originally called Senghenydd, from St. Cenydd, who is said to have founded a monastery here, of which nothing more is known than what occurs in the Chronicle of Caradoc of Llancarvan, who records that, "in the year 831, the Saxons of Mercia came unexpectedly in the night, and burnt the monastery of Senghenydd, which stood on a spot where there is now a castle." To the erection of this castle the town, which appears to have been anciently much more extensive than at present, was principally indebted for the importance it held among the towns in this part of the principality.

The early history of the castle is involved in very great obscurity, neither the time of its original foundation, nor the name off its founder, having been at all satisfactorily ascertained; and the different names under which this place is spoken of, in the Welsh histories, have contributed materially to perplex the antiquary in his researches, No mention of Caerphilly, by its present name, occurs previously to the time of Henry III. ; and the attempt to ascribe to it a Roman origin, from the import of the syllable Caer, rests upon no other foundation than the vast extent of its fortifications, which, however, have been proved to be of much later date ; and, therefore, its supposed claim to be considered the Castrum Bullaei of the Romans, from an affinity to the name of that station, which some writers have fancied to exist, appears to be destitute of sufficient testimony for a favourable reception.

The original castle was of much smaller extent than the sumptuous edifice which was afterwards erected on its site, and the magnificent and stupendous ruins that now arrest the admiration of the observer are the remains of a structure of still more recent origin, the work of successive periods. In 1215, a Welsh chieftain, named Rhys Vychan, led his forces to this place, intending to attack the castle, which at that time belonged to Reginald de Breos, lord of Brecknock ; but the garrison, informed of his approach, set fire to the town, and retired within the walls of the castle, which they prepared resolutely to defend : this probably discouraged the assailants, who did not make any serious attempt upon it. Two years afterwards, Llewelyn ab Iorwerth, Prince of North Wales, aided by the princes of Powys and South Wales, succeeded in the reduction of this fortress, but shortly restored it to de Breos : he, however, retook it in the following year, and committed it to the custody of Rhys Vychan, who shortly afterwards, dreading that it might fall into the hands of the lords marcher, who were threatening hostilities, razed it to the ground, together with some others in the neighbouring districts, of which he had the custody.

It was rebuilt and more strongly fortified, in 1221, by John de Breos, with the consent of his father-in-law, Llewelyn ab Iorwerth, and was besieged and taken by Llewelyn, last prince of North Wales, in 1270: in recording this circumstance, its modern name Caerphilly, of which no satisfactory etymology has been given, occurs for the first time in the Welsh annals. Caerphilly soon afterwards came by purchase into the possession of Gilbert Earl of Clare, who was then lord of Glamorgan ; and his widow afterwards conveyed it by marriage to Ralph Mortimer, by whom the castle, almost ruined by repeated attacks, was rebuilt.

In 1315, a formidable insurrection broke out in Glamorganshire, under Llewelyn Bren, a descendant of the native lords of Senyhenydd, who is said to have mustered a force of ten thousand men, with which he assaulted and took by surprise the fortress of Caerphilly, of which his ancestors had been dispossessed by the Normans under Fitz-Hamon. To suppress this all the forces of the lords marcher were assembled, under the command of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford ; and, although the details of the campaign are unknown, the result was the capture of the Welsh chieftain and his two sons, who were sent prisoners to the Tower, where they remained for some time in confinement. In the reign of Edward. II., Hugh le Despencer, the favourite of that monarch, being invested with the lordship of Glamorgan, seized upon the estates of the Mortimers, greatly enlarged the castle of Caerphilly, which had belonged to them, and extended and strengthened its fortifications, at a great expense. The injustice of Spencer exciting the indignation of the barons, at that time in revolt against Edward, they placed Roger Mortimer, the rightful heir of these estates, at the head of ten thousand men, with which force he besieged the favourite in his castle ; but from the great strength of the fortifications, the number of the garrison, and the ample supply of provisions with which it had been stored, the fortress held out for a long period.

