Caerphilly Castle’s architectural concept was a stone hurled into water: a mammoth undertaking even by today’s standards, colossal wall behind enormous wall behind gigantic wall soars like an angry cliff, beneath the malevolent gaze of towers of death. A river was diverted to form a lake in which the castle was built on two artificial islands.
Assuming an attacker captured both drawbridges intact, he faced an immense barbican shooting into the sky: two sets of doors, three portcullises, each to be battered through while the defenders hurled missiles and burning liquids from murder ports above. The survivors would find themselves in a killing zone, silhouetted against the white-painted walls behind them, an internal moat impeding their advance. And if they managed to get past that, running along narrow walls through a hail of arrows to capture tower after tower, the garrison would simply retreat to the next island, and carry on from there. Nobody ever captured it.
One army tried, in 1326. That the king had forbidden it mattered not a jot. The king was in jail. The castle’s owner was dead, his dick sliced off, his heart cut out, and been hacked into pieces. Both of them had shamefully abused their offices. The consequences involved being chased by dogs across the Welsh valleys.
Edward loved men, and his fundamental error was his determination to give them everything they wanted. There had been several of them: Piers Gaveston, Lord Audley, Roger Damory, but then in 1318 came the gorgeous Welsh boy, Hugh Despenser, master of Caerphilly castle, appointed the king’s chamberlain. No good image of him exists, but he was clearly quite something, and Edward’s current “favourite”, as they were euphemistically known, soon got the heave-ho.
None of this was a problem, necessarily. The nobility wasn’t happy, but in the Middle Ages, God’s anointed was free to bang his horses, if he pleased. The trouble was that Hugh was determined to make himself filthy rich, and corrupted his position to rapidly embezzle a vast estate covering most of south Wales.
Apart from provoking the enmity of just about everybody except the king, all was quiet for a couple of years. 1320 was when it all started to go wrong. Roger Mortimer, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, had a family feud with the Despensers dating to the previous century. On his return to London, he was horrified to discover his nemesis was sweet kisses from having whatever he wanted.
William de Braose, a baron bankrupt both financially and morally, had put the Gower peninsula, on the southern Welsh coast, up for sale. The king’s brother-in-law had made a down-payment. Roger Mortimer wanted it too. Hugh Despenser by now owned most of south Wales’ castles and estates, and fancied adding the Gower to his holdings. Edward, of course, would never have dreamed of disagreeing with him. De Braose in the end sold it to none of them. Edward decreed the transaction illegal, since trading land required a royal license in England. Just one problem: no such license was required in Wales, but the king wasn’t going to raise such an objection, and Hugh decreed that anybody who argued would be guilty of treason. Edward decreed the new purchase confiscated.
Nobody doubted what his next gift to his boyfriend would be. It was clear to all that the king, upholding one man’s whims over all others, could not be expected to uphold the nobility’s rights, the Magna Carta not withstanding; in which case, what was the point of him? It might qualify as treason, but armed resistance was plainly the only way they could hope to protect their property, and through Christmas and into 1321, nobles slipped away from Edward’s court, returning to prepare their estates to fight Hugh’s next land grab.
Early the next year, the nobles, including Mortimer, converged to discuss how to protect their properties from Hugh Despenser. Audley and Damory, the king’s exes, were present, among many others. They called themselves “The Contrariants.” Hugh wrote letters to his castles offering reinforcements. Caerphilly Castle stocked up with barrels of grain and salted meat, its blacksmiths beating out arrow after arrow.
Winter gone and summer approaching, Mortimer unleashed his serfs to pillage Hugh’s lands, burning and looting, before marching to combine with his allies to besiege London throughout the summer. The lords outside the walls were too terrified of Hugh’s retribution should they back down. The king inside the walls was too attached to his boyfriend to banish him as the Contrariants demanded. Meanwhile, the harvest rotted in fields across the country.
Eventually, Edward backed down and agreed to banish Hugh, without the slightest intention of leaving him gone any length of time, nor did the Contrariants imagine that he did, but it bought him time.
Briefly, the country was peaceful, albeit facing famine in the coming year. The third person in their marriage gone, Queen Isabella was willing to help her husband out a little. Edward’s plan was simple. Lacking the power to take on his enemies together, he would cut them like a sausage, slice by slice. But to do that, he needed to cast the Contrariants as the bad guys.
Isabella announced her desire to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, but diverted substantially to Leeds Castle, owned by one of the most-prominent Contrariants. Normally, hosting a queen would be considered an honor, but when Isabella arrived demanding accommodation, considering the circumstances, she was refused. Taking umbrage, Isabella ordered her guards to force their way into the castle. The castle’s archers opened fire from the battlements, killing six of Isabella’s guards. By anybody’s standards, this was treason.
Edward responded by immediately placing the castle under siege. When the gates were flung open for the lady of the castle to plead on her knees for mercy, Edward dispatched her to the Tower of London. The garrison, all 134 of them, he hanged en masse.
