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Gilbert de Clare

Welsh Marcher Lord Extrodinare

Above: Gilbert de Clare from a stained glass window at Tewkesbury Abbey

Richard de Clare (d.1090), the son of Gilbert, count of Brionne, accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066. He took his new title from the fief of Clare in Suffolk. Richard descendants acquired the earldom of Gloucester by marriage, and became the leading barons of the south-eastern March by early in the 13th century. By the middle of that century another Richard de Clare (1222-62) had expelled the Welsh rulers from the western valleys of Glamorgan, as far as the Rhondda, whilst leaving the rest undisturbed.

Richard de Clare was a leading member of the reforming party of barons in England. King Henry III's personal style of government and his reliance on foreign advisers had antagonized many of the barons who regarded the royal policy as diminishing their own power and influence. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282), prince of Gwynedd, exploited this division and dissension amongst the English. On Richard's death in 1262, Llywelyn moved up the Usk valley, capturing the Brecon lands of Humphrey de Bohun (guardian of the young de Clare heir), and reaching the northern edge of Glamorgan. By 1267 Llywelyn had become master of the greater part of modern Wales, except for the southern coastal plain.

Richard de Clare's heir, Gilbert (1243-95) - Gilbert "the Red" as he was known after the fiery color of his hair - was to become involved in the turbulent English politics of the 1260s. At the time of his father's death Gilbert was a minor, though he was given possession of the Gloucester estates in 1263. To begin with, Gilbert continued in good terms with his powerful neighbor, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. However, over the next few years a series of military and political events was to completely change this situation; the building of de Clare's masterpiece Caerphilly Castle, (below) can be seen as the last and most dramatic episode in this story.



The end of the Baronial revolt of the 1260s left Llywelyn ap Gruffydd as the only potential enemy of King Henry III. Prudently, Llywelyn decided to make peace, and by the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) he was recognized as "prince of Wales," and as the feudal lord of the other Welsh princes. Already in 1266 Gilbert de Clare had seized upland Senghennydd from the local ruler, Gruffydd ap Rhys, since King Henry III had given the earl authority to take over the lands of those Welshmen in Glamorgan who had supported Llywelyn. Consequently, on 11 April 1268, Gilbert's workmen began building at Caerphilly, only a few months after the Treaty of Montgomery had been sealed. The young earl was just 25 at the time, yet the scheme for the stronghold at Caerphilly was one of the most ambitious ever to have been conceived in the kingdom.

During the summer of 1268, Llywelyn's forces invaded upper and northern Senghennydd. A truce was arranged by the king and the dispute dragged on for two years, until Llywelyn finally lost patience and burnt some of the fortifications at Caerphilly, on 13 October 1270. Gilbert de Clare recommenced building on 1 June, and Llywelyn prepared for outright war, but the crown intervened and Llywelyn reluctantly accepted the promise of future arbitration over the ownership of Caerphilly. This never materialized, and as Gilbert began to gain allies Llywelyn was forced back into Brecon, leaving de Clare to complete his massive building project at Caerphilly.

By 1287 Gilbert de Clare had cleared the road to Brecon and had begun another castle on his new frontier at Morlais near Merthyr Tydfil. Here he came into conflict with Humphrey de Bohun (d.1298), the earl of Hereford, who disputed possession both of the land and the castle at Morlais. Earl Gilbert was to experience further difficulties just a few years later. In the autumn of 1294, the Welsh broke in revolt under Madog ap Llywelyn, mainly against the actions of new royal administrators in north and west Wales. The uprising quickly spread to Glamorgan, where it was led by Morgan ap Maredudd, a local Welsh ruler dispossessed by Earl Gilbert in 1270, and attacks were directed against the de Clare estates. Morlais Castle was captured, and half the town of Caerphilly was burnt - although the castle itself held out. Eventually the rebels surrendered, not to de Clare but to the king himself.

Earl Gilbert died at the age of 52 in December 1295, and his estates were administered by his widow until her death in 1307. The young heir, another Gilbert, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. His untimely death meant the extinction of the de Clare male line, and the Gloucester inheritance was divided among three sisters.

Caerphilly Castle, Derek F. Renn, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff, 1989.


More information about the de Clare family

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas