February 2018 - The South Wing laid bare!

The South Range of Chirk Castle as seen from the courtyard in February
Published : 05 Feb 2018 Last update : 07 Feb 2018

Of all the mysteries which surround Chirk Castle, its original appearance and function are by far the most commonly discussed, with the South Wing at the centre of many arguments. Is it purely a Tudor construction, or does it represent the skillful re-usage of an inner curtain wall of a far bigger castle?

In compiling this article on some of the key features in Chirk Castle's South Wing, I am indebted to Archaeologist Ian Brooks, whose recent comprehensive survey of inspired much revision of thought... In future blogs I will also present evidence from our ongoing programme of archaeological work to reveal more of the history of Chirk Castle – Dendrochronology and Paint Analysis will feature, as we attempt to establish facts, rather than merely repeat folklore.

The Chapel

The Chapel dominates the ground floor of the South Wing. It is 14.64 metres long, and is double the height of any room in the rest of the wing. The Western wall is made up of a studwork partition which divided the ground and first floor. On close inspection, this partition shows two different building styles, above and below the mid-rail. There are openings to this partition: two on the ground floor level (including a blocked up opening in the northern side) and one at first floor.

The rear (west) wall of the Chapel with its studwork partition
The rear wall of the Chapel at Chirk Castle showing the wooden studwork partition

The west face of this partition is exposed in the room we now call ‘Lady Margaret’s Room’ (known in the early part of the twentieth century as the ‘Organ Loft’) where we can see that the top rail is notched with a series of joints - to receive floor joists?  This may suggest the existence of an earlier ceiling.

The three windows in the chapel are known to be Nineteenth century in origin. The fireplace in the Chapel is relatively plain, but the over-mantel is more complex, as it is constructed from a highly decorated Seventeenth century cupboard front! Sadly, although the locks are evident, the keys are lost. The Chapel’s internal porch has many characteristics associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, which suggests it is related to Lord Howard de Walden’s 1912 restoration.

The north wall of the Chapel shows two blocked up windows, and is very interesting – these windows display early English decoration from possibly the late Twelfth, or early Thirteenth century. The position of the windows implies that there were in fact no buildings against the Eastern curtain wall, when this Chapel was first constructed. We wonder, therefore, why a Chapel would occupy a position which we assumed was occupied by a southern curtain wall?  This feature hints that the Southern curtain wall may NEVER have been completed – or even built in the first place.

From the courtyard, looking at the South Range it can be seen that the majority of windows light the first floor and attic levels, and above the upper line of these windows is a series of inverted ‘V’ shapes in the stonework, forming a series of peaks and troughs. Generations of tour guides have informed visitors that these lines mark the original Tudor gables… but examination of the timberwork on the inside of the wing reveals that the roof structure runs ninety degrees in the opposite direction, and cannot match up with the ‘gable’ theory. These ‘scars’ may be the remnants of a decorative arcade which ran along the top of the building...  further investigation is needed before we can be certain of anything.

These 'V' markings above the upper windows have always been thought to mark the location of old gables
A portion of the South Range at Chirk Castle, showing the windows above the Chapel with strange 'V' markings though to be gables

The Servants’ Hall

The Servants’ Hall doorway shows a scar from a wooden bolt on its surface, together with a very simple latch – and later lock. The main floor is stone-flagged and the ceiling beams, being quite ornate, would suggest that the room was once used as a Dining Room, before it was given over for the servants’ use. It is odd that it should have started life thus, as it is unconnected with any of the other rooms in the South Wing, and the only access is from the courtyard – food had to be transported from the kitchen openly, and in all weathers.

The eastern end of the Servants’ Hall has a beam running at ceiling height, with a series of peg holes along its length – their function is unknown, but they presumably relate to the use of the hall before its known function. Below this line of pegs is a shelf which has a central gap – assumed to have been the original siting of a tall piece of furniture, such as a clock. There is a second door in the south eastern corner of the room which gives access to a garderobe (toilet) similar to the others in the castle.

The Great Chamber

Now used as a Function Room, at 16.43 metres long (54 feet) this is by far the largest secular room in the castle: two early Twentieth century fireplaces feature in the south wall, and five beams, each resting on a corbel on the south side, span the room – they are then embedded in the north wall. These beams, it will be observed, have a slot cut in their undersides (approximately 1.5 metres from the north wall) suggesting that the Great Chamber was divided at some time, with a corridor running between the doors at either end. Once again, we cannot be sure when this took place.

At the western end of the room there appears to have been a second, centrally-placed door, but this turns out to be wholly artificial. The door on the south wall leads to an ‘L’ shaped garderobe, which is now neatly quarry-tiled.

The 'Tudor' Stairs

Supported by the western side of the Chapel partition, these stairs show some interesting features, including some very clear ‘carpenters marks’. Through the partition are two modern doors (one upstairs and one on the ground floor) but there are also two blocked doors, which may have been part of the original building scheme. One of these blocked doors is on the ground floor, and is partly hidden by the wall dividing the Tudor Stairs from the area called the ‘Tudor Lobby’.

This first floor door is clearly a modern feature, but there is a partial door-head visible immediately to the south of it, which may suggest that the Tudor Stairs’ landing post-dates the construction of the partition, a thought which might be confirmed if we look at the ground floor, where a series of blocked mortice-holes suggests the existence of a structure which may once have been attached. It is a possibility that we have the remnants of a ‘dais canopy’ here, suggesting that the Main Hall started to the west of the partition. If this is so, we may have to reconsider the original shape (and position) of the Servants’ Hall.

The ‘Tudor’ staircase itself has simply-turned balusters, which are topped with a square-sectioned handrail. One of the rectangular newel posts has carpenters’ marks scratched into it, suggesting it has been re-used, but as the staircase is constructed from (probably) Jacobean panels which do not match very well, it might be logical to conclude that the ‘Tudor Staircase’ was designed to look older than it is... it may actually date from the Eighteenth century at the earliest... but the steep staircase to the West of the ‘Tudor Staircase’ landing is older.

Extracting cores from the beams at Chirk Castle can help us to better date the rooms and buildings
A specialist extracting a core from one of the beams at Chirk Castle to use for Dendrochronology

An enduring mystery

So, I am afraid that we still cannot confidently describe the layout of Chirk Castle in its earliest form, and it would be foolhardy to attempt a hypothesis based on just a few pieces of evidence. The original ‘look’ of the South Wing remains an enigma for now, and this article may raise more questions than you had had before!

Meticulous ongoing archaeology will hopefully provide us with some answers. As before mentioned, over the winter period Dendrochronology and Paint Analysis have already taken place, and any results will be brought to you in this blog, as will details of further archaeological investigation as it happens.