One down, and it had handed Edward the most valuable PR imaginable: moral superiority. Attacking the king was arguable, but nobody at this stage saw the queen as anything other than a virtuous and wronged wife, and in these days when chivalry still stood as an ideal (if rarely in practice), attacking her personally was outrageous. As if dissipating support for his cause wasn’t bad enough, a Welsh revolt in the face of chronic food shortages forced Mortimer home. Edward followed him and forced him to surrender in early 1322.
Two down. After that, it was a simple matter for the king to defeat the last of the powerful Contrariants at Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, and behead him.
What followed was a settling of scores. Hugh Despenser firmly back in the royal court, six more Contrariants were executed on the same day. Three more the following day. More than a hundred members of the nobility were attainted. Aristocratic corpses would rot for years on gibbets across England and Wales: no trials, no evidence. If the king declared (Hugh exacting dire retribution, of course) that they were guilty, then God help them, because nobody else would. Those who were left sweated in their castles. Nobody was safe, and if Hugh Despenser took a fancy to their property, a whisper across pillows stood between them and the scaffold.
Utterly defeated as the lords were, none of this might have mattered had Queen Isabella’s brother, the king of France, not begun, in the summer of 1324, to threaten Edward’s possessions in Gascony, France. Edward ordered the arrest of all French aliens in England. Unsurprisingly, the queen and Hugh had always been at loggerheads, and Hugh, drunk on the elixir of destroying his enemies, took the order to extremes to settle scores with the queen: placing her under house arrest, dragging away her four children, while Edward, her husband, did nothing. It’s not unreasonable to assume that this was the moment that changed Isabella’s feelings for her husband from long-suffering distrust to unquenchable hatred.
The war with France was a catastrophe. Edward might well have hesitated to ask his wife to visit her brother and ask him to back off, but off she went to Paris, and rapidly agreed a peace treaty with her brother — but one of the conditions was that Edward would have to travel to France to pay homage to the king of France.
As if Hugh was ever going to permit that! Hugh controlled all access to the king’s ear. Somebody was going to have to keep England under the thumb, but if Edward went to France without Hugh, who knew who might say what to him? Or worse, Edward might meet some gorgeous Frenchman, with dark eyes and sexy accent, to sweep him off his feet and Hugh into the gutter. Isabella might well arrange an introduction.
So they replied that the king was too ill to travel. No problem, replied the king of France: Just send his son instead. Off went the heir to the throne to Paris, with a strict instruction that Queen Isabella was to return forthwith. No dumb broad, “Screw that,” said Queen Isabella, or, more precisely:
“I feel that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, and someone has come between my husband and myself and is trying to break this bond. I declare that I will not return until this intruder is removed.”
As the wronged wife, she attracted the sympathy of the disgruntled English nobility. With the collapse of the Contrariants’ revolt, until now, they had had nobody around whom to coalesce. Now Isabella controlled the heir to the throne, the exiles rallied quickly. None other than Roger Mortimer, who had escaped from prison, turned up, and he and Isabella soon were living together. If her brother, the French king, was shocked by the flagrancy of their affair, that didn’t stop the Count of Hainault bankrolling a mercenary invasion of England in return for agreeing to marry the heir to his daughter, Philippa.
September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer set sail with a tiny army of Dutch mercenaries and English and Welsh Contrariants who had fled Edward’s tyranny. It was a gamble, but Isabella could hardly have judged the situation better. As she made landfall, her route to London opened, her army swelling to enormous proportions, as noble after noble hurried to fall into her ranks. Hardly a soul stood in her way.
Edward and Hugh were completely unaware of the danger. It was another week before they learned of the invasion. They panicked, saddling their horses, packing their saddlebags with £30,000 in gold, and galloped out of the city, westward. Once safely out of England, in Hugh’s power base in Wales, they chartered a boat from Chepstow. Where they were heading is unknown; perhaps to Ireland, where, with all that gold, they might have been able to raise a new army. But the winds were against them and they spent five days bouncing around in the Bristol Channel before giving up and docking in Cardiff. From there, Hugh’s castle in Caerphilly, the strongest in the entirety of England and Wales, was a day’s journey.
The news they discovered upon arrival on October 27th could hardly have been worse. Hugh’s father, left to organize a defense of England’s principle western city, Bristol, was dead, the city having fallen to the queen. He had been fed to dogs.
The message was clear. No mercy for Despensers.
Edward issued orders to defend Wales from the queen: 400 troops to defend Cardiff, the ports to be guarded, felons to be released and brought to Caerphilly Castle’s defense. It was a waste of time. So far had his authority crumbled that he was ignored. He was marooned; the castle could hold out for months, but not forever. Without fear of a counter-attack, the queen was free simply to besiege the castle for as long as it took for them to starve. Forced into surrender, Hugh would be executed, probably horribly. As for Edward, he knew that death was what tended to happen to ex-kings. A game changer was imperative.
What happened next was carried out in strictest secrecy, and so is very unclear. What is known is that Edward and Hugh left Caerphilly Castle and travelled first to Margam and then to Neath Abbey, where they appointed a delegation, including the abbot, to visit the queen. Beyond that is conjectural, but surmisable by comparing the Welsh landscape with its medieval institutions.
