Perched on its 80-feet high rocky bluff, where it has presided over the town for the best part of a millennium, Haverfordwest castle is still an imposing pile, although but a shell.
Visitors approaching from the east catch their first glimpse as they motor over the crest of Bull Hill, just past the Golf Club, and the view is quite spectacular at night when the caste is floodlit.
The site is believed to have been first fortified in about 1108 when a Fleming named Richard fitzTancred bult a wooden motte and bailey fort there. He was one of the first Flemings introduced to west Wales by the Conqueror’s son, Henry 1st, to bring stability and trade to the far westerly extremities of his new kingdom. The people of the inundated Low Countries were known to be fierce warriors, skilled craftsmen and merchants well suited to the task of subduing the native Welsh and establishing settled government in the area.
The site of the castle was perfect, with views down the Western Cleddau up whose estuary the Vikings had once sailed their longships, and overlooking the highest navigable extremity of the tidal river.
The Tancreds occupied the castle until 1210 when King John evicted the last castellan, Robert fitzRichard, and in 1213 granted the castle and lordship to the great William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. The castle did not escape the wrath of the Welsh Princes and in 1220 Llywelyn the Great attacked the town and, according to historical records “burned it up to the gate of the castle.”
The fact that the castle remained intact suggests that it was already a substantial stone fortress at this time. By 1244 William Marshall and his five sons were dead and the castle passed to the female line and eventually to the last Earl’s granddaughter Eleanor and her husband Humphrey de Bohun. After a brief custody by William de Valence, Humphrey de Bohun 111 was granted the castle again by the King and Humphrey later exhanged it with Queen Eleanor, who had taken a fancy to it.
In the short period until her death in 1290, she spent large sums on the castle which she frequently visited. A little enclave overlooking the town is still known as “Queen Eleanor’s Bower,“ and the present curtain wall and towers appear to date from her ownership.
By the time of the Civil War the castle was in such a state of decay that it was never really defended, and when Cromwell ordered its destruction in 1648, the walls were only breached, the town worthies complaining that they could not afford any more gunpowder.
A County gaol was built in the castle’s inner ward in 1820, a building which some historians described as “an abomination,” The Town Museum is housed in the former Governor’s house and recent moves to turn the Gaol into a boutique hotel were opposed by the town’s Civic Society on the grounds that public access would be denied townsfolk and tourists. That proposal was withdrawn.