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Carew Castle

3m E of Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, south Wales
SN 047 038

Map link for Carew Castle

Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: Sir John Perrot's North Range at Carew Castle viewed from across the mill pond.

King and Perks 1962; Official Guidebook

Carew Castle is justly celebrated as one of the most magnificent castles of south Wales. Its position is low-lying, but still prominent in the flat land around the tidal reaches of the Carew river. The castle stands at the end of a ridge at a strategically excellent site commanding a crossing point of the then-still navigable river.

The modern entrance to the castle is from the east, following the medieval route through the bailey, within which lie low grassy footings of the later medieval service buildings. These were protected by a gatehouse, a wall and a massive rock-cut ditch. Excavations have shown that this ditch was in fact a recut of a much earlier one, dug as part of a defensive system cutting off the ridge in pre-Norman, perhaps Iron Age times.

Below: the modern entrance to the castle.

Little now remains of the earth and timber castle that was built here by the Norman Gerald of Windsor around 1100. It is first mentioned in 1212, when for some reason, King John seized it for a short time when passing through Pembroke on his Irish expedition. By this time it is probable that the first stone structure, the Old Tower, had been built to protect the original castle entrance. The castle remained in the hands of the influential Carew family who built, in various phases, the strong medieval castle that stands today. Its history, however, was without major incident until about 1480, when Sir Edmund Carew disposed of it to Rhys ap Thomas. Rhys, basking in the gratitude of King Henry VII for the support he had given him after his landing at Milford Haven, was able to spend significant sums on the castle, and set about converting it into a home worthy of an influential Tudor gentleman. It was he who built the gatehouse which leads from the bailey into the outer ward of the castle.

From this small, square gatehouse, there is a fine view of the outside of the inner ward. The early 13th-century 'Old Tower' is abutted on the north by the late 13th-century hall and polygonal, projecting chapel tower; the rounded end of the Elizabethan wing lies beyond on the north corner. To the south lie the early 14th-century gatehouse and the late 13th-century south-east tower. Rhys ap Thomas later heightened some parts and much of the battlemented top is in fact his rather less-than-serious military work. The main gate to the inner ward is surprisingly unsophisticated; only an outer door, five murder holes in the vault above, an inner door with no less than three bar-holes and a portcullis.

Below: exterior view of the chapel tower and Perrot's north range from the outer ward


The castle in the late 13th and early 14th century was in the hands of Sir Nicholas de Carew, who constructed many of the stone buildings which surround the small, compact inner ward. On the east (right) side is the ruinous three-storey tower in the corner which may have been balanced by a similar tower on the north-east, removed by a later Tudor wing. The early first-floor hall, built over a vaulted basement, and a fine projecting chapel tower, still stand intact. The fine windows on this courtyard side and the ornate fireplace inside the hall are the work of Sir Rhys ap Thomas. The chapel was housed on the first floor of the semi-octagonal chapel tower and has an attractive cross-ribbed vaulted ceiling, and a piscina and an aumbry (cupboard) on either side of the east window. Above the chapel was a private room.


The curtain wall on the south side was slighted after the Civil War and much of the present wall is modern. The early 14th-century western range consists of the Great Hall and two projecting towers, one at each corner. The Great Hall occupied the full length of the building at first-floor level over vaulted ground-floor storage rooms, which are now ruinous and open to the sky. The hall had a minstrels' gallery on the south, a fine series of windows and two fireplaces. Rhys ap Thomas confined his additions here to the oriel window on the north, and, on the south, the rich three-storied porch over the steps which lead into the hall. On the porch are the arms of Henry VII, of Arthur, prince of Wales, and of Arthur's wife, Catherine of Aragon, (right) probably put there as a courtesy to the royal family who attended a great tournament held by Rhys at the castle in 1507. This splendid and costly event was undoubtedly one of the most lavish entertainments in the history of Wales.


The magnificent north wing was the last major addition to the castle. It was built by Sir John Perrot, to whom the castle was granted by the crown in 1558 after the downfall of Rhys ap Thomas's descendants. The building necessitated the destruction of the north-east tower and the northern curtain wall. The range consisted of five great rooms, the second floor being occupied by an enormous long gallery over 40m in length. The facade of the building is typically Elizabethan with two rows of great rectangular mullioned and transomed windows and two big oriel windows supported the massive tower-like semi-circular bases, Magnificent though it was, the building was not occupied for long. Sir John was convicted for treason in 1592 and died (of natural causes) in the Tower (of London). Thereafter the castle was let out to tenants, who probably found the great mansion too expensive to maintain, and the castle was abandoned about 1686.

Below: Perrot's north range viewed from the inner ward.

During the Civil War the castle was refortified and the angular 'redan' for guns still survives as a low, grassy bank immediately outside the middle gatehouse. It is worth walking outside the castle to see the two early 14th-century drum towers on the north and south-west corners with their massive spurred bases. From the north, across the bridge, look back at the castle's ornate Elizabethan range with its extraordinary expanse of windows. Carew bridge is also very fine and the early tidal mill and millpond and the magnificent early medieval cross contribute to the memorable setting.


