Cardiff Castle

The Norman Castle

The walls of the Roman fortress had decayed and the earthworks had become eroded over the centuries, but William the Conqueror and Robert Fitzhamon saw that the site was still as strategically important as it had been to the legions so many years before. See; Roman Cardiff – The Roman Fortress) Apart from guarding the road and river crossings, the castle provided a base for further expansion into Bro Morgannwg where, for the moment, the Welsh hung on to a tenuous independence.

The castrum was bigger than the Norman garrison required and they concentrated on strengthening the north-west corner. A deep circular ditch was excavated and the waste soil was used to erect a mound, 25 feet high and 90 feet in diameter across its summit. There is no record of how many weary workers toiled to construct this motte, nor of the amount of time it took them, but 900 years later the man-made hillock they gouged from the soil still appears formidable. On top of the mound, Fitzhamon built a wooden keep and enclosed it with a timber stockade. A bridge, which could be removed easily in time of danger, joined the motte to the rest of the Roman fort. This large area now became the inner and outer baileys of the castle. In due course, the outer defences were strengthened. To the west, the Normansrelied on the river as a barrier, but along the three remaining sides of the perimeter they cut a deep moat. The earth from this ditch was thrown over the ruined Roman walls, raising them to a height of more than 25 feet. It was this covering of soil which preserved the walls so effectively until the nineteenth century. The North Gate was blocked and the southern entrance into the bailey was heavily secured.

Fitzhamon's castle at Cardiff not only provided a secure residence when he visited South Wales, but it also became the seat of government for his demesne. Among their feudal duties, his knights were expected to contribute to the castle guard for 40 days each year, fully equipped with armour for themselves and their horses. Robert supplied houses for the knights in the outer bailey and it was their responsibility to maintain these lodgings. In due course, military service of this kind became replaced with an annual cash payment known as "ward-silver'. But as late as 1208, King John, in his capacity as Lord of Glamorgan, was ordering his knights to repair their houses at CardiffCastle and keep watch in accordance with their feudal pledge.

On John Speed's map of Cardifffor 1610, the ruins of the knights' lodgings and the Shire Hall are clearly marked. The Shire Hall was a timber building used as a council chamber and, when he was available, Fitzhamon presided over the Comitatus or County Court which met there each month. At these proceedings laws were made, taxes were levied, pleas were heard, and wrong-doers were punished. All the leading tenants of Glamorgan were expected to be present, either personally or through representation.

As Robert was frequently involved in matters of state elsewhere, he appointed officers to administer the county in his absence. The most important of these was the Sheriff who deputised for the Lord of Glamorgan when he was unable to attend the Comitatus. As early as 1102, a document stipulates that William, Sheriff of Cardiff, is the primary witness to a charter, whereby Robert of Hay grants lands in Gwent to Glastonbury Abbey.

To modern eyes the timber castle would not appear unduly awe-inspiring, but to the defeated Welsh it was a constant symbol of Norman power. Usually the scene was quite peaceful, as cattle grazed in the outer bailey and conflict seemed far away, but when danger threatened it became a retreat for the merchants and pedlars who now settled under its protective walls. The river crossings and the Roman roads enticed loyal immigrants to the district, as Fitzhamon strove to bring stability and economic prosperity to his Welsh lordship. Gradually the borough of Cardiffbegan to emerge, just as two hundred years later, in North Wales, the towns of Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon were to grow around their castles in a similar manner.

 After surveying his castle at Cardiff, Robert the Consul decided to replace the wooden tower with a twelve-sided shell keep. Over 800 years later, its solid stone walls, more than six feet thick, remain a tribute to its Norman designers. Lean-to timber buildings were placed against the walls, and inside the keep it is still possible to see traces of the corbels and holes which supported the beams. The crumbling stairs and parapet, where Norman sentries once maintained a vigilant watch, are also visible.

The latrines gave rise to an evil stench as they drained into the moat, and ventilation was restricted to a small central courtyard. A prolonged stay in these cramped and primitive conditions would have been intolerable, but the living quarters of the keep were only used at times of crisis. Normally, the residential accommodation was situated in the baileys, where the wooden buildings were gradually replaced with stone. A drawbridge, which could be swiftly removed in an emergency, provided access between the keep and the bailey.

It is believed that Earl Robert was responsible for other improvements in the defences of mediaeval Cardiff. He probably built the curtain walls, to the south and west of the castle, on top of earlier Roman masonry, while the first town walls may have been erected about this time. Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Robert's, wrote that a timber pallisade, penetrated by four gates, was raised around "the fortified town of Cardiffin 1111'.


In 1126 Duke Robert of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, became the most famous captive to be held at CardiffCastle. Robert, who never forgave his father for denying his claim to the throne of England, bickered and fought for years with his two brothers, Rufus and Henry.

In 1097, searching for new adventures, Robert joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He was among the first knights to storm into Jerusalemand recapture the city for Christendom. Three years l In 1126 Duke Robert of Normandy, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, became the most famous captive to be held at CardiffCastle. Robert, who never forgave his father for denying his claim to the throne of England, bickered and fought for years with his two brothers, Rufus and Henry.