The king, attended by the younger Spencer, being compelled, in 1326, to flee from Bristol, repaired to the castle of Caerphilly, from which he issued divers commissions, dated October 29th of this year, to his military tenants in the county palatine of Pembroke and other parts of South Wales, and to the vassals of the lordship of Glamorgan, enjoining them to take arms in his defence ; but, being disappointed in this project, he sought an asylum in the abbey of Neath. Meanwhile the siege of this fortress was conducted with great vigour and perseverance by the queen's forces ; and the assailants, having effected a breach in the walls, forced an entrance. Under one of the towers there is said to have been a furnace for melting iron, which was thrown in a fluid state upon the besiegers, who, on forcing an entrance, are supposed to have let out the fused metal, and poured water into the red hot furnace, which exploding with a terrific noise, by the power of the steam thus produced, the tower above was ruptured, and the half of it now remaining was left upwards of eleven feet out of the perpendicular line, supported only by the cement which holds the stones together, and by the depth of its foundations. During the confusion which ensued, the younger Spencer is said (though it is difficult to reconcile the contradictory accounts of this siege) to have rallied the garrison, and prevented the further entrance of the besiegers, of whom a great number of those already within the walls was slain ; and, by this sudden turn in his affairs, he was enabled to capitulate on such terms as secured the castle and estate to his son Thomas, who succeeded him : having rejoined the king, they were both made prisoners at or near Llantrisaint. The quantity of live stock and provisions which the victors are stated to have found in the castle exceeds credibility, notwithstanding the vast area comprised within its walls. According to an enumeration, which has been copied by nearly all writers on the subject, but which altogether surpasses belief, "there were within the walls two thousand fat oxen, twelve thousand cows, twenty-five thousand calves, thirty thousand sheep, six hundred draught horses, with carts in proportion, and two thousand hogs ; of salt provisions, two hundred beeves, six hundred muttons, and one thousand hogs : there were also two hundred tons of French wine, forty tons of cider and wine, the produce of their own estates, with wheat enough to make bread for two thousand men for four years."

From this period the castle and manor appear to have belonged to the lords of Glamorgan, whose chief residence being at Cardiff, it is probable that the injury sustained by the fortifications in this siege was never repaired. In the year 1400, Owain Glyndwr invaded this part of the principality, and gained possession of the castle of Caerphilly, which he garrisoned for some time ; but no particular event is mentioned during his occupation of it, nor has any thing of importance connected with its subsequent history been recorded.

The town is pleasantly situated in a broad valley, enclosed by mountains, and, in the descent to it from Cardiff, the appearance of the surrounding country is beautifully picturesque, and in many parts characterized by features of grandeur and sublimity. The houses are in general small and neatly built, but without order or regularity, and are occasionally interspersed with dwellings of modern erection and of respectable appearance : the inhabitants are abundantly supplied with water from springs which abound in the vicinity. It appears to have been formerly of much greater extent than it is at present, as is evident from the occasional discovery of foundations of buildings in the adjoining fields. At the close of the last century it had dwindled into comparative insignificance, but revived about the commencement of the present, and has since been slowly, but progressively, increasing.

Its trade consists principally in the manufacture of woollen cloth, checks for aprons, and linsey-woolsey shirting for miners, in which about one hundred persons are employed. Coal is found in the vicinity, but the mines are worked only for the supply of the immediate neighbourhood ; and such of the population as are not engaged in these works are employed in agriculture.

The market, which is on Thursday, is well attended, and abundantly supplied with corn, cheese, and provisions of every kind. The fairs are on April 5th, Trinity Thursday, July 19th, August 25th, October 9th, and November 16th: at these fairs, which are numerously attended, corn, cattle, and cheese, are the principal articles exposed for sale. Caerphilly was anciently a borough, but lost its privileges in the reign of Henry VIII., and is now under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold a petty session here for the lower division of the hundred.

The living is a perpetual curacy, annexed to the vicarage of Eglwysilan, in the archdeaconry and diocese of Llandaf, endowed with £1200 royal bounty, and £400 parliamentary grant. The chapel, dedicated to St. Martin, is a small neat edifice, rebuilt within the last few years, in the later style of English architecture. There are places of worship for Baptists and Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists. A school for the education of girls, a branch of that, founded by Mrs. Ann Aldworth of Bristol, for natives of this parish and that of Bedwas, and endowed with lands for that purpose, has been established here : in it poor girls are gratuitously instructed by a mistress, who receives £35 per annum from the funds of the charity.