Jeffrey L. Thomas

I knew Carew Castle was going to be one of the highlights of our 1994 trip to Wales. Conwy, Raglan, and Carew are all special in their own different ways, more captivating than other Welsh castles we visited. Carew Castle is described by many as the "most handsome in all South Wales," and is also the site of the ancient Carew Cross. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect day for our visit to Carew. We enjoyed blue sky with only a few clouds, on a busy day that included trips to Picton Castle, Carew Castle, Manorbier Castle, Lamphey's Bishop's Palace, and mighty Pembroke Castle. Of the five sites, Carew and Manorbier stand apart, but for different reasons. The 11th century Carew Cross (shown below) is one of three fine early Christian monuments found in Wales - the others being at Nevern and Maen Achwyfan. The cross stands majestically guarding the entrance to Carew Castle. Its mixture of Celtic and Scandinavian influences harken back to pre-Norman Wales, when the country was ruled by powerful, independent princes. The cross is inlaid with fine Celtic knot-work and interlaced ribbon pattern, its two sides displaying different variations. After years of controversy, the crude inscription on the cross was finally translated in the 1940s. The cross is a royal memorial commemorating Maredudd ap Edwin, who became joint ruler with his brother of Duheubarth, the kingdom of Southwest Wales, in 1033, only to be killed in battle two years later.




Below: view of the lesser hall from the inner ward.

At first glance, there is nothing special about Carew Castle. The present structure was begun in the 13th century by Sir Nicholas de Carew, a high ranking officer and frequent campaigner in Ireland. Carew's three towers, the massive west front and the Chapel, were probably built by Sir Nicholas. Historically though, the castle is probably most closely associated with Sir Rhys ap Thomas, (1449-1525), the flamboyant and controversial Welsh military leader, who inherited the estates of Dinefwr, including Carew, on his father's death. Thomas was the definition of Welsh chivalry. A brave lord and knight, fierce in battle and love, he played a major role in Henry Tudor's victory over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a turning point in British history. Rhys was knighted on the battlefield and made Governor of Wales, by the now King Henry VII. By the time the Tudor's came to power though, the age of chivalry was drawing quickly to a close. The last great Welsh tournament of knights was staged by Thomas at Carew in 1507. Spread over five days, the tournament drew over six hundred knights and retainers, with Rhys presiding over and judging the various contests. The sight was a marvel to behold. Chroniclers of the time wrote how the tournament was still the topic of conversation years after its conclusion.

Below: the 1507 great tournament held at Carew Castle is depicted in modern tapestry that hangs in the lesser hall.

The castle was remodeled by Sir John Perrot during the Tudor period, and it is his styling that transformed the Welsh fortress into a showcase of beauty and elegance. Perrot, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII, embarked on the great rebuilding of the north front of the castle, including the Long Gallery, famous for its graceful Tudor-style windows. The interior of Carew retains a surprising amount of detail. Henry Tudor's crest is featured above the carved fireplace in the Lesser Hall, and coats of arms adorn the entrance to the Great Hall. An elegant three-storied porch, once with twenty-three steps, made for a grand entrance into the Hall. The most striking interior view is from the courtyard into Perrot's "North Range," a structure over 150 feet long with its rows of mullioned Tudor windows. The striking north front, exhibiting exterior views of Carew's famous windows, is the view most often associated with the castle. A winding path around the castle grounds leads to an 18th century mill and exhibit. The pathway with it's park and picnic tables, offers the best views of Carew's north front surrounded by its grazing flocks of sheep.

Below: interior & exerior views of Perrot's north range at Carew.

On the day we visited, there were costumed guides present providing information on the castle's history. We were also joined by a group of Welsh school children, anxious to be turned loose in the wide-open spaces of the castle. We left the castle, buying a 19th century print of Carew at the giftshop, and headed toward the mill. After touring the mill, we stopped in for morning tea at a cozy B&B next to the mill. The flowers in the garden created the perfect foreground for the castle now off in the distance. We then began our leisurely walk back to the car, stopping a couple of times to again take in that breathtaking north front view. A pair of binoculars allowed us to closely study the exterior details of Perrot's Tudor masterpiece. We finally tore ourselves away and headed back to the car, leaving Carew, knowing we had indeed just finished viewing the most handsome castle in southwest Wales. Carew is a place we'll never forget, making our return inevitable.

The Celtic Fort at Carew

From the official guidebook for Carew Castle

Recent archaeological excavations have shown that Carew was the site of a major fortification long before the Normans came to Wales.

Archaeologists have found the remains of five, possible six defensive ditches to the east of the present castle. The ditches, in parallel lines, were cut into the underlying rock and would have had ramparts of stone and earth behind them. There are also traces of a gate passage, and post-holes suggesting a gateway.

The outline of one of the ditches is just visible in the grass in the castle’s outer ward, but the centre of the fort must lie underneath the middle and inner wards and has not yet been excavated.

There is no way of putting an exact date on these ditches and ramparts, but this kind of defensive structure is characteristic of the Iron Age Celts, who dominated Britain from the 8th century BC to the 1st century AD.

The oldest objects found during the excavations were pottery and brooches from the Roman period (1st-5th centuries AD). Other objects from the 6th and 7th centