Historic Pembrokeshire Castles

By Simon Hancock Pembroke Castle

Historic Castles of Pembrokeshire

It is sometimes said how you cannot travel more than eight miles in any direction in Pembrokeshire without encountering some kind of earthwork, fortified camp, mote and bailey or stone castle. The rich history of Pembrokeshire and endless tides of migration, Celts, Romans, Vikings, Irish, Normans and Flemings have left their mark in a huge variety of defensive structures from ancient times through the Middle Ages. The importance of defence continued through the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, both World Wars and even the Cold War.  There must be very few places with quite so many defensive places as Pembrokeshire. 

Nevertheless the stone castles of the county are perhaps the most well-known and they have become iconic symbols of the great history of Pembrokeshire. Many of these were built on lands conquered from the native Welsh inhabitants by the Norman invaders and intermittent warfare over centuries helps to explain why we have so many stone castles and earthworks. The castles today show both the strength of the fortifications combined with good examples of domestic buildings and most were built from materials found nearby. Those in the south are chiefly constructed of carboniferous limestone which is plentiful in south Pembrokeshire. Some stone was imported like the Bath stone found at Carew while nine different types of stone have been identified in the construction of Haverfordwest Castle.

The major stone castles which exist today, and a number of others have largely vanished over the centuries, are Pembroke, Carew, Manorbier, Tenby, Cilgerran, Llawhaden, Haverfordwest, Newport, Wiston, Picton, Roch, Benton and Upton. There are also several fortified medieval houses and towers. Many of these castles occupy locations close to rivers or the coast or strategically important high ground. The very first castle to be built in the county was at Pembroke, founded by Arnulf de Montgomery in 1093. 

Pembroke Castle

It was originally an earthwork built over a huge natural cave or Wogan on a tidal creek of the mighty Milford Haven waterway. The great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke built the stone castle which we are familiar with today, beginning with the inner ward. The outer ward was defended by a huge twin-towered gatehouse, barbican and several round towers. The greatest feature of Pembroke Castle is the magnificent domed stone keep which is 75 foot high and some 20 foot thick at the base. The castle never fell during the Middle Ages but the advent of gunpowder and siege guns meant that this and other great castles were vulnerable. In 1648 Pembroke Castle fell to the forces of Oliver Cromwell although it took him a full six weeks before the garrison surrendered. Several of the walls were then slighted and the castle was left as a ruin until 1880 when a long-term restoration project was commenced. Even today Pembroke Castle has lost none of its ability to inspire awe in visitors.

One of the other great Pembrokeshire castles can be found just off the A477 at the village of Carew. Standing on a limestone bluff overlooking the Carew inlet, part of a tidal inlet of the Milford Haven waterway the castle perhaps shows better than most the transformation from the medieval castle to a Tudor country house. Founded by Gerald de Windsor on an ancient site in the early twelfth century, Carew was at first defended by ditches and wooden walls before the stone castle began to appear after 1200. Gerald’s son William was the first to use the surname of ‘de Carew.’ It soon became a powerful fortress enclosed by four round towers and is mostly credited to Sir Nicholas de Carew who died in 1311.

Carew Castle

 A number of prominent men owned the castle in the sixteenth century and they changed the nature of the place whereby luxury was perhaps more important than defence. Sir Rhys ap Thomas acquired Carew in 1480 and he put in Bath stone windows and a magnificent great hall. Half a century later Sir John Perrot built the Elizabethan galley which stretched 150 foot and had huge mullioned windows. Carew Castle was abandoned in around 1686 and over the past 30 years it has been sensitively restored by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority who have leased the castle from its owners, direct descendants of the original builder Gerald de Windsor.

The third major castle in south Pembrokeshire is at Manorbier, the birthplace of Gerald of Wales, the greatest medieval Welsh chronicler. The castle overlooks the beach and was founded in the early twelfth century by the Anglo-Norman de Barri family. One of their tombs can be seen in the nearby church of St. James. The castle has a rectangular enclosure with round and square towers while the main entrance leading to the inner ward was defended by a portcullis. Manorbier is an unspoilt castle with well-preserved domestic buildings including kitchens and the great hall. Manorbier was only attacked twice in its 800-year history, the last time being during the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

Manorbier Castle

Many of the other castles of Pembrokeshire are much less well preserved. At Haverfordwest the thirteenth-century castle walls of the inner ward, built by Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, stand impressively on a sandstone knoll. Very little else of this once mighty fortress survives since the site was used as a quarry for over 200 years. Tenby Castle stands on the hill which bears its name and in its time was defended by a curtain wall, gateway and several towers. Only fragments survive today. Roch Castle was built on a rocky outcrop in the twelfth century by the Norman knight Adam de Rupe and today houses a very high-quality hotel.

Haverfordwest Castle

Some castles were not built by nobles or royalty. Llawhaden Castle occupies an impressive site overlooking the River Cleddau and was built by the Bishops of St. David’s especially Bishop Adam de Houghton during 1362-89. Some castles have a very limited known history. Benton Castle appears as a white tower rising out of woodland on the eastern bank of the Milford Haven waterway. It was probably built during the reign of King Henry III and was held by Thomas de Roche, the lord of Llangwm.  Picton Castle, several miles from Haverfordwest is steeped in history. The Philipps family who lived there were some of the greatest landowners and politicians in the history of Pembrokeshire. The castle was remodeled from a medieval castle by several owners and today the popular site is an important visitor attraction with outstanding gardens.

North Pembrokeshire has several fascinating castles, especially at Cilgerran which overlooks the Teifi and has two massive round towers. Newport, founded in around 1191 by the first Lord Marcher of Kemes stands on a high point and is today a private residence. Other minor castles have been ruins for centuries and indeed several have disappeared completely. Yet within their stones and lime mortar they hold the very DNA of Pembrokeshire’s history.

Newport Castle

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Categories:Environment, History, Pembrokeshire



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