Chirk Castle possesses centuries of fascinating history and has guarded the entrance to the Ceiriog valley for over 700 years.
The castle is an indestructible link in the chain of fortresses guarding the Welsh border.
There is a heavy, foreboding air to the place and all around is a sense of enduring power – the walls are over 5 metres thick and have stood resolute in this exposed position for over 7 centuries.
It is, incredibly, the only castle from the time of Edward I to still be inhabited today.
The castle was built by Roger Mortimer who was granted the area in 1282 after the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the Second War of Welsh Independence. The Mortimers were powerful Marcher Lords who had been important magnates in the border region since the twelfth century.
The castle stands out prominently in the treeless landscape, especially looking from Wales, and it’s highly likely that it would have been lime washed white.
The watch towers allowed lookouts to keep a strategic eye on the Welsh hills and valleys. The castle was a symbol of English power and might, controlling the border and it dominated the surrounding land.
The building of the castle begun in 1295 and completed in 1310 with Mortimer never having got to see the completed work. The overseeing architect was likely to have been Master James of St. George, an architect from Savoy who was much favoured by Edward I, and who is credited with work on many of his other castles, including Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris, the latter of which Chirck bears a striking resemblance to.
Mortimer was known as an angry and violent man, with a fierce hatred of the Welsh – he was the one who presented Edward I with the severed head of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last sovereign King of Wales, at the end of the Welsh Conquest. In addition to that, in 1277 Gruffydd ap Madog of Powys Fadog died and Mortimer was appointed the guardian of two of the dead lord’s young sons. Four years later the two boys were found mysteriously drowned in the River Dee and Mortimer was granted ownership of their lands.
After serving Edward I, and then Edward II who made him Justiciar of all Wales, ambition eventually got the better of Mortimer, and supporting his nephew (another Roger Mortimer) he took up arms against the King and his favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger (Reportedly buried at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire – https://famouspastwords.co.uk/2020/01/24/hulton-abbey/).
Mortimer was thrown into the Tower of London and died in agony from infected wounds there in 1326.
The brief tenure of his successor at Chirk Castle, Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, then came to an end when he was summarily beheaded on the orders of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, the nephew of the above Roger Mortimer of Chirk. The chronicles of the period tell us that his decapitation was finally completed after 22 blows from a blunted sword blade
Roger Mortimer of Wigmore was a nationally-hated baron, convicted by his peers of usurping royal power from Edward II (and openly flaunting his relationship with Queen Isabella). He was eventually captured by Edward III, and was the first nobleman to be hanged at Tyburn, in 1330.
The second Earl of Arundel took over Chirk Castle shortly after, and actually managed to die peacefully, in 1376. However, in 1397 his son, Richard, was beheaded. With a mind to his antecedent’s death, his last words were reportedly, “torment me not long, but strike off my head with one blow!”
Chirk Castle then reverted to being a Crown possession, and in this case the King was the ill-fated Richard II, who in 1415, tradition tells us, was smothered (or starved) by gaolers who were in the pay of the future King Henry IV
The fifth Earl of Arundel, who had sided with Henry IV, later became a lifelong friend and companion to Henry V. He died of stomach-cramping dysentery contracted at the siege of Harfleur in 1415, during that king’s French campaign. As he was heirless, Chirk Castle reverted once more to the Crown.
Over the next two generations the royal House of Lancaster was represented by Kings Henry V and VI – the former would die of severe dysentery in 1422, and the latter would be brutally clubbed to death in the Tower of London
In 1439, Chirk Castle was purchased by Cardinal Henry Beaufort who… managed to die in his bed, of natural causes! Quite the accomplishment.
Unfortunately, his peaceful demise was not a sign of better times for the owners of Chirk Castle, as the next two generations of Beauforts (the second and third Dukes of Somerset) were killed in the Wars of the Roses: the second Duke was killed at the battle of St Albans in 1455, whilst attempting to escape from an entrapment, and the third Duke, who had just spent time at Chirk Castle, was taken prisoner after the Battle of Hexham, in 1464, and publically beheaded in front of the victorious troops.
The castle would now, yet again, find itself as a Crown possession, this time falling into the hands of the Duke of Gloucester – better known to history as King Richard III. His brave and yet bloody death on the field of Bosworth in 1485 is well-documented by modern archaeologists, who found traces of over 50 wounds to his skeleton when he was found, underneath a present day Leicester car park!
Richard had exchanged Chirk Castle for lands in Yorkshire with Sir William Stanley (whose treachery was to be the main reason for the King’s defeat at Bosworth). It is believed that Stanley may have been responsible for considerable building and repair at Chirk, but in 1495, he was involved in further underhanded plotting, this time against the first Tudor, King Henry VII. Stanley was found guilty of treason as part of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion, and beheaded on Tower Hill in London.
Henry VIII bestowed the castle on his illegitimate and beloved son, Henry Fitzroy, who died in 1536 of ‘the sweating sickness’ (which may have been tuberculosis) at the age of 17.
