CASTLES, Cathedrals, Abbeys and Stately Homes 


Pembroke Castle

Located in Pembrokeshire. Birthplace of Harri Tudor, founder of the Tudor Dynasty.

The unsurpassed strength of this mighty
Norman Castle, sited on a high ridge between two tidal inlets, gave it the distinction of never haven fallen to the Welsh. The strategic position, on a major routeway, was chosen early in the first Norman incursions into south-west Wales, when the castle was founded by Roger of Montgomery in 1093, and it stood firm against Welsh counter-attacks in subsequent years.

Pembroke's strategic importance soon increased, as it was from here that the Normans embarked upon their Irish campaigns. In 1189 the castle came into the hands of William Marshall, who, over the next 30 years transformed the earth-and-timber castle into a mighty stone fortification. First to be built was the inner ward with its magnificent round keep (shown right), deservedly famous for its early date, height of over 22m and remarkable domed roof. The original entrance was on the first floor, approached by an external stair, the present ground-floor entrance being a later insertion. The keep had four floors, connected by a spiral stair which also led to the battlements. The large square holes on the top of the outside were to hold a timber hoard, or fighting platform. When the castle was attacked, the hoard could be erected as an extra defence, outside the battlements but way above the heads of the attackers.

The castle was granted out by the crown with a series of short-lived tenancies, and fell into considerable disrepair. In 1405 Francis Court was hastily given munitions to hold the castle against Owain Glyndwr's uprising. The castle later passed into the hands of Jasper Tewdwr, earl of Pembroke, and was apparently the birthplace of his nephew Henry, later King Henry VII. The room in the Henry VII tower, in which tradition states that the future king was born, is a most unlikely birthplace, and is to be hoped that his mother, the widowed Lady Margaret Beaufort, was given more consideration.

Pembroke declared its support for Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War, but in 1648 the town's mayor, John Poyer, disgruntled at his lack of reward, joined a disaffected group of Roundheads unwilling to be demobilized. Cromwell himself came to besiege the castle which only fell after seven weeks when the water supply was cut off and a train of siege cannon arrived to start a bombardment. After this defiance, Cromwell blew up the barbican and the fronts of all the towers to prevent the castle ever again being used militarily.

The town of Pembroke still retains sections of its defences, which ran south from the Westgate Tower and east from the Northgate Tower. The northern line ran along what is now Millpond Walk. Little survives of the stretch nearer the castle, but further along are some well-preserved sections with crenellations still visible, but blocked by the raising of the walls, when the stair ramps were built along them to give access to the town houses within. A small circular tower on the north-east was originally attached by a now broken stretch of wall to Barnard's Tower, and impressive three-storeyed tower with a forebuilding over its entrance, defended by a bridge pit, portcullis and gate. The roof dome is intact, and the whole structure with its fireplace and lavatory is a strong, almost self-contained defensive unit; this was probably necessary as it was isolated on the north-eastern end of town, almost half a mile from the castle

The wall (inaccessible) continues south from Barnard's Tower to Eastgate which formerly stood over Main Street. The only other surviving sections are a small fragment of a tower on Goose Lane and two small round towers on the south. They stand on a rebuilt piece of town wall, and one has a late summer-house built on top. The southern town walls ran alongside a flat marsh, probably tidal in the 13th century. A fragment of Westgate survives opposite the castle entrance. The town defences, rather thin in comparison with others, are very early and probably date to much the same time as William Marshall's late 12th-century or early 13th-century work on the castle.

Mighty Pembroke Castle impresses by its sheer size and dominance of location. Pembroke is a Norman stronghold dating to the time of William the Conqueror, however most of the present castle dates from the 13th century. Historically, the castle is probably most closely associated with two strong Welsh Marcher Lords, Richard de Clare and William Marshall, the powerful earls of Pembroke. The earl's ruthless suppression of the Welsh population caused great hatred among the local people. Pembroke is also famous as the birthplace of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII. There are on-site exhibitions, including a video, tracing the history of the castle and its owners, as well as an exhibit dedicated to King Henry.


