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The Medieval Castles of Wales

The Medieval Castles of Wales

by John R. Kenyon

The Medieval Castles of Wales is a concise but informative guide that highlights the most important and interesting medieval castles throughout the Welsh countryside. The opening chapter traces the history of castle architecture in Britain. The five subsequent chapters—divided by region—guide the reader through these magnificent structures, with


The Medieval Castles of Wales is a concise but informative guide that highlights the most important and interesting medieval castles throughout the Welsh countryside. The opening chapter traces the history of castle architecture in Britain. The five subsequent chapters—divided by region—guide the reader through these magnificent structures, with each entry featuring a history of the site, a description of the visible remains, and relevant tourist information such as maps and entry prices. A final chapter provides a brief overview of castle-like buildings constructed since the seventeenth century and an extensive bibliography for further reading.

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University of Wales Press
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The Medieval Castles of Wales

By John R. Kenyon

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2010 John R. Kenyon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2180-5



Wales has long been considered the land of the castle, with the castles of Edward I in north Wales always capturing the imagination, coupled with a number of great strongholds in south Wales such as Chepstow and Pembroke. It has been calculated that over four hundred castles still survive in the country, varying from earthworks to great stone fortresses, but, to put that into perspective, the bordering Marcher counties of Herefordshire and Shropshire, whose medieval history is linked closely to events in Wales, together have almost two hundred surviving castles, whilst a further 240 are scattered across the English counties of Northumberland and Yorkshire. Yet it is the sheer magnificence of a large number of the castles in Wales that make this country a favourite for castle explorers. No less important is the splendour of the location of a number of them, from Harlech in the north-west, Castell y Bere in mid Wales, to Carreg Cennen in the south-west and Chepstow in the south-east.

This book is intended to be an authoritative short guide for the visitor to the history and architecture of the majority of the accessible medieval castles of Wales. Space does not allow a mention of all the castles that might be visited, and the choice is subjective, for which the author makes no apology! An example of an omission is the important stronghold of Cardigan, acquired by Ceredigion County Council in 2003, but a site that needs much conservation work before it can be fully opened to the public. The individual entries should be detailed enough for a visitor to understand a castle he or she is visiting, although few plans are included here, but where there is a guidebook the visitor will always find additional information, and many sites have interpretation panels displayed in key areas.

At one time or another, I have visited most of the castles described here, but this book could not have been written without the help of the superb guidebooks produced by Cadw, the surveys undertaken in the second half of the twentieth century by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and a wealth of learned papers published in various archaeological and historical journals. In order to enable the reader to pursue the subject further, an outline of the key sources of information will be found in the Further Reading section.

The majority of the sites are of stone, varying from maintained ruins such as Caerphilly to roofed strongholds that have evolved into country houses, Chirk being a good example. Some of these masonry castles developed from what were originally earth-and-timber defences, but there are numerous others in Wales, not described here, that never went beyond the earth-and-timber stage, whether motte and bailey or ringwork. Some of the sites are now nothing more than fortified manors, but are included, although I have omitted the fortified enclosure associated with Ewenny Priory in the Vale of Glamorgan.

An outline of the development of the castle in the Middle Ages

This introduction summarizes the key developments in castle architecture in the Middle Ages. Some, but by no means all, of the key features to be found in a castle are also described in box features in the following pages.

The simplest definition of a castle, and one that by and large still holds true, is that it is the fortified residence of a lord. A castle could also be used as a centre of administration. Castles were introduced into England by the Normans at the time of the conquest in 1066, although a small number had been constructed in the 1050s, for example in Herefordshire, by the Norman favourites of the Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor. The Normans' castles in England were erected in such cities as London and York, and several made use of existing fortifications such as Roman forts as can be seen at Portchester in Hampshire, or were built on the estates acquired as part of the conquest and settlement of England.

It was in the reigns of the first two Norman kings of England, William I (1066–87) and William II (1087–1100), that the first castles appeared in Wales as the Normans began to occupy various parts of south Wales and the border with England, the Welsh March. The Normans were also involved in a short-lived campaign in north Wales, which saw the construction of two of the finest accessible mottes, Aberlleiniog on Anglesey and Rhuddlan (Twthill) in Flintshire. These northern gains were soon lost to the resurgent Welsh, and even in their outposts in south-west Wales the Normans lost all their castles for a short period, apart from Pembroke. It was not until the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth in south-west Wales, in 1093 that the Normans made major advances across south Wales. However, the Anglo-Norman subjugation of Wales was a long, drawn-out affair, one that lasted two centuries, culminating in the conquest of north Wales by King Edward I (1272–1307). However, one should not think of these centuries as a period of constant military campaigning, nor one of total domination by one side or the other. There were, however, long periods of ascendancy by Welsh rulers, such as the Lord Rhys (d.1193) in southwest Wales and the two Llywelyns of the house of Gwynedd in the north, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, the Great (d.1240), and his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d.1282).