In 1563 when Elizabeth I granted it to one of her favourites at court, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. After his death in 1588 it passed through several owners before being sold in 1595 to Thomas Myddelton, a London merchant and founder of the East India Company. Thomas brought the castle for £5,000 (around £11 million in today’s money)
He was knighted and in 1613 became Lord Mayor of London. The Castle was his residence as well as the administrative centre for his Welsh operations and he commenced the wholesale conversion of Chirk from border fortress to stately home. His additions included a new north range, complete with fine dining and drawing rooms, plus a new hall, buttery and kitchen.
During the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, he was a parliamentarian and Chirk was captured by royalist forces. It is also assumed that King Charles I spent a few nights at Chirk in 1642 and, indeed, you can still visit the “King’s bedroom” at Chirk today. However, the King’s bed is assumed to be dated from the 18th century and so the only way that Charles could have slept in it would be if he had a time travel machine as he was executed in 1649.
After the King’s execution, Myddelton switched sides and was a participant in the “Sealed Knot”, an aristocratic plot to bring back the monarchy. When the revolt began, the Republican army bombed Chirk causing some serious damage. When Charles II was crowned, he awarded the family with the Baronet title and enough money to restore Chirk to its former glory.
The Myddelton family continued to hold the castle until the 20th century. In the mid 19th century, they renovated the castle, employing Augustus Pugin for the job, the same architect who redesigned the palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834. However, it was not easy to maintain the upkeep of this massive old castle and the family had to sell some assets in order to keep up with the costs.
At the beginning of the century, they even sold a whole village that they owned, showing just how far they were willing to go to retain Chirk. Finally, in 1910, they had to find another way to maintain it and they leased it for the duration of 35 years to the De Walden family, one of the richest families in England. Although the De Waldens only leased the castle, they still embarked on massive restoration works, bringing it up-to-date with the 20th century.
The servants rooms were a fascinating insight into the lives of the ordinary people who have worked at this place down the centuries. It had a communal feel to it with the floor so uneven through so much use it was hard to keep balance in parts!
hidden in his coat is a red right hand
There are interesting myths or legends about the origin of the red hand in the Myddelton coat-of-arms. One story tells of a dispute which arose between two youths of the family in the distant past, over inheritance of the castle.
To settle the dispute it was agreed that the two youths would run a race, to finish with the winner touching the Castle gates. It is said that the first youth to reach out to the gate at the finishing line was deprived of victory by a supporter of his adversary, who drew his sword and cut off the youth’s outstretched hand – thus the “bloody” hand. Another version of this story tells that they swam across the castle lake, and the first hand to touch the far shore was cut off.
Another legend says that the red hand was put as a curse on the Myddelton family. It was said that the curse would only be removed if a prisoner succeeded in surviving imprisonment for 10 years in the Chirk Castle dungeons. The red hand still survives as part of the Myddelton coat-of-arms, proving legend says, that no one in history was able to live longer than 10 years in the terrible conditions of imprisonment at Chirk Castle.
into the dungeon
Before the late thirteenth century, most English castles were not built with dungeons, as it wasn’t a common form of punishment. However, Edward I’s attempts to put down the Welsh rebellions meant that his new border castles, like Chirk, did indeed have dungeons. These were for imprisoning the most important rebel leaders and other political prisoners.
Hostages from the surrounding area were kept here, but in 1422, castle records tell us that 15 French prisoners (possibly French aristocracy captured in the Hundred Years’ War) were sent from Chirk to London after being imprisoned for seven years. It is possible that they could have been captured during Henry V’s campaign and held for ransom.
As you enter the dungeons through a small door the uneven steps seem to wind down for an eternity before reaching the first of the rooms where people were held captive, known as the Tower Guardroom or upper dungeon. This room would have been for prisoners of a higher status as the room had the luxury of an air shaft and a fireplace.
As you pass down further below winding down around the spiral staircase the atmosphere becomes significantly colder and more gloomy. It would have been a place of pure despair being kept down here with only the glint of light from the tiny door entrance above giving any sort of hope to any souls unfortunate enough to find themselves down here for any length of time.
As we sat and enjoyed some superb fresh wild mushroom soup in the ancient 13th century Distill room tower an exquisite rainbow appeared stretching across the whole valley.
I imagined what it would have been like to live within this fortress – the fires would have roared all night keeping the rooms warm from the ferocious weather battering the walls of this ancient place.
I particularly loved the room where Thomas Myddleton is sleeping with eerie, haunting music playing as the fire glowed in the corner. It was fascinating to be transported through time to become an onlooker to this scene from midnight on 24th June 1604.
Imagining all of the 700 years of visitors and history these walls have seen is astonishing to think of. The centuries of use that have worn away the stairs and steps throughout the castle, all manner of historical figures have passed over them from brutal conquerors, lords, knights, servants, prisoners and royalty.
This is quite easily one of my favourite castles I have visited and I certainly hope to return one day to this enchanting, historic place.