Beaumaris Castle

Located on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales. This unique fortress (built by Edward I) includes a watergate to allow warships to reach the castle at high-tides.

Beaumaris, begun in 1295, was the last and largest of the castles to be built by King Edward I in Wales. Raised on an entirely new site, without earlier buildings to fetter its designer's creative genius, it is possibly the most sophisticated example of medieval military architecture in Britain.

This is undoubtedly the ultimate "concentric" castle, built with an almost geometric symmetry. Conceived as an integral whole, a high inner ring of defenses is surrounded by a lower outer circuit of walls, combining an almost unprecedented level of strength and firepower. Before the age of cannon, the attacker would surely have been faced with an impregnable fortress. Yet, ironically, the work of construction was never fully completed, and the castle saw little action apart from the Civil War in the 17th century.

A castle was almost certainly planned when King Edward visited Anglesey in 1283 and designated the Welsh town of Llanfaes to be its seat of government. At the time, resources were already stretched and any such scheme was postponed. Then, in 1294-95, the Welsh rose in revolt under Madog ap Llywelyn. The rebels were crushed after an arduous winter campaign, and the decision was taken to proceed with a new castle in April 1295. The extent of English power is demonstrated by the fact that the entire native population of Llanfaes was forced to move to a newly established settlement, named Newborough. The castle itself was begun on the "fair marsh," and was given the Norman-French name Beau Mareys. Building progressed at an astonishing speed, with some 2,600 men engaged in the work during the first year.

In sole charge of the operation was Master James of St. George, already with many years of experience in castle-building, both in Wales and on the Continent. Even after 700 years it is not difficult to appreciate the tremendous sophistication in his elaborate design at Beaumaris. The first line of defense was provided by a water-filled moat, some 18ft wide. At the southern end was a tidal dock for shipping, where vessels of 40 tons laden weight could sail right up to the main gate. The dock was protected by the shooting deck on Gunner's Walk.

Across the moat is the low curtain wall of the outer ward, its circuit punctuated by 16 towers and two gates. On the northern side, the Llanfaes gate was probably never completed. The gate next to the sea, on the other hand, preserves evidence of its stout wooden doors and gruesome "murder holes" above. Once through, an attacker would still have to face 11 further obstacles before entering the heart of the castle. These included the barbican, further "murder holes," three portcullises and several sets of doors. If the daunting prospect of the gate-passage proved too much, the would-be attacker caught hesitating between the inner and outer walls could not have survived for long. A rain of heavy crossfire would have poured down from all directions.

The striking thing about the inner ward is its great size. Covering about 3/4 of an acre, it was surrounded by a further six towers and the two great gatehouses. Within, it is clear that there was an intention to provide lavish suites of accommodation. Both gatehouses were planned to have grand arrangements of state rooms at their rear, much as those completed at Harlech. The north gate, on the far side, was only raised as far as its hall level and the projected second storey was never built. Even as it now stands, with its five great window openings, it dominates the courtyard. Another block, of equal size, was planned for the south gate, but this was never to rise further than its footings. Around the edges of the ward further buildings were planned and must have included a hall, kitchens, stables and perhaps a granary. Although there is some evidence of their existence in the face of the curtain wall, it is not certain they were ever completed.

Visitors should not miss the little chapel situated in the tower of that name. It's vaulted ceiling and pointed windows make it one of the highlights of the castle. Also in this tower there is a fascinating exhibition on the "Castles of Edward I in Wales, and this provides much background to the building of Beaumaris itself.

The visitor may well be left wondering why all the lavish accommodation was contemplated. In short, it was to provide the necessary apartments for the king and, if he should marry again, his queen. Moreover, his son, the Prince of Wales was fast approaching marriageable age. Considering the size of both households, plus the need to accommodate royal officers, the constable, and even the sheriff of Anglesey, the scale of these domestic arrangements is put into perspective.

Despite being planned on such a grand scale, by 1298 the funds for building Beaumaris had dried up. The king was increasingly involved with works in Gascony and Scotland. Although there were minor building works in later times, the castle is in many ways a blueprint which was never fully realized

And maybe, if you are as lucky as I was, you will be there at the time of the medieval jousting!



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