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MRS. THRALE and Dr. Johnson visited Chirk in Denbighshire during their tour in Wales. Mrs. Thrale commented in her diary: “Chirk Castle is by far the most enviable dwelling I have yet ever seen, ancient and spacious, full of splendour and dignity, yet with every possible convenience of obscurity and retirement. Here we saw the best Library we have been shown in Wales, and a ridiculous Chaplain, whose conversation with Mr. Johnson made me ready to burst with laughing. . . .” Johnson himself in his diary made only a formal reference to the castle (and no reference at all to the Chaplain), but he wrote home to Boswell “that one of the castles in Wales would contain all the castles that he had seen in Scotland.”
Chirk, in its day a strong Marcher stronghold, is not well known, but it is said to be one of the largest inhabited houses in Britain, and its area was greater formerly than now. The castle stands upon a slight eminence above the valley of the Ceiriog (a tributary of the Dee) overlooking thirteen counties, with the command of a gap in the famous Offa’s Dyke. The present castle cannot be anything but an Edwardian foundation, much restored and altered, but its position was of earlier importance. In the village of Chirk is the mound of a Norman fortress, and the place is to be identified with a battlefield where Henry II was resisted in an expedition into Wales.
Powel, the Elizabethan historian of Wales, describes the forcing of Offa’s Dyke, where “there was, and is at this daie, a narrow way through the same ditch (for that ditch appeareth yet to this daie verie deep through all that countrie and beareth his old name) these men, I say, as they would have passed the straite, were met withall, and greate number of them slaine, as appeareth by their graves, there yet to be seen, whereof the name, Adw’r Beddau, or Pass of the Graves.”
The Edwardian castle was erected at the end of the thirteenth century by Roger Mortimer, to whom the lordship of Chirk was granted on account of the forfeiture of “Llewelini Vaughan, inimici Regis.” It was simple in plan, of some strength, and noticeably of a type transitional between the castle and the fortified manor house, because there are no traces of outworks or subsidiary defences, nor was the slope on which it stood sufficient to preclude assault from any quarter. On the other hand, the builders of Chirk did not neglect its defences. It was a square building, the sides defended midway by round towers of half projection, and the angles by similar towers of three-quarter projection. This formed a courtyard around which were the domestic buildings. An elaborate main gatehouse was probably on the south side, opposite to the simple gateway which now serves as an entrance. Such a compact castle must have been reputed strong and easily defended. The towers (or more properly, bastions) were massive, their ramparts level with the curtain, and their walls looped for archers. There were probably no windows in the curtain, for those in the domestic buildings looked into the court, and the outside windows now to be seen are all square Tudor openings.
The castle has been often restored, but the western mid- tower (known as Adam’s Tower) and the curtain meeting it are practically untouched. In Adam’s Tower the window embrasures are 16 feet in depth, and the rock on which it stands has been hollowed out into a dungeon which receives light and air only from a chute connecting with the quadrangle. The gateway, between the mid-tower and the eastern flanking tower on the north side, is curiously simple, consisting of a pointed arch placed within a tall sustaining arch which rises nearly the whole height of the curtain.
The gatehouse was so much a part of the Edwardian type of castle that we may presume it existed once in the southern side, of which not a trace remains, for the restoration of various centuries have altered the original plan of Chirk. The southern wall without any flanking towers runs only just south of the demi-towers that were originally at the centre of the eastern and western sides. There is no record to show when this change took place. The chapel which occupies the south-eastern angle of the castle has fifteenth-century windows, and the rest of the present south side was obviously used for a hall and kitchens, but as this portion was certainly rebuilt in the seventeenth century, it is impossible to say why or when the plan of Chirk was so strangely transformed.
The lordship of Chirk commanded the Dee and Ceiriog route into Wales, and the Roger Mortimer who held it was one to make use of his opportunities. In 1308 to “Roger Mortuo Mari of Chirk” Edward II committed the custody of all Wales, with the castle of Carnarvon and the office of Justice, and from that time to his death he was said to “rule Wales like a King.” But his pride was short-lived, for he rashly took arms against the favourite Despensers, with the result that he lost Chirk, which was sold to the Earl of Arundel.
In the fifteenth century Chirk had many owners, but its military history is obscure, though it obviously suffered in Owen Glendower’s rebellion, for the Earl of Arundel marched into Wales and fought Glendower’s ally, Hotspur, near Cadr Idris, and in 1405, the Chirk estates being devastated, Arundel was forced to borrow from the king to cover the expenses of his marriage.
In 1423 Chirk was again at royal disposal. It was granted to John de Radeclyf, Knight, in consideration of the fact that the King owed him £7,029 13s. id. over and above his wages of 4s. a day as seneschal of Aquitaine and other items duly paid. But the most engaging of these owners of Chirk was Sir William Stanley, a humble understudy to the King-Maker. Stanley was Chamberlain of Chester under Edward IV, and created Justiciar of North Wales by Richard III, but his respect for his dread sovereign lord is shown by a letter explaining his absence from a hunting party: “beying so besy with olde Dyk,” he says, “I can have no layf thereunto.” He showed his solicitude for “olde Dyk” in another fashion at Bosworth, when he led the men of Chirk among his supporters, for he decided the battle by changing sides, and then, picking the crown out of a bush, loyally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor. History does not say who placed it in the bush, but quite possibly it was Sir William Stanley.
