Here in the Welsh Marches, the ancient battleground of the English and Welsh, Powis Castle was built as a fortress. Its thirteenth century battlemented outline of mellow red stone is a statement of its position as a military stronghold, and it was home to a dynasty of Welsh princes. The Castle crowns a rocky ridge, with far-reaching views across the Severn Valley towards England, as it has done for eight hundred years. Climbing up here today, the views from the seventeenth century terraces across the gardens to Long Mountain and the Breidden Hills are spectacular, and hold memories of the castle's long past.
Standing on a commanding hilltop, a mile south of the town of Welshpool in Powys, the present building dates back to c.1200, though most of the work was done between 1275 and 1320. It is built on the Norman plan of a keep with an inner bailey, now the central courtyard, surrounded by a massive curtain wall.
In 1286 Owain ap Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, last Prince of Powys, surrendered to King Edward I of England, and was granted the title of Baron de la Pole, of Welshpool, and Powis became an English barony. Subsequently his daughter Hawys was confirmed as owner of Powis by Royal Charter. She married John Cherleton who became Lord Cherleton of Powis, and the estate remained in the Cherleton family until it was sold to Sir Edward Herbert in 1587.
Herbert was the second son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, and he remodelled the interior of the old castle between 1587 and 1595, converting it into a stately country house. His magnificent Long Gallery of 1593 survives. The library displays the treasured miniature by Isaac Oliver of c. 1610 showing Lord Herbert of Cherbury (a branch of the same family) as a melancholy knight.
The Herberts remained staunchly Royalist during the Civil War, but Powis Castle was captured by Parliamentarian forces under Sir Thomas Myddelton of Chirk in 1644. It seems to have been garrisoned during the remainder of the war, necessitating extensive rebuilding and refurbishment when it was returned to the family after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Most of the development at Powis was carried out by the 3rd Lord Herbert, later 1st Marquess of Powis, (1626-1696) in the late seventeenth century, and the castle enjoyed a golden age. He was a leading Roman Catholic and a prominent figure in the Jacobite Court who remained loyal to the deposed King James II after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and joined him in exile.
The Italianate terraces laid out down the steep hillside are thought to have been the work of the architect William Winde, who also designed Lord Powis's London house at Lincoln Inn fields, and built similar terraces at Cliveden on the River Thames in Buckinghamshire in the 1660s. Three long terraces were cut out of the rock below the castle, and remain a magnificent feature of the gardens today, offering far-reaching views across the Marches. This is one of the few Italianate Baroque gardens to have survived, at least in part, and this alone makes Powis worthy of a special visit. The second terrace has an arcaded loggia, reflecting gardens of the Italian Renaissance. Although the exact dating of the terraces is uncertain, it is most likely that the work was begun in the 1680s.
The terraces are built of red brick with finely cut stone balustrades and clematis, roses and espaliered pear trees climb along the terrace walls. Ancient yews on the top terrace have been allowed to reach a majestic size, now carefully clipped. The row of fourteen large yews along the terrace were probably planted in the 1720s by the second Marquess (1665-
1745), and are now almost three hundred years old.
Descending steps on to the Aviary Terrace, the balustrades are topped with lead statues from the studio of Jan van Nost, representing dancing shepherds and shepherdesses, while purple wisteria and white Abutilon climb the walls. At the lower level is the Orangery Terrace, and the walls of the orangery, built to overwinter citrus fruit, are home to Banksian roses. At the end of the Orangery Terrace is a lead figure of a peacock brought from Claremont in Surrey, home to the first Lord Clive.
Below the terraces is a sloping bank, planted with trees and shrubs including a display of colourful Japanese maples. Although now called 'The Apple Slope', this was originally terraces which formed the lower part of the formal gardens descending to the grand water parterres.
King William III granted the castle to the 1st Earl of Rochford in 1696, but Rochford never lived at Powis and there is no evidence that he contributed to the garden. The Herbert family returned from exile in 1703, bringing with them a Frenchman, Adrian Duval, from Rouen.
Duval completed the terraces, 'a series of flights of steps covering the rock', and by 1705 had created a magnificent Dutch-style water garden on what is now the Great Lawn. It had fountains which played twenty yards into the air and a Cascade, an imitation of the gardens at St Germain-en-Laye, the royal chateau on the Seine where the 1st Marquess had resided while in exile. Sadly this eighteenth century splendour is now a plain lawn, but the statues which were once in the water garden remain, now moved to the terraces above. The lead statue 'Fame' by Andries Carpentière, c.1705, now stands in the courtyard, a dramatic figure astride the winged horse Pegasus. At the end of the top terrace is a second magnificent statue of Hercules fighting a hydra with a club, also signed by Carpentière.
The 3rd Marquess died in 1748 and Powis was inherited by his Protestant kinsman, Henry Arthur Herbert (1703-1772) of Oakly Park, Ludlow, who was made Earl of Powis by George II the following year.
The Wilderness, on the ridge beyond the Great Lawn, was created by William Emes, who was employed by the 1st Earl in 1771 to landscape the Park. Here there are woodland walks with giant oaks, as well as a tulip tree and handkerchief trees. The rock here is acid, allowing rhododendrons to flourish and add colour in the Spring. Along these walks the visitor will encounter remnants of the past including an early nineteenth century ice house and a Victorian plunge bath.
Further extensive building was carried out from 1772 by the young George Herbert (1755-1801), the 2nd Earl, including a ballroom built in the outer ward range. Other rooms were redecorated in the fashionable classical style, but George lived an extravagant lifestyle in London, later neglecting the estate at Powis to the extent that by 1784 the balustrades were falling down, and there were horses grazing on the parterres. He died in 1801, deeply in debt, and unmarried, with no heirs.
Fortunately for Powis, George's sister and heiress Lady Henrietta Herbert had married Edward Clive (1754-1839), the eldest son of Clive of India, and he was created Earl of Powis in 1804. He undertook much improvement in the gardens, but this unfortunately included the destruction of the Baroque Water Garden by 1809. Their marriage led to the union of the Clive and Powis estates and their son Edward, the 2nd Earl, changed his name to Herbert, the condition imposed by his uncle for inheriting Powis castle. He was heir to both the castle and the Clive fortune. A collection of Clive mementoes from India is on display in the Clive museum. Part of Clive of India's fine collection of old master paintings, French and English furniture, and Italian curiosities, were brought to the castle. The garden and park were also improved.
The castle underwent further extensive refurbishment in 1815-18, and again from 1902.
The final alterations to Powis Castle were undertaken at the beginning of the 20th century for George Herbert, 4th Earl of Powis (1862–1952) whose wife, Violet, improved the garden which she felt had the potential to be 'one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful in England and Wales'. Violet (1865-1929) wanted lawns, wide paths, rose gardens, clipped yews and herbaceous borders in the Edwardian style. She began her task in 1911, and her main contribution was the creation of the formal gardens beyond the Great Lawn, enclosed by yew hedges. Here, the old Kitchen Garden, planted in the 1890s, has rows of old apple and pear trees pruned into pyramids. The trees are underplanted with circles of silver stachys, while golden marjoram surrounds the feet of a vine arbour. On the slopes are magnolia and laburnum, while Violet also introduced a simple fountain in a new formal water garden, replacing the grand Baroque garden destroyed a century earlier.
On the death of the 4th Earl in 1952, he bequeathed the castle and gardens to the National Trust, who have planted a wildflower meadow, and added a new and wider range of shrubs to the banks.
Today John George Herbert, 8th Earl of Powis, continues to reside at the castle.