These were religious — or superstitious — times, when clerics wielded influence. It seems Edward and Hugh, desperate men, thought a churchman of high status might persuade the queen to exercise clemency. However, so eroded was the king’s authority that nothing short of his personal plea was likely to be successful, necessitating their secret expedition. The black friars and the grey friars of Cardiff were priories, deemed lacking status, so they rode to Margam Abbey. However, even the king’s personal presence availed them nothing, so they proceeded to Neath Abbey.
Many question whether Edward’s delegation in fact met the queen, but evidently she received a message, at least, because it told her where to look for them. Otherwise, hunting a handful of men somewhere in the Welsh valleys was very much a needle in a haystack.
Organizing snatch squads probably took a few hours, during which time, the abbot, realizing he’d given the game away, sent a rider galloping back to Neath. Edward and Hugh fled, to return to Caerphilly’s impregnability. Avoiding the main road along the coastal plain through Bridgend and turning north at Cardiff, they opted for the arduous up-hill-down-dale path across the valleys, hoping to hide in Wales’ empty, barren hinterland, as had many Welsh rebels.
They nearly made it. Just ten miles from Caerphilly, in a terrific storm, Isabella’s squad caught them. The reign of King Edward II ended on November 16th, 1326, chased by dogs across a bleak wilderness in the rain.
The queen travelled to Hereford especially to watch Hugh’s execution, which was quite a show, at first hanged naked like a criminal from a fifty-foot gallows, then lowered, half strangled, onto a ladder. They slashed off his genitals, because he was “held to be guilty of unnatural practices with the king,” and “because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the king, and this was why the king had driven away the queen.” Imaginative, symbolic, and savage, as his sentence was, this was not part of it. Perhaps ordered by the queen, who was very much enjoying herself, tucking into a feast as she followed the spectacle, this was personal.
His intestines were drawn out, displayed to him, then thrown into a fire. His heart, displayed to him in his dying moments, followed. Finally, his head was cut off for display on London Bridge, and his body hacked into four.
Was Edward there to observe his lover’s barbaric hanging, drawing and quartering? What we do know is that he was in the custody of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, who is known to have watched the show.
The defining quality of Edward II’s reign had been murderous vindictiveness. In the end, it came for him too. Parliament declared that, in taking a boat from Chepstow, he had abandoned his kingdom and lost the right to be king. His son, just a teenager, was proclaimed king in his place, but Isabella, as regent, wielded the power, and was in no mood to forgive. In common with all deposed kings, Edward died. It’s said that a funnel was inserted into his anus, and he was buggered to death with a red-hot poker, his shrieks audible outside the castle walls.
As for Caerphilly Castle, before leaving it in November, Edward and Hugh committed the defense to one John Felton and Hugh’s eighteen-year-old son, Huchon. For Isabella, Hugh’s death was not enough, and she chafed as the siege dragged through the bleak winter. A new sheriff of Glamorgan repeatedly promised pardons to all but Huchon, but by February, still the castle held out. The new sheriff was himself dismissed and replaced by another, who again offered pardons to all, except Huchon, but the castle held into the spring. Finally, March 20th 1327, Isabella, reconciled to merely reducing Huchon to impoverished imprisonment, promised at least to spare his life. It was the best offer the garrison could hope for. Reject it, and the queen’s likely response would be to starve them into submission, however long that took, and hang the lot of them. So Felton surrendered the castle, the garrison went free. Huchon languished in jail until Edward III grew up and took the power that was rightfully his. When Mortimer was hanged, and Isabella pensioned off in luxurious impotence, and Edward II declared to have been murdered, Huchon discovered his jailer had legged it to Spain. He had a good life. He inherited generously from his mother, and married well, although his riches provided no defense against the Black Death.
It is sometimes asserted that King John’s signing of the Magna Carta achieved nothing. It was undoubtedly cynical, and King John made strenuous efforts to reverse the rights the Magna Carta guaranteed. However, Edward II’s feckless efforts to ignore it in order to excuse Hugh’s depredations were the first major contest between the king and the law. The rebellions he provoked, and his tragic deposition resulting in the spectacle of the king of England being hunted with dogs, provided the major leap in Britain’s constitutional evolution: the law was supreme, and bound even the king himself. Now the monarchy had a job to ensure the law was administered fairly and without prejudice. Failure to do so meant the subjects were within their rights effectively to fire the monarch and replace him with an alternative candidate. It was the foundation of democratic government.
Caerphilly Castle’s demonstrated formidability ensured nobody dared taking it on again. In the seventeenth century, Parliamentary forces decided to ensure it could never be used against them and blew it up. Great chunks of its enormous walls lie scattered pell-mell like so many Lego bricks, one tower leaning more acutely than the one in Pisa, testament to the enormity of the explosion. Reconstructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its monumental proportions again dominate the small town surrounding it. In the 1960’s, the moat was reflooded; a flock of geese introduced to harass promenaders for tidbits: the Great Hall, where Hugh and Edward dined, rebuilt; also the gate houses and deadly fortifications, from which they gazed across the swooping valley for the inevitability of Isabella’s army; and Hugh’s apartments and bedchamber, where they spent their final nights, clearly defined.