My recent week-long castle hunting trip to south Wales has inspired me to write about the castles I visited during my travels. In all I went to fourteen castles across the region, ranging from huge sites such as Caerphilly to small ones such as Newcastle Elmyn. I had a fantastic time exploring these places and would certainly encourage you all to pay them a visit! In this blog post I discuss the four castles I visited: Caerphilly, Pembroke, Swansea and Carreg Cennen.
Caerphilly Castle was constructed in the late thirteenth century by the powerful Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare. It was acquired by the Crown following the death of Gilbert’s son and heir at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Two years later, the heavy-handed actions of Edward II’s officials in the lordship prompted a rebellion led by the Welsh lord Llywelyn Bren. Caerphilly was attacked by the rebels, who succeeded in burning the outer ward, but the garrison held firm. The castle was later besieged in 1326, as part of Queen Isabella’s successful attempt to overthrow her husband Edward II. Over the course of the following two centuries the castle gradually fell into decline, with the lords of Glamorgan favouring Cardiff Castle as their principle residence in the lordship. In the late sixteenth century, its owner, Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, leased the castle to Thomas Lewis, who was permitted to remove stones from the site to be used in the building of his new nearby mansion of Y Fan. Damage to the site suggests that it may have been slighted by the Parliamentarians in the mid-seventeenth century. Caerphilly later became a popular subject for antiquarians, with restoration work carried out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The castle later came into the possession of the Ministry of Works and is currently managed by Cadw.
The first thing that struck me when I arrived at Caerphilly was the sheer size of the castle. It is a huge site! Undoubtedly it is one of the most imposing castles in the United Kingdom. This is due to both the impressive ruins of the buildings within the castle and the extensive water features that surround it. The artificial creation by its medieval builders of two large lakes, a northern and a southern one (that were reflooded in the 1930-40s), means that the castle is situated across multiple islands that are accessed via fortified bridges. The inspiration for these water defences was almost certainly Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, which was formerly surrounded by a huge lake. Gilbert de Clare was present at the great siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266 and must have appreciated both the defensive and aesthetic value of these features. It takes some time to walk around the castle, but it is well worth it as you can get some stunning views from different angles. There is adequate parking near to the entrance of the site and a nice tea room for refreshments.
The present entrance to the castle is via a modern bridge which leads you to the outer main gatehouse. Originally the approach to the gatehouse was preceded by a barbican, both of which had their own drawbridges, thereby presenting a formidable obstacle to any attackers. Once you are inside the outer ward the south dam and gatehouse are to your left, with the north dam and gatehouse to your right.
Directly in front of you is the outer east gatehouse, leading to a rather cramped middle ward, behind which looms the towers of the inner east gatehouse. The latter is the most imposing part of the castle due to its sheer size (although the façade of the towers was reconstructed in the early 1930s). Inside the gatehouse are multiple small rooms, with a grand chamber on the second floor. To the left of the gatehouse is the south-east tower, also known as the ‘leaning tower’ due to its severe outward tilt (this happens to be one of my favourite structures at Caerphilly due to its striking appearance).
After entering the inner ward, you find yourself in a courtyard, with a series of structures to your left, including apartments and the great hall. The latter is a huge building, which, according to the guidebook, is one of the biggest non-royal halls ever constructed in the country. It has been subject to restoration work in the modern era, including the insertion of a roof in the late nineteenth century and masonry work to its exterior in the 1960s. Features of interest include the triple-headed corbels on the south wall, that may depict Edward II and Hugh Despenser.
The wall walk of the inner ward provides some great views of the castle. One of the most interesting features is on the north side, which incorporates reconstructed wooden hoarding. Documentary sources reveal that these edifices were often installed at castles during times of conflict during the Middle Ages. Yet as these were temporary wooden structures they do not survive, so it is intriguing to get a sense of how they would have looked.
The first castle at Pembroke was founded by Roger de Montgomery in the late eleventh century, but most of the present structure dates from the late twelfth century onwards. It is located on a rocky limestone headland, which is enveloped by two arms of the Pembroke River. The castle was constructed following the Norman invasion of Wales and originally took the form of an earthwork and timber structure. Pembroke was the only castle in south-west Wales that the Norman succeeded in holding during the great Welsh rebellion of 1094. It was rebuilt and expanded in stone during the thirteenth century, with the additions to the castle including the construction of a massive circular great keep during the time of William Marshal. Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, was born in the castle in 1457, although he was later forced to flee to Brittany during the Wars of the Roses. On the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642 Pembrokeshire (unlike most of the rest of Wales which was largely pro-Royalist) declared for Parliament. However, unpaid soldiers in the region rebelled against Parliament during the Second Civil War in 1648 and the castle was besieged by the forces of Oliver Cromwell. Following the surrender of its garrison, the castle was partly demolished to prevent it being used in any further rebellions and it fell into ruin. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries restoration work was carried out to rebuild part of the castle and it is now owned and managed by the Pembroke Castle Trust.
Pembroke Castle is one of the finest castles in the region and is a must visit place for all people who like castles/medieval history. There is plentiful (and cheap!) parking in the town and there is a nice nearby café. To get a true sense of the size and splendour of the castle it is worth starting your visit by walking along the river footpath that adjoins Bridgend Terrace. This allows you to obtain some wonderful views of the site and to appreciate both the strength of its location and how it visually dominates the area.
