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Exploring the forgotten history of Cardigan Castle

Local historian, Glen Johnson, shares some of the secrets behind the site.

As Cardigan Castle moves into its final phase of restoration, newly appointed trustee and local historian, Glen Johnson, shares some of the secrets behind the site.

“It’s like trying to complete an infinite jigsaw. You know you’re never going to see the full picture but sometimes you’ll find a key piece and things get clearer and clearer all the time.”

Those are the words of historian Glen Johnson who has spent the last 30 years uncovering the mysteries hidden inside the walls of Cardigan Castle.

And last month (November), Mr Johnson, who still lives in nearby St Dogmaels, was appointed to Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust (CBPT)’s board of trustees – the charity behind the castle’s restoration project, to help bring the history of the site to life.

He first became interested in the site’s 900 year history when he was given a school project as a 14-year-old.

“Most children chose subjects that had already been well researched like the Tudors or World War I,” Mr Johnson said.

“Even at that age I was keen on history and wanted more of a challenge, I remember thinking ‘everyone in Cardigan knows of the castle but no one really knows anything about the castle’.”

At the time, Cardigan Castle was still the home of its last private owner – Miss Barbara Wood.

“A boy above me in school had become friendly with Miss Wood; she wasn’t in the greatest health and he would help her out by offering guided tours of the site. He arranged for me to visit.

“I first walked through its doors in 1984 and I’m still fascinated by the site 30 years later.”

Mr Johnson was later introduced to Miss Wood and in the spring of 1985 she asked him to become the site’s ‘tour guide’.

“It was a real honour, me and a small group of friends became the ‘Cardigan Castle Volunteers’ and we’d spend our free time looking after the site, clearing the overgrown gardens and so on.

“I can honestly say, even 30 years later, those days were some of the most bizarre, memorable and interesting in my life.”

In 1987, at the age of just 17, Mr Johnson published his first book called ‘The Forgotten Castle of Cardigan’, he then left for university but never lost interest in the site.

He would often lecture on its history and even wrote a discussion document when he was a member of Cardigan Town Council in 1996.

Years later, this document was used by officers of Ceredigion County Council as an argument for preserving the site when its future was being considered.

“I was flattered to play a small part in the discussions that saved the castle,” Mr Johnson said.

“The castle was saved by a cast of thousands and I’m proud to have done my bit alongside everyone else.”

In 2003, following a community campaign launched and supported by the local newspaper, the castle was purchased by the local authority and the first steps were taken towards its refurbishment.

Thanks to partner funding and the support of the local community, CBPT went on to secure the £11m of investment needed to restore the castle, which is due for completion in spring 2015.

As well as restoring the building to its former glory, the project will also see the creation of a permanent exhibition centre, events garden, restaurant, luxury accommodation and wedding venue, to ensure a sustainable future.

Cardigan Castle is expected to become one of the top tourist attractions in Wales and aims to attract more than 30,000 visitors in its first year, bringing a much-needed boost to local businesses and the wider economy.

“It’s all very exciting and there have been times when we wondered whether this would ever happen,” said Mr Johnson.

“Just a few moments ago I was shown a picture of the new lawn. Seeing the green grass with the refurbished house in the background was emotional, I couldn’t help but think, ‘yes, this place is back!’”

Cardigan Castle has a fascinating history, it has witnessed iconic battles, housed famous figures and is even the birthplace of Wales’ iconic cultural festival, the National Eisteddfod, which first took place in 1176.

Here, Mr Johnson shares some lesser known facts about the site, facts he started uncovering as a 14-year-old student working on a history project.

Early visitors

Situated on raised ground overlooking the River Teifi, the site of Cardigan Castle has been an ideal location for thousands of years.

This was confirmed by archaeologists in 2012 when Neolithic flint scrapers were unearthed in the castle’s grounds.

As this type of flint isn’t found in Cardigan, experts believe the material was brought in by sea and transported down the river to the site where it was made into tools and transported out again.

“It actually wasn’t a total surprise, I’m sure there is potential to discover even more in the future,” Glen said.

“It’s fascinating to think we could find anything on site, right back to the beginnings of human history.”

A joint effort, a failed siege

Cardigan Castle has seen many battles over the years.

A lesser known siege took place in 1138 when the Welsh attacked the Norman base with the help of Viking mercenaries.

