This is part 2 of my blog post about the castles I recently visited in south Wales as part of a week-long castle hunting trip. In this instalment I discuss four wonderful castles I explored: Kidwelly, Llansteffan, Dryslwyn and Aberystwyth.
The earliest castle at Kidwelly was built by Roger, bishop of Salisbury, in the early twelfth century to serve as the centre of a new lordship in south Wales (he was also responsible for the building of castles at Sherborne and Devizes in south-west England). It originally took the form of an enclosure defended by a ditch and wooden palisade, a type of castle known as a ringwork. A town was established adjacent to the castle and was populated with Norman, Flemish and English settlers. Kidwelly later passed into the possession of Maurice de Londres, who defeated a Welsh force led by Gwenllian, the wife of Gruffudd ap Rhys, lord of Deheubarth, and her two eldest sons, outside the walls in 1136. Another son of Gwenllian and Gruffudd, the Lord Rhys, succeeded in capturing Kidwelly (and other Norman castles in south Wales) in 1159. The Normans managed to regain control of the castle in the early thirteenth century, although it was captured and burnt by the Welsh in 1215 and 1231.
It later passed into the possession of Payne de Chaworth in 1274, who was one of Edward I’s lieutenants in the war against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, in 1277. He was responsible for rebuilding the castle, which included the construction of the inner ward (although part of the castle may have already been rebuilt in stone by the Lord Rhys in the previous century). Kidwelly was eventually acquired by John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, one of the sons of Edward III, who was responsible for initiating the rebuilding of the impressive south gatehouse (it was finally completed in 1422). In the early fifteenth century, Kidwelly was attacked by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr. The town was stormed and burnt in 1403, but the garrison of the castle managed to resist the attackers. Kidwelly continued to serve as an important administrative and judicial centre for the area but had fallen into decay by the early seventeenth century. The castle came to be regarded as a picturesque ruin by the late eighteenth century, with repairs carried out to the site in the mid-nineteenth century. It was acquired by the state in 1927 and is now managed by Cadw.
Kidwelly is one of my favourite castles in south Wales. The ruins are exceptionally well-preserved, and it is a beautiful and impressive place. It corresponds to the classic image of how a castle ought to look like and I had a wonderful time exploring the site. A free carpark is located directly in front of the castle and there is a nearby tea room a short distance away (although it was closed when I visited). The main entrance to the site is via the splendid south gatehouse, which is one of the newer parts of the castle, having been constructed from 1388-1422. It served as a comfortable residence for the constable, who owned a suite of high status rooms in the upper two storeys. The ground floor also gives you access to two dark underground rooms, on either side of the gatehouse, that were used to house prisoners kept at Kidwelly (I imagine it was a rather unpleasant experience!).
After passing through the south gatehouse you enter the outer ward of the castle. It is possible to walk around a small portion of the outer wall, where you can get some views of the Chapel Tower. You can either enter the inner ward via the wall walk leading to the Chapel Tower, or by walking through the inner gatehouse.
The inner ward is flanked by four large round towers, some of which are accessible via stairs, from where you can obtain some great views of the castle and its surroundings. The buildings within the courtyard include the remains of a kitchen, hall and solar.
Other interesting structures in the outer ward of the castle include the bakehouse, and two buildings that have been identified as the possible site of a stable and the courthouse.
Part of the town wall of Kidwelly also survives. This includes the south gate, which originally had three storeys and dates to c.1300.
The first castle at Llansteffan was founded by the Normans in the early twelfth century, who built a ringwork within the site of an iron age fort. By 1136, the castle had passed into the possession of the Camville family, although it was temporarily captured by the rulers of Deheubarth in 1146 and 1189. In the following century, the castle was seized by the princes of Gwynedd in 1215 and 1257, with extensive works carried out to improve its defences in the 1260s, after its recovery by William de Camville. The castle passed into the possession of the Crown in the fourteenth century after the death of the last male Camville in 1338 and was briefly held by the supporters of Owain Glyndŵr in the early fifteenth century. Henry VII later granted Llansteffan to Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, after which the castle fell into decline and is currently managed by Cadw.
Llansteffan is located on a top of a hill which overlooks the mouth of the River Tywi where it joins the sea. It is a lovely place to visit, with nice views of the sea and there is a large nearby sandy beach. There is a large carpark next to the beach together with a tea room and an ice cream store (although the last two places were closed when I visited). Access to the castle is via a steep hill from the beach (there is also a long coastal path if you wish to get some nice views of the sea and beach).
The entrance to the lower ward of the castle is via the impressive remains of the outer gatehouse. This was a three-storied building that incorporated residential rooms in its upper levels and was defended by portcullises. It is still possible to explore the first floor of the gatehouse and to reach the second floor, where you can obtain some fine views of the castle and the surrounding area.
The upper ward (the oldest part of the castle) includes the remains of a large round tower, the inner gatehouse and other structures, such as the hall.
