A Short History of Powis Castle

Driving through Wales on the way to Welshpool, towards my new home, you couldn’t miss Powis Castle, sat on the top of the hill you can see why it’s nicknamed Y Castle Coch – The Red Castle. Its positioned perfectly to overlook the surrounding area, offering a reminder of the wealth and power of those who inhabited the castle. Owain Cyfeiliog, The Prince of southern Powys started work on the medieval castle. Although they were Welsh, their loyalties lay with the English and King Henry II. Owain was forced from his home by English armies, despite his ties to the king. This turned his son, Gwenwynwyn, against the English and he tried to rid Wales of them, to no avail. Gwenwynwyn also lost the castle and had to submit to a shameful surrender to King John at Shrewsbury in order to gain back his father’s lands. Troubles between the countries dogged the Castle’s history for many generations to come. The most drastic consequence of the tensions for Welshpool was when Owain Glyn Dwr’s rebellion against the English reached them, and the English inhabitants of the town were all massacred. Cherleton, the last feudal Lord of Powis, managed to obtain a royal pardon on behalf of any Welsh residents who followed Glyn Dwr. He had no sons so after his death the estates passed  to his two daughters.

Cherleton’s descendants leased the castle to Sir Edward Herbert who took full possession of it in 1587. Edward was a second son, meaning he was expected to find his own fortune, as he would not inherit his father’s. The property has remained in the Herbert family still today. Edward made many improvements to the castle and the most extensive of this still remaining today is the impressive Long Gallery, decorated with the shields of the Herbert families’ ancestors. In 1629 William Herbert, Edward’s son, became the first Earl of Powis. This honour was bestowed on him by Charles I after his support during the Civil War. This was the first creation of the title, the current Earl being the 8th Earl of the third creation.

William 1st Lord Powis


Percy 2nd Lord Powis ran into trouble supporting the wrong side during the civil war, ending up in prison in 1651 after being convicted of treason by parliament. After he was released he lived near Welshpool and may have worked on restoring the castle after its neglect during the civil war. Percy’s son William Herbert, the 1st Marquess of Powis, inherited in 1667 and began renovating, turning into the castle into a sumptuous Baroque home. However the Earl was a Catholic in a very dangerous time, and although he tried to keep a low profile his London home was burnt to the ground by those who disliked his faith, and he was named as a traitor against King Charles II. When Catholic James became King the Earl was once again in favour, and his family in a more secure position, but only for a short while. Due to his strongly Catholic rule King James was soon deposed in 1688, and the Earl’s fate was once again uncertain. James had rewarded William with a Dukedom, but after his deposition the new King William III did not recognise the Earl’s new title. However there is still a bedroom in the castle known as the Duke’s room as it was William’s bedroom. It was also the room Prince Charles slept in when he visited Powis. William Herbert followed James into exile in Paris and died in exile in 1696.

William Herbert, 1st Marquess of Powis


The Duke’s Room

His son, also called William, inherited his father’s title but remained under suspicion all his life as the son of a traitor. The Estates of Powis were given to the Earl of Rochford, William Van Zuylesteyn, who allowed William to live at Powis again after 1703. He continued to restore the castle in a Baroque style, funding the work with money from a lead mine in Llangynog discovered in 1692. However the family were nearly driven to ruin by William’s daughter, Lady Mary Herbert’s poor speculations about the French stock market. The lead mine saved the family from Mary’s debt, and again after a fire in the castle in the 1720s. In 1722 William had his familial estates restored, however he had to remain in France, in a Parisian Jail, to avoid his creditors. The family’s bad luck with money continued with its next generation, William the 3rd Marquess of Powis. He came to the title deep in debt and died three years later, unmarried. Here the title of Earl of Powis died out.

The estates should have been  left to William’s niece Barbara Herbert, but due to family tensions over their mounting debts William decided to leave it to his cousin, Henry Arthur Herbert, who became the 1st Earl of Powis of the second creation. Barbara Herbert’s guardian threatened to challenge the will, saying William had been drunk when he made it, so to settle the argument it was decided Henry and Barbara would marry. In 1751 when Barbara was 16 and Henry 48 they got married and despite the age gap they were said to have a happy marriage. Unfortunately Barbara had inherited the family penchant for gambling, badly, and between that and her husband’s ambitions of parliament they drove the family again into debt. To try and tackle this some of the family’s estates were sold and Powis placed into the hands of trustees. Their son George inherited the title of 2nd Earl of Powis (Second creation) at 17 but was more keep on travelling than his family estates. He did celebrate his coming of age, 21st Birthday, in the Ballroom at Powis which was by all accounts a spectacular affair, but never paid much attention to the property other than that, preferring London’s atmosphere to rural Wales. When he died in 1801 he left no heir and significant debts.

Lady Henrietta Herbert, Countess of Powis

The estates then passed to George’s sister, Henrietta’s son. Henrietta had married Edward Clive, son of Robert Clive, in 1784. This is where the famous connection to Clive of India is cemented at Powis. Henrietta and Edward’s son, also called Edward, was only 16 when he inherited the title of 2nd Earl of Powis (3rd Creation) so his father managed the estate until he was 21. It was his father who brought the amazing collection of Indian artefacts collected by his grandfather, Robert, during his time campaigning and travelling the country. Today it is still one of the best collections of Indian artefacts in the UK. Lord Robert Clive had been Governor of Madrass and fought a war against Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore. After Tipu’s defeat Robert Clive collected many of his finest belongings and brought them back home with him, this inspired a family tradition of collecting Indian items. When Edward Clive reached 21 and inherited Powis estate he changed his surname to Herbert, so that the Herbert line continued. After cleverly settling all his inherited debt he was now in a position to modernise the castle, which had not been altered significantly for over a hundred years. Edward died in 1848 after being accidently shot in the leg by one of his sons, who thereafter was nicknamed ‘Bag-Dad’.

Robert Clive, Clive of India


Edward 3rd Earl of Powis largely ignored his Welsh estates saying it was ‘not worth considering Powis’ and after his death his title passed to his nephew, George, in 1891. George’s wife Lady Violet Lane-Fox was responsible for re-modelling the garden into the Italian inspired Eden still surviving today. George, the 4th Earl, hired architect G. F. Bodley and is responsible for altering the castle to how it appears today. George had been impressed with Bodley’s work on Ham House and wanted the same sensitive restoration for Powis, and the removal of some of the earlier work which he felt was not in-keeping. Today the castle is very much a reflection of Bodley and the 4th Earl’s interpretation of this stunning ancestral home. Powis Castle was given to the Trust in 1952 after the 5th Earl’s death at a time when many such properties were being bequeathed in a similar way in order for families to retain these meaningful homes, but avoid impossibly steep death duties. Thanks to the Trust’s existence this unique property has been saved, not only for future generations of the Earl’s of Powis, but for everyone, keeping our history safe and sound.


All photos are from the National Trust Images website.

Here is a link to the National Trust, Powis Castle home page: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/powis-castle/?campid=WLSPPC

One thought on “A Short History of Powis Castle

  1. It was paid for by Lord Herbert with the funds from his uncle my ancestor Marquis of Northampton Lord of Sussex and Baron Kendal sir Thomas Parr. who died shortly after and is interred in Warwick

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