In 1097, searching for new adventures, Robert joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He was among the first knights to storm into Jerusalem and recapture the city for Christendom. Three years later he returned a hero but much had happened while he was away. Rufus had been killed the previous month and Henry took advantage of Robert's absence to claim the English throne.

The feud between the brothers continued but it was Robert who was destined to suffer the pangs of defeat. In 1106 he was captured following a battle at Tinchebrai, and for the last 28 years of his life he was imprisoned. Most of this long incarceration was spent at Bristol, but in 1126 the defeated Duke was brought to CardiffCastleand placed in the custody of his nephew, Robert the Consul.

A number of stories are told about Duke Robert's imprisonment at Cardiff. He is said to have escaped, plotted against Henry and, on being recaptured, was blinded with a red-hot poker to prevent any further attempts at gaining his freedom. Since Robert no longer posed a threat to his brother, it seems very unlikely that he suffered this fate.

More credible is the tale that Robert was closely guarded but granted the comforts of fine clothes and good food. According to this legend, he was allowed freedom of movement within the castle precincts and found the time to compose a poem in Welsh. In the ballad he compared his life to that of an oak tree which he could spy from the castle keep. He likened its growth to the melancholy saga of his own experience: the vigorous young man; the proud soldier; the captive in the hands of his enemies; finally an old man waiting for death. In 1134, at the age of 80, Robert's life came to its close at Cardiff. Perhaps troubled by an uneasy conscience, Henry gave his brother an honourable burial at Gloucester Cathedral. His memorial is a splendid wooden carving which shows Robert as the fearless crusader, clad in armour and poised to draw his sword for the Christian Faith.

In Cardiff,

Duke Street
may have derived its name from the time of Robert's confinement but there is no evidence to substantiate this theory. The castle's association with the Duke is recalled on the overmantel above the fireplace of the Banqueting Hall. William Burges, with characteristic artistic license, portrays Robert peering forth from a prison in the BlackTower, conveniently ignoring the fact that this tower was not built until more than 150 years later.

     Despite the strength of the castle defences, the citadel was not invincible. In 1158 the Lord of Senghenydd, Ifor Bach gathered together a small but determined band of retainers. They rode to Cardiffand tethered their horses near the castle. Giraldus Cambrensis, who heard the story on his journey through Walesin 1188, tells us that the castle garrison numbered approximately 120 soldiers. Though outnumbered, Ifor and his trusty followers scaled the walls at dead of night. Before the alarm could be raised, they broke into the living quarters of William, his wife and their young son. The story goes on to relate how Ifor took them back to his own stronghold, where he forced William to restore everything which had been unjustly taken from him. The garrison was undoubtebly half-asleep and bewildered, but it seems unlikely that Ifor could have succeeded without some friendly assistance inside the castle. The raid was one of the most daring and impudent in the history of Wales, providing a clear warning that the Welsh would not meekly submit to Norman injustice.



The Castle in the Later Middle Ages

Llywelyn's attack on Caerphilly caused Gilbert de Clare to critically examine his defences elsewhere in Glamorgan. Castell Coch, the "RedCastle', was built on the hillside near Tongwynlais to protect the river crossing. In Cardiff, the wooden pallisade surrounding the town was replaced with a stone wall, while a number of alterations were made to enhance the fortifications of the castle. The skilful nature of these defences can still be appreciated though a number of alterations, most of them dating from the sixteenth century, have masked much of the work.

The most fundamental changes were made on the south side of the keep. The two baileys or wards were separated by a massive stone wall which extended from the keep to the new BlackTower. The foundations of this wall, which have been partially rebuilt, were more than six feet thick and the only means of entry was guarded by a formidable gatehouse. The wall and its fortifications, which included stout doors, a portcullis and two drawbridges, stretched across the moat into the keep itself. The first drawbridge crossed the moat and the second, at first floor level, allowed  access into a new three-storeyed tower at the entrance to the keep. If the castle came under siege, the water supply was safeguarded as the keep possessed its own well.

The shell keep of Robert the Consul was  transformed to provide the main residential accommodation of the castle. Guests were received and entertained in the Great Hall which was built to the south-east of the tower. New living apartments were constructed with  greater emphasis placed on comfort. Windows and slits were inserted into the exterior wall to give improved light and ventilation, while sanitation became more hygienic as garderobes were inserted.

The Black Tower was built as an additional precaution to protect the southern entrance to the castle. This tower contained the dungeon, a loathsome oubliette, where the only access was from a trapdoor in the guardroom above. In utter darkness the wretched inmates were incarcerated, released only when it was time to face the hangman's noose. The cost of a condemned criminal's food was calculated at the rate of 1d per day, "as was accustomed to be allowed for each felon so imprisoned and hanged'.

Further changes took place following the Glyndwr Revolt when the Earl of Warwick decided to strengthen the castle along its west wall with a formidable octagonal tower. A range of new domestic apartments, including the  Great Hall, were also built along the wall about this time.