The Vikings sent 15 ships full of warriors from Dublin but, even when fighting alongside Welsh solders, were unable to capture the castle.

Glen explained: “The Vikings were not the type to leave empty handed so when they failed to take Cardigan Castle they looted nearby St Dogmael’s Abbey instead!”

The first true Welsh town

In 1165, The Lord Rhys and his Welsh army captured the castle and Cardigan became the first town in the country to be occupied by the Welsh.

“The defeated Normans were given two choices,” Glen said.

“They could either leave unarmed with two thirds of their property or they could stay, keep their property and swear to live by Welsh law.

“A number of Normans stayed, they lived among Welsh, Flemings and Irish residents and, in turn, Cardigan became Wales’ first multicultural town.”

If at first you don’t succeed…

In 2012, archaeologists uncovered masonry dating back to the first attempts of building a stone castle on the site.

The building work was carried out by the Welsh who had little experience of building with stone.

“They copied the designs from the English but were not aware of the techniques used,” Glen said.

“They used clay instead of lime which provided no binding, their method may have worked for a small cottage but it was a long way off providing the substantial defence required for a castle.”

Inspiration from the Middle East

The design of some elements of the stone castle were inspired by the crusades and are the earliest examples of this work in the UK.

“Most of the surviving medieval sections of the castle date back to the 1240s and the building would have been very unique at the time,” Glen said.

“It was more than likely built by someone with military experience who was copying the crusader castles on the continent.”

This design didn’t become common place in the UK for another generation.

A law unto its own

For a brief period in the late 14th century Cardigan was ruled as a ‘free state’.

Princess Joan, widow to Prince Edward, ran an administration from Cardiganshire that was independent of the English Crown.

“Cardigan Castle had its own courts and exchequer,” Glen said.

“Technically, you could be innocent of a crime in every part of the UK but found guilty in Cardigan.”

Less than civil

Two famous battles took place at Cardigan Castle during the Civil War.

The castle was taken by the Cavaliers in June 1644 and then besieged by the Roundheads in December that year when the well known writer of the time, Doctor Jeremy Taylor, was taken prisoner.

The Parliamentary troops destroyed some of the stone buildings and burnt the rest, making it useless for defence. Like many ruined castles, it became private property.

Planning permission

In April 1756, the site’s owner Mary Pryce appeared in court accused of causing a nuisance by unlawfully erecting a lime-kiln on a piece of ground where an annual fair was held.

The land, known as the Strand is situated where the stables are today.

“This court appearance was particularly interesting as it taught us three things we didn’t know about the site,” Glen said.

“We didn’t know a lime kiln existed and we didn’t know exactly where the December fair was held.

“It also tells us that the two stable blocks on site today are from different time periods.

“We are proud of the fact the castle has buildings from different time periods and now we can say it has a little bit of 18th century work too.”


Strong foundations

The ‘funny offset’ of the castle’s Georgian main hall has been the subject of debate for some time.

In 2013, an archaeological project confirmed what Glen and fellow historians had suspected – the Georgian house is built on the foundations of the medieval castle.

“The foundations of the building you see today have been used for more than 750 years,” Glen said.

“They simply followed buried wall lines. The offset hall appears a sloppy design but it was built this way with very good reason.”

Fit for a Sheriff – or four!

Since the early 19th century, Cardigan Castle has been occupied by four county high sheriffs.

“It has been a sought after site throughout the ages but it’s very rare for four sheriffs to choose to live in the same building,” Glen explained.

“It would make more sense if they were part of the same family but these were all unrelated – even though two of them were named David Davies!”

Around this time, Cardigan was the largest ‘port of registration’ in Wales.

“There were 323 ships registered at Cardigan in 1816, more than Cardiff and Bristol,” Glen said.

“And yes, all the wining and dining was done at the castle!”

Coming home

Barbara Wood, the last person to live in the castle, moved to the site as a young girl in July 1940.

“A lot of people think her family were English but but Miss Wood’s mother, Gladys Mary Morgan, left Aberystwyth for England when she was a young girl,” Mr Johnson said.

“Miss Wood’s grandfather was also a ship owner who lived in Aberystwyth, Miss Wood had Welsh blood in her veins.

“Her family were Welsh interlopes returning to Cardigan – they were coming home.”