The ancient castle of Caerphilly, forming a stupendous and truly magnificent pile, stands contiguous to the town, in a level tract, bounded on the north and south by lofty hills, and expanding into a beautiful vale on the east and west, skirted by the river Rumney on the one side, and on the other by the Taf. The buildings in the several courts, together with a spacious area, were enclosed within a lofty outer wall of great thickness, strengthened with massive buttresses, and defended by square towers at intervals, between which a communication was kept up by an embattled corridor. In the outer court were the barracks for the garrison, and from it was an entrance through a magnificent gateway, flanked by two massive hexagonal towers, leading by a drawbridge over the moat into an inner ward, from which was an eastern entrance into the court that contained the state apartments, by a massive gateway, strongly defended with portcullises, of which the grooves are still remaining : the western entrance to this court was also over a drawbridge, through a splendid arched gateway, defended by two circular bastions of vast dimensions. This court, in which were the superb ranges of state apartments, is seventy yards in length and forty in width, enclosed on the north side by a lofty wall strengthened with buttresses, and in the intervals pierced with loop-holes for the discharge of missiles, and on the other sides by the buildings and the towers which guarded the entrances.

The great hall, on the south side of this quadrangle, is in a state of tolerable preservation, and retains several vestiges of its ancient grandeur : this noble apartment was seventy feet in length, thirty feet wide, and seventeen feet high, and was lighted by four lofty windows of beautiful design, of which the ogee-headed arches, richly ornamented with fruit and foliage, are finely wrought in the decorated style of English architecture : between the two central windows are the remains of a large fire-place, of which the mantle is highly embellished in beautiful and elegant detail : on the walls are clusters of triple circular pilasters, resting upon ornamented corbels at the height of twelve feet from the floor, and rising to the height of four feet, for the support of the roof, which appears to have been vaulted. The suite comprises various other apartments of different dimensions and of corresponding elegance, in a greater or less degree of preservation. Near the south-east angle of the central buildings is the armoury, a circular tower of no great elevation; and almost adjoining is the leaning tower, which forms so conspicuous a feature among the ruins : this consists of one-half of the tower which is said to have been ruptured by the explosion previously noticed, and which, though more than seventy feet high from the base, was by that means forced into its present inclined position. Regarding the present state of this tower, as it is by no means certain that it was caused by the circumstances above narrated, it has been conjectured that it might have been produced by having been undermined, like the other three, and its entire destruction prevented by a fragment which fell upon its base. Near the armoury is a spacious corridor, about one hundred feet in length, in the wall of the inner enclosure, communicating with the several apartments, and affording a direct intercourse with the guards who were stationed in the embattled towers which protected the walls. These remains, which form the principal attraction of the place, surpass in extent, beauty, and venerable grandeur, any that are to be found in the principality, and present an imposing and august memorial of a structure which in its pristine splendour was rivalled by few in the kingdom, and perhaps only excelled by the royal palace of Windsor.

Besides the ruins of the castle, here are also some other interesting remains of antiquity. In a piece of ground called the Burgesses' field is an ancient earthwork, nearly square, enclosing an area of about half an acre, and defended by two ditches; and at Morgrig, properly Morgraig, is another quadrilateral encampment, about eighty paces long, and nearly of equal width, having the angles rounded off according to the Roman fashion. Numerous coins, chiefly of the reign of Edward II., have been found near the castle, but none of a very ancient date.

A short distance to the north-west of the town is the seat called Energlyn, or Genau 'r Glyn, formerly the residence of John Goodrich, Esq., which commands a fine view of the majestic ruins of the castle ; and to the east, near the banks of the Rumney, stands the mansion of Ruperrah, the seat of Chas. Morgan, Esq., eldest son of Sir Chas. G. Morgan, Bart., of Tredegar : it occupies an elevated situation, commanding, to the southward, fine views of the Bristol channel, a rich intervening tract of country, and the hills of Somersetshire and Devonshire in the distance, and was built from a design by Inigo Jones; but the interior having been consumed by fire, the outer walls are the only part of the original edifice now remaining. A little lower down is situated Cevn Mably, an ancient seat of the family of Kemeys, and once the residence of that distinguished royalist, Sir Nicholas Kemeys. Pwll y Pant and Pont y Pandy are two old mansions, formerly the residence of ancient families, but now deserted by their proprietors. In the vicinity are numerous springs, the water of which is strongly impregnated with iron, and totally unfit for culinary purposes : when boiled, the colour is changed to black, and the water emits a strong foetid smell."

[Last Updated : 8 Oct 2002 Gareth Hicks]