In a country divided into a number of kingdoms, often with one Welsh ruler pitted against another, and little in the way of national unity, it is not surprising that the Welsh response to the Normans was slow. Castles were attacked, some even taken and possibly occupied, but we do not have a record of the Welsh building castles themselves until the early twelfth century. In the Welsh Chronicles of the Welsh Princes (Brut y Tywysogyon) there is a reference under the year 1111 to a Welsh lord killed near Welshpool in Montgomeryshire whilst planning to build a castle. In 1116 the same source mentions a small castle near Cymer, not far from Dolgellau, built by a Welshman and destroyed by rival Welsh lords; traces of the castle's mound, or motte, survive under a later folly. One of the finest castle earthworks to be seen in Wales is the motte and bailey of Tomen y Rhodwydd in Denbighshire, built in 1149 by one of the great Welsh princes of the twelfth century, Owain Gwynedd.

Although we cannot be certain what the first castle of Chepstow (c. 1070) looked like, the imposing great tower is the earliest masonry structure of a castle in Wales, built on the orders of William I, probably at the time of the king's visit to south Wales in 1081 (plate 15). At the same time, the king ordered the construction of the great motte within the walls of the Roman fort at Cardiff, presumably with a timber palisade and tower on its summit. Few castles in England and Wales have masonry as early as that at Chepstow – earth and timber was the norm. This was to change from the first half of the twelfth century, as the Normans established a greater footing, particularly in south Wales.

In lowland Glamorgan, for example, Robert fitz Hamon and those who owed him allegiance moved west from Gloucester to extend their control to the banks of the river Ogmore. Three castles built as a result of this drive west are to be seen at Ogmore, Coity and Newcastle. At the former two their origin is clear, castle ringworks with timber defences and internal buildings, but in the first half of the twelfth century they underwent a transformation. Coity's timber palisade was replaced by a stone curtain wall, whilst a keep or great tower was built on the line of the curtain, overlooking the approach to the main entrance. A similarly positioned keep is to be seen at Ogmore, although at this castle the timber palisade remained until the early thirteenth century. Small keeps in a comparable 'offensive' position can be found at several castles in south Wales, other examples being White Castle and Usk in Monmouthshire.

Another form of Norman keep is known as the shell keep, where a stone wall replaced a timber palisade around the edge of the summit of a motte. The best example is at Cardiff (plate 13), whilst others can be seen at Tretower in Breconshire and Wiston in Pembrokeshire.

The entrances to castles were often simple gateways – arched openings in the curtain in the lee of main towers, or sometimes through a square gate tower – but about 1190 an innovative gatehouse with twin rounded towers was built by William Marshal as the outer entrance to his castle at Chepstow (plate 15). This form of gatehouse, which incorporated apartments on the upper levels, is to be seen at most of the major castles in England and Wales from the thirteenth century onwards, although in some cases the towers may be square or polygonal. In terms of both military and domestic sophistication, the peak of gatehouse construction is represented by some of the castles built by Edward I and his lords following the conquest of Wales in the war of 1282–3, particularly Caernarfon, Denbigh (plate 7) and Harlech (plate 6), not forgetting Beaumaris of 1295. Good examples are also to be seen at Montgomery (Montgomeryshire), Caerphilly (Glamorgan) and Carreg Cennen (Carmarthenshire), whilst fine examples from the later Middle Ages are also to be found in Carmarthenshire, at Kidwelly (plate 11) and Carmarthen itself, and in the mid-fifteenth century at Raglan (Monmouthshire) (plate 16).

From the early thirteenth century onwards, at the same time as gatehouses became more sophisticated, we see the introduction of rounded or D-shaped mural towers projecting from curtain walls. They were usually equipped with arrowslits. It is rare to find twelfth-century mural towers in British castles, although square or rectangular examples can be seen in the castles of Dover in Kent and Orford in Suffolk, but nearer home, at the Newcastle in Bridgend, there are two Norman mural towers still standing in a castle relatively unaltered since the twelfth century.

In many cases the mural towers were provided with basic amenities such as fireplaces and latrines on one or more floors, so that the towers could be used for accommodation as well as defence. Again Chepstow (plate 15) provides some of the best examples of these developments in the first half of the thirteenth century, as do the three castles of Grosmont, Skenfrith and White (Monmouthshire), whilst in the second half of the century there are Caerphilly, Kidwelly (plate 11), Laugharne (Carmarthenshire) and Pembroke, as well as the Edwardian castles in north Wales.