The entrance to the castle is on Westgate Hill via the barbican, which leads to the great gatehouse. The latter was constructed by William de Valence in the mid-thirteenth century and has three storeys. This side of the castle was heavily restored in the late nineteenth century, having suffered extensive damage following the Parliamentarian siege of 1648.
The gatehouse leads to a large (and now mostly empty) outer ward. It is possible to walk around most of the walls and towers, from where you can get nice views of the town and river.
More structures survive in the inner ward, including the foundations of the inner gatehouse, the chapel and the magnificent circular keep. Unfortunately, the latter was closed during my visit for restoration work, but it still looks very impressive from the outside. On the east side of the keep there are the ruins of a block of adjoining buildings, including the great hall and chancery.
One of the most interesting places in the castle is the Wogan cave, which can be accessed via steps from the inner ward, leading to a cavern that has been used by humans since the Palaeolithic period.
Swansea Castle was founded by Henry de Buwick in the early twelfth century as the administrative centre of the lordship of Gower. In 1116, the castle was attacked by the forces of Gruffudd ap Rhys, and although the outer bailey was burnt, the garrison held out in the keep. It was later rebuilt and expanded in the thirteenth century but subsequently fell into ruin from the late sixteenth century onwards. In 1647 it was slighted by order of Parliament, with the ruins being used as a debtor’s prison in the eighteenth century. The remains of the castle suffered damage in the twentieth century when part of the site was demolished for the construction of a post office, with further destruction inflicted during the Second World by the Luftwaffe who heavily bombed Swansea. The site is currently owned and managed by Swansea Council and is open to the public free of charge.
Comparatively little survives of Swansea Castle to this day. This is not surprisingly considering the destruction that it has been subjected to over the years. The principal surviving part of the castle consists of its south-eastern area, with three towers linked by a curtain wall. These structures are adjoined on its interior side by a residential block, which includes a great hall and solar. Things to look out for include the grand garderobe tower on the south-west corner and the fine arcading on the adjacent section of the curtain wall. Details about the castle’s history can be obtained from information boards dotted around the site. Its location in the centre of Swansea means that it is reasonably easy to locate parking and to find places to eat or drink.
Carreg Cennen was originally constructed by the rulers of Deheubarth in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, before later being captured by the forces of Edward I during his war against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1277. It was subsequently granted to John Giffard who rebuilt the castle, which incorporated an outer and inner ward. Later it passed into the possession of the Duchy of Lancaster and afterwards into royal control following the succession of Henry IV in 1399. Carreg Cennen was besieged and captured by the supporters of Owain Glyndŵr in 1403. Following the suppression of the rebellion, extensive works were carried out to repair the fortress. Carreg Cennen was captured by the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses in 1462, who slighted the castle with picks and crow-bars. In the nineteenth century, restorative work was carried out by its owner Earl Cawdor. The castle is currently privately owned but is managed by Cadw.
Carreg Cennen’s dramatic location on a limestone crag almost ninety metres above the River Cennen means that it visually dominates the surrounding area. It is therefore easy to appreciate the powerful impression that the castle must have made on contemporaries and how difficult it would have been to capture during a siege. Free parking is available a short distance from the entrance to a farm complex, which includes a restaurant and shop. From there a steep walk uphill leads to a ticket booth where tickets and guidebooks can be purchased.
Little survives of the outer ward of the castle, other than the foundations of the wall, although one interesting feature is the remnants of a limekiln.
Access to the inner ward is via an angled barbican that was originally protected by drawbridges, which leads to a three-storeyed gatehouse. The buildings of the courtyard include a hall, private chambers and a chapel. These structures are best preserved on the east side of the castle and it is possible to walk around part of the wall and towers. Stunning views of the surrounding area can be obtained from the top of the castle but be aware that it is very cold and windy up there!
Intriguingly, in the south-east corner of the inner ward there is a set of stairs in a vaulted passage that leads down to a cave.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about the first four castles I visited. Be sure to watch out for parts 2 and 3!
An Inventory of Ancient Monuments in Glamorgan Vol. 3 Part 1b: The Later Castles (London: HMSO, 2000)
M. Lewis, Carreg Cennen Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016)
Neil Ludlow, Pembroke Castle: Birthplace of Henry VII (Milford Haven: Forrest Print)
Rick Turner, Caerphilly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016)
Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018).
 For what follows see, Rick Turner, Caerphilly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016).
 For my account of these sieges see, Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018), pp. 173, 184.
 For a history of Pembroke Castle see, Neil Ludlow, Pembroke Castle: Birthplace of Henry VII (Milford Haven: Forrest Print).
 For my account of this rebellion see, Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales, pp. 42-4.
 For a history of the castle see, An Inventory of Ancient Monuments in Glamorgan Vol. 3 Part 1b: The Later Castles (London: HMSO, 2000), pp. 346-52.
 For a history of the castle see, J. M. Lewis, Carreg Cennen Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016).
 For my account of this event see, Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales, pp. 210-11.