Dryslwyn was most probably built by Rhys Gryg, one of the sons of the Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth, in the early thirteenth century. It originally consisted of a round tower and adjacent buildings, including a great hall, which were surrounded by a curtain wall. Dryslwyn was subsequently expanded by Maredudd ap Rhys who acquired the castle in 1233 and added what is now known as the middle ward. After his death in 1271, Dryslwyn was inherited by his son, Rhys ap Maredudd, who added the outer ward to the structure. Rhys was rewarded by Edward I for his support during the wars against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, in 1277 and 1282-3 with grants of land. However, resentment at his treatment by the king and his officials led to him raising a rebellion in 1287. Dryslwyn was besieged by a large English army who used a trebuchet to hurl stones at the defenders and miners to dig under the walls. Some of the besiegers were killed when a mine collapsed but the garrison was eventually forced to surrender. In the early fifteenth century, Dryslwyn was captured by the Welsh during the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion and was afterwards abandoned. The site is now managed by Cadw.
Dryslwyn is located on the top of a large and isolated hill, which towers over the surrounding landscape. It is a very peaceful and beautiful place, with impressive views of the Tywi River. A carpark is located close to the bottom of the hill but there are no facilities at the site (which also means that it is free to visit). After walking up a steep path you reach the entrance to what was once the medieval town, whose earthwork defences can still be observed.
The three wards of the castle are still discernible, with the most substantial remains located in the inner ward (the oldest part of the site). This includes the remnants of the round keep, the hall, chamber block and the North-West Tower.
Aberystwyth was founded by Edmund Crouchback, earl of Lancaster, brother of Edward I, in the late thirteenth century. It was one of four royal castles constructed in north Wales following the war of 1277 with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Construction work began on 1 August 1277, with the workforce initially including 120 masons and 120 carpenters from the West Country. By October 1279, more than 1,100 men were employed on working on the site. Yet considerable problems were encountered during the building of the castle, in part as it was located too close to the sea. Three years later, the castle and town of Aberystwyth were captured and burnt by the Welsh at the beginning of the war of 1282-3. Large sums of money were subsequently spent on repairing the castle after the end of the conflict. In 1404, Aberystwyth was captured by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr. Henry Prince of Wales (who later became Henry V) attempted to regain the castle in 1407, but was foiled by Owain’s success in resupplying the garrison. This proved to be a temporary setback as the siege was resumed in the following year, with the English starving the defenders into surrender. Thereafter the castle gradually lost its military value, although it was garrisoned during the Wars of the Roses. It was later slighted by the Parliamentarians following the end of the First Civil War in the 1640s and is now managed by Aberystwyth Council.
Far less survives of Aberystwyth Castle than most of the other Edwardian castles of Wales (only Builth is in a worse state of preservation), yet the ruins are still well worth looking around. There is no entrance charge, with adequate carparking only a short distance away by the beach and nearby facilities in the town. The castle is concentric, with an inner and outer ward, and has a lozenge shape, which had a dry moat on its western side.
The castle is approached from the town via the outer east gatehouse, of which only part of the northern tower still survives. This leads immediately to the inner east gatehouse; whose southern tower is still largely intact. Remnants of some of the buildings in the southern part of the inner ward also survive, as well as the northern and southern towers of the outer ward. The most striking part of the castle is the inner west gate tower, which stands to its full height and gives an impression of just how magnificent the castle was in its late thirteenth century heyday.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about these castles – do let me know what you think. Be sure to watch out for part 3!
Aberystwyth: Understanding Urban Character (Cardiff: Cadw, 2013) [http://cadw.gov.wales/docs/cadw/publications/130812aberystwyth-understandingurbancharacteren.pdf, accessed 1 April 2018]
John R. Kenyon, Kidwelly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007)
Sian E. Rees and Chris Caple, Dinefwr Castle, Dryslwyn Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007)
Scheduled monument report for Llansteffan Castle, [http://cadwpublic-api.azurewebsites.net/reports/sam/FullReport?lang=en&id=1439, accessed 1 April 2018]
Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018)
 For a history of Kidwelly Castle see, John R. Kenyon, Kidwelly Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007).
 For my account of this episode see, Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018), pp. 210-11.
 For what follows see the Cadw scheduled monument report, [http://cadwpublic-api.azurewebsites.net/reports/sam/FullReport?lang=en&id=1439, accessed 1 April 2018]
 See, Sian E. Rees and Chris Caple, Dinefwr Castle, Dryslwyn Castle (Cardiff: Cadw, 2007).
 For my account of this siege see, Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales, pp. 146-7.
 For a history of the castle see, Aberystwyth: Understanding Urban Character (Cardiff: Cadw, 2013) [http://cadw.gov.wales/docs/cadw/publications/130812aberystwyth-understandingurbancharacteren.pdf, accessed 1 April 2018].
 Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales, pp. 138-9, 141, 145.
 Ibid, pp. 208, 212, 216-17.