Only two Welsh princely castles incorporate twin-towered gatehouses: Llywelyn ab Iorwerth's Cricieth in Caernarfonshire (plate 5) and Dinas Brân, built by the lords of northern Powys above Llangollen in Denbighshire. The gates at these two castles are not as sophisticated as those built by the Welsh Marcher lords, but where we do see Welsh building on a par with the English is in the great circular keeps of the first half of the thirteenth century. This form of great tower, although not common, is mainly found in south Wales, but there are examples in England and Scotland, with three in north Wales. The decision to build these circular towers, many on mottes, and with all-round vision from the battlements, may have been linked to the threat to the Marcher lords from the rise of the house of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great. Nevertheless, two castles in Carmarthenshire that were built by Welsh lords, Dinefwr and Dryslwyn, both have round keeps similar to the English manner (see figure 1), as does Dolbadarn.

A characteristic of several castles of the Welsh princes is the use of a very elongated D-shaped or apsidal tower, often along with rectangular towers; the only comparable 'English' version of such towers is the well tower at Montgomery as originally built in the 1220s. The best examples of apsidal towers are at Castell y Bere in Merioneth, overlooking the north and south approaches to the castle. The highest point of the castle, however, is occupied by a small rectangular tower.

The pinnacle of defensive sophistication was reached in those castles built by Edward I following the Welsh wars of 1277 and 1282–3. Apart from rebuilding Builth in Breconshire, the king's new castles were Aberystwyth (Cardiganshire), Flint and Rhuddlan (Flintshire), Caernarfon and Conwy (Caernarfonshire), Harlech (Merioneth), and the last in the sequence, Beaumaris (Anglesey), begun as a result of the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294–5 (see p. 55). Of these castles, the latter four are quite remarkable, especially Caernarfon and Conwy with their town walls. They have few equals in Europe, and rightly they are now inscribed on the World Heritage List. Caerphilly in the south, with its powerful twin-towered gatehouses, mural towers and ranges of additional defences, anticipates to some extent Edward's castles in the north, as does Kidwelly's inner ward or courtyard defences. At the same time as Edward was building his ring of fortresses around Gwynedd, several of his lords established castles in the north, for example, Chirk and Denbigh (Denbighshire).

Castle walls and towers provided powerful defences but, surprisingly, castles were rarely threatened during military operations. On only a few occasions, for example, during the Owain Glyndwr uprising in the first decade of the fifteenth century and the civil war between king and Parliament in the 1640s, were major sieges of Welsh castles a significant feature of campaigns. Castle garrisons and supporting staff were often small in number, unless visited by their lords, and when Caernarfon was besieged in 1403 and 1404 by the Welsh, supported by the French, there were only a handful of soldiers to resist successfully, albeit aided by the townspeople.

However, castles were not just about fortifications. The castle as residence was equally important, so increasing attention was paid to the accommodation and supporting facilities. The first building phases at Caerphilly spanned the period 1268–71 and saw the construction of the great hall and private apartments. Soon after, around 1277–90, a massive kitchen range consisting of two towers was added against the hall. At Kidwelly a new hall, kitchen and magnificent chapel tower were built by about 1300, whilst at Chepstow Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk, transformed the lower courtyard or bailey in the late thirteenth century, building the huge Marten's Tower, with fine rooms and its own chapel, perhaps in anticipation of another visit by his king, Across the courtyard from Marten's Tower, Bigod built a new hall and a handsome kitchen range, the two being divided from each other by service rooms. In the south-west, in Pembrokeshire, we find grand suites of accommodation at Carew and Pembroke, whilst in the north the largely unaltered royal apartments in the inner ward of Conwy are considered to be the best surviving examples in England and Wales. At both Conwy and Beaumaris there was a fine chapel linked to the royal apartments.

Besides the kitchen, other service rooms that would be found in most castle households would have included butteries and pantries, as well as brewhouses for beer – little water would have been drunk. The buttery was a storeroom placed close to the hall where beers and wines would have been housed, while the pantry, also placed near the hall, housed eating implements and was the room from where the issue of bread for the table was controlled.

Nor were castles grey, forbidding buildings with bare stone walls. Many a castle had a limewashed exterior, so that it appeared white, hence the White Tower of London and, nearer home, White Castle in Monmouthshire. The interiors were often plastered, painted and decorated, and good, but fragmentary, examples can be seen at Chepstow and also at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire.

Several castles were set in their own parkland in which hunting could be enjoyed, such as Raglan, and many had gardens, and not just outside their walls. There was a garden for Edward I's queen adjacent to the royal apartments at Conwy, whilst we know from documentary evidence that there was a garden inside Kidwelly Castle. Castles and their designed landscapes have been a feature of recent innovative research of a number of castle and manorial studies.


Excerpted from The Medieval Castles of Wales by John R. Kenyon. Copyright © 2010 John R. Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Meet the Author

John R. Kenyon is head librarian of Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum Wales. He is one of the United Kingdom’s leading authorities on castles and has written and edited a number of books and academic papers on this topic.

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