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History of Chirk Castle

The north west corner at Chirk Castle, Wrexham
The north west corner at Chirk Castle, Wrexham | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Started in the late 13th century, Chirk Castle was never planned as a family home. Instead, it was one of several medieval Marcher fortresses along the Welsh-English border, built to keep the Welsh under English rule. From construction for defence to the Myddelton family home, discover the history of Chirk Castle.

Built to defend

In 1282 when the English King Edward I defeated the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (also known as Llywelyn the Last, and grandson of Llywelyn the Great), he established the new Marcher Lordship of Chirklands.

The Chirklands were granted to Roger Mortimer in recognition of his service in King Edward's wars against the Welsh and Scottish and he built Chirk Castle in the late 13th century.

Strong defences

Constructed on a rocky escarpment at the head of the Ceiriog valley, the castle’s location was carefully chosen to maximise its defensive capabilities, whilst controlling the neighbouring Dee Valley and trade along the border.

It was a fortress so important that King Edward I paid a personal visit during its construction.

Favoured by royalty

The overseeing architect was probably Master James of St George, an architect from Savoy who was much favoured by Edward I and who is credited with work on many other castles, including Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Harlech. As well as suggesting his master builder, the King may also have even lent Roger the money to pay for the castle’s construction.

A dominating symbol

It's highly likely that the castle would have been lime washed white so it would have stood prominently in the treeless landscape, especially looking from Wales. With watch towers allowing lookouts to keep a strategic eye on the Welsh hills and valleys, the castle was a symbol of English power and might, dominating the surrounding land.

Built for defence

The courtyard well is 28.5 metres deep but with only 300mm of water in the bottom, the fortress could probably only have supported a garrison of 20-30 men. However, clever defences made up for the lack of manpower.

A 'killing zone'

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

Invaders beware

Originally, there were four corner towers joined by a narrow curtain wall, with half-towers in the middle of each side. They had connecting passageways on the upper floors only, meaning each individual tower would have to be fought over and taken separately by any attackers.

However, with barricade points and murder holes (many sneakily hidden) that enabled the men inside to drop stones or fire arrows down on surprised invaders, the fight to the top would have been difficult and deadly.

A view of two stone arched chambers in Adam's Tower at Chirk Castle with square mullioned window and an earlier medieval arrow slit
Adam's Tower at Chirk Castle in Wales | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Changing hands

Roger Mortimer served Edward I, and then Edward II who made him Justiciar of all Wales. However, eventually ambition got the better of him and supporting his nephew, another Roger Mortimer, he took up arms against the King. He was thrown into the Tower of London and died there in 1326.

Chirk Castle then regularly changed hands between some of the most important men of the age including the Earls of Arundel, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the Dukes of Somerset, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III), and Sir William Stanley. It was usually granted to them in recognition of service and taken away again in disgrace.

A timeline of Chirk Castle's 16th - 19th century history

Sir Thomas Myddelton I

A home for the Myddelton family

Sir Thomas Myddelton I was born in 1550, son of the governor of Denbigh Castle. With little hope of inheriting his father's position he left to make his fortune in London, which he did with remarkable success.  

His sources of wealth were varied and included privateering, sugar trading and investment in Merchant Companies which sought to exploit opportunities of global trade. Myddelton was one of the first investors in the East India Company in 1599. 

Changes to the castle

In 1595 Sir Thomas I had bought Chirk Castle from John, 2nd Earl of Bletso, for £5,000 with the intention of turning it into his family seat. In fact, he spent more time at his home in Essex, but he spent vast sums of money on the castle, building the North Range and its State Rooms.  

In 1612, the castle passed to his son Sir Thomas Myddelton II, a Civil War general, first on the side of Parliament, and then later, disillusioned by Cromwell's military dictatorship, as a Royalist in support of Charles II. 

Chirk Castle in the 20th century

In 1910 Thomas Scott-Ellis, 8th Lord Howard de Walden, fell in love with Chirk Castle, and negotiated a lease with the Myddelton Family, which continued until 1946.

Improving the Castle

Before taking up residence of Chirk Castle in 1911, Thomas, known as Tommy, undertook extensive repairs to the castle whilst installing more electrics and bathroom facilities.

He renamed the Chapel the Music Room and put a raised gallery walkway through it so that guests could access their quarters without having to go outside.

Tommy’s wife Marguerita, was a fabulous party organiser and soprano singer, and Chirk Castle became a regular haunt for royalty, statesmen and the glitterati.

An image of the Drawing Room at Chirk Castle showing an ornate wooden writing table, chimneypiece, chandelier and pale pink settee
The Drawing Room at Chirk Castle in Wales | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Patron of the arts

He was an active patron of the arts assisting and supporting in the formation of the Welsh National Theatre Company and the Eisteddfod and became a fluent Welsh speaker.

Tommy commissioned works by many leading 20th-century artists, these include portraits by Augustus John and John Lavery, landscapes by Wilson Steer, and a bronze bust by Rodin. This collection gives you a fascinating insight into the man some call ‘the last great patron of Wales’.

A lasting legacy

In 1946 Tommy left Chirk Castle and retired to his Scottish estates, dying that same year. Despite the fact that the Lord Howard de Walden lived in Chirk Castle for a very short period of time in its history, there are echos of him everywhere.

A look inside the Chirk Cabinet, made of Ebony with tortoiseshell inlays, internal silver mounts with oil paintings on copper, made circa 1640-50, found in Chirk Castle.

Chirk Castle's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Chirk Castle on the National Trust Collections website.

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