Chirk Castle, built to defend

Chirk Castle portcullis looking from the north

Started in 1295, Chirk Castle was one of several medieval marcher fortresses sited on the Welsh-English border to keep the Welsh under English rule.

An imposing presence

Chirk was never planned as a family home. When first constructed it was a military fortress, important enough for King Edward I to pay a personal visit during its construction in 1295. The King gave Roger Mortimer the Chirklands, suggested his own master-builder James of St. George (the builder of Harlech, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy castles) and may have even lent Roger Mortimer to money to build the castle.

The location of Chirk Castle was carefully chosen to maximise its defensive capabilities. Constructed on a rocky escarpment at the head of the Ceiriog valley, the castle was also able to control the neighbouring Dee Valley and trade along the border. The courtyard well is 28.5 metres deep, but with only 300mm of water in the bottom could probably only support a garrison of 20-30 men. However, clever defences made up for the lack of manpower.

Built for defence

Chirk Castle had the most up-to-date defences for the time, with round 'drum' towers that allowed archers a wide firing field and created a 'killing zone' where the fields of fire overlapped. Wider at ground level, the towers, with their 5 metre thick walls, were deliberately designed to splay outwards - making it difficult for siege towers and battering rams to get close.

Originally, the castle consisted of four corner towers joined by a narrow curtain wall, with half-towers in the middle of each side. The towers had connecting passageways on the upper floors only, meaning each individual tower would have to be fought over and taken separately by attackers. Originally the narrow curtain walls would have been too narrow to be used as anything other than a passageway, so the inhabitants would live within the towers.

The internal design of the towers was carefully planned: entrance ways have hidden 'murder holes' and barricade points. Murder holes (many sneakily hidden) enabled the men inside to drop stones or fire arrows down on surprised invaders. These holes were on every floor so the fight to the top of each tower would have been difficult and deadly. Murder holes are still visible in the Adam Tower, watch out for them when you visit!

Chirk Castle stood 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.