As Lord Chamberlain he was now one of the most important subjects in the kingdom, and reputed to be the richest. He repaired Chirk, which probably suffered heavily in the wars. Leland wrote: “At Chirk self be a few houses, and there is on a small hille a mighty large and stronge castel with divers towers late well repayred by Sir William Standeley, the Yerle of Derby’s brother.” This rather discounts an Elizabethan report that Chirk was “rased to the ground, saving one tower, here commonly called Adam’s Tower,” but the writer was probably of a morbid turn of mind, because he went on to say that in Chirk township there were “twenty-four burgesses in decay.”
Sir William Stanley found his match in Henry Tudor, who soon disposed of his too powerful friend. As Camden tersely put the matter, in an account of the various owners of Chirk: “And afterwards to Sir William Stanley, Chamberlaine to King Henry VII, who, contesting with his soveraigne about his good services (when he was honorably recompensed) lost his head, forgetting that soveraigne must not be beholding to subjects.”
After that Chirk passed to Elizabeth’s Dudley, and ultimately to Sir Thomas Middleton, one time Lord Mayor of London, who settled the estate upon his son. As befitted a London man, the latter took the side of Parliament in the Civil Wars, when Chirk was twice besieged. Sir Thomas Middleton the younger was a dangerous enemy to the Crown, for he was in a position to influence his countrymen, and in 1643 he was created by Parliament Sergeant-Major-General of the six northern counties of Wales. Accordingly the Shropshire Royalists were ordered to seize Chirk, which they were able to do, so that in 1644 Middleton found himself not the besieged, but the besieger of his own castle. A letter from the governor, Sir John Watts, to Prince Rupert, gives some account of the action from the Royalist point of view.
“May it please your Highness, — This gentleman journeying towards Oxford, I most humbly beseech leave to present to your Highness by him an account of a late action of the rebels. They attempted to work into the castle with iron crows and pickers under great planks and tables which they had erected against the castle side for their shelter, but my stones beat them off. They acknowledged in Oswestry they had 31 slain by the castle and 43 others hurt; their prime engineer was slain by the castle-side; they are very sad for him. If your Highness please, this gentleman will very fully impart all the passages during the siege to your Highness; he was in the castle with me. I shall not presume to be further tedious. I most humbly kiss your Highness’ sweet hands, and will ever be Your Highness’ most humble and assuredly faithful servant, JOHN WATTS.”
The absence of mention of artillery in this account is explained in the “Mercurius Aulicus,” a Royalist newspaper: “He would not abuse the castle with ordnance (because it was his own house), but fell on with fire-locks at a sink-hole, where the Governor, Col. Watts, was ready to receive him; and gave a pretty number admittance (having an inner work within that hole), but when he saw his opportunity he knocked them all down that came in. . . .”
In 1645 King Charles, marching north to join Montrose, stopped at Chirk, and again on his hurried retreat southward from Chester. But the tide had turned against the monarch, and in 1646, despite his protestations of fidelity, and although Chirk was unmolested at the time, Sir John Watts was negotiating with Parliament for a voluntary surrender. He was offered (and accepted) his freedom, with the sum of £200. Sir Thomas Middleton came into his own, but not by his military prowess.
However, he soon began to tire of the Roundheads. After the death of Cromwell he was found among the gentlemen of the Cheshire Rising, and besieged at Chirk by General Lambert “with a good body of horse and foot and a train of artillery” to which the Council of State added “a mortar piece with shells for the reducement of Chirke Castle.”
In a short time Lambert secured the surrender of Chirk. The persons of the garrison were spared, but Lambert was instructed by Parliament “to see that Chirke Castle be demolished and made untenable.” And it is said that one side of the castle was actually so demolished.
Chirk Castle is now the dwelling of Lord Howard de Walden, who has done much for its restoration. But the building itself remains a historical problem. The north and east sides have been much rebuilt, the south side has been most probably entirely rebuilt, and it is difficult to date any of the operations. There are records of restoration in 1636, yet there is no sign of damage done during the Civil War, and there is no trace of destruction deliberately carried out by Parliament. Possibly the south side was destroyed by Stanley, and the projected works of 1636 were postponed until the Restoration. Among the treasures of that period at Chirk is a cabinet, the decorations of which are said to have been painted by Rubens. It was presented by Charles II to the Middleton family in acknowledgment of their belated services.
The position of Chirk, once of great military strength, is still very beautiful, and in the present day we can sympathize with the rhapsodies of the Elizabethan traveller poet, Thomas Churchyard:
I entered first at Chirke, right ore a brooke,