Powis Castle: A Brief History

Everything you’ll read about Powis Castle will start off with the unusual circumstances behind its existence. If you’ve seen or looked at many castles in Wales, then you can just glance at Powis and know it’s something unique. Built soon after Edward I of England successfully conquered Wales—when the whole of Wales saw the rapid construction of castle fortifications to subdue the Welsh—Powis was built for a Welshman, and not just as a means of defense, but for a family dwelling as well. Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, a prince of Wales, whose father had been ousted by Llywelyn the Great, grew up in England and was loyal to his benefactor, Henry III of England. Henry III gave Gruffydd back his father’s lands. Soon after, he married an Englishwoman.

His fortunes changed again when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, drove him out—forcing him to pledge his loyalty to Wales and not England. But Gruffydd and Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd came up with an assassination plan. Again, his life was in turmoil when, a year after the failed assassination attempt ( a snowstorm prevented Gruffydd from reaching Llywelyn on the intended date) the Bishop of Bangor, whom Gruffydd had later confessed his plot in confidence, revealed the treason to Llywelyn, giving Llywelyn just cause to raise an army against Gruffydd. But Gruffydd fled to Shrewsbury, just over the border in England. There were tensions on both sides as Gruffydd raided Llywelyn’s land and Llywelyn set about trying to take Gruffydd’s land by law.

But then the Welsh Wars began and Llywelyn and the rest of Wales were defeated. Gruffydd was loyal to Edward I of England and so he was granted his lands back, and given the right to build a castle, which was an unheard of privilege granted to a Welshman. He didn’t live long afterwards however, about 1287—five years after building began at Powis. At this time the family changed their name to de la Pole, referring to the family seat Poole. The town, originally known as Pole, later changed to Welshpool to distinguish itself from the English town of Pole.

Gruffydd’s son, Owain de la Pole, became 1st Lord of Powis. The castle and title passed through the family line until there was no male heir to inherit. A title was created, the Baron Grey of Powis, in 1482 to pass the inheritance down the line. After a few generations, the last to inherit was an illegitimate son who sold the castle to Sir Edward Herbert in 1587. The Herberts were Roman Catholic and in 1644, during the English Civil War, the parliamentary army seized the castle and lands. It was restored when Charles II was put back on the throne. Sir Edward Herbert’s son, William, was created the 1st Baron of Powis. The 3rd Baron of Powis, also a William, was created Earl of Powis by Charles II and Marquess of Powis by James II. The line died out with the 3rd Marquess of Powis, but Henry Herbert, who married the heiress to Powis Barbara Herbert, was created Baron of Powis, and then eventually Earl of Powis. In 1771 he sold an estate, Oakly Park, to Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive.

Henry Herbert’s son, George, 2nd Earl of Powis died in 1801 with no heir. The titles went extinct again. But George’s sister, Lady Henrietta married Edward Clive, 2nd Baron Clive, who was later created Earl of Powis. Since 1804 the Clive family has owned Powis Castle.  Generations of the Clive family are responsible for most of the collection, especially the famous India collection, and for the additions and appearance of the castle and grounds.

The 4th Earl of Powis, George Herbert, had two sons, who were killed in the First and Second World Wars. His cousin inherited the title when George died in 1952, but the castle was transferred to the National Trust early that year, though it still remains in the family name. The current title holder is John Herbert, 8th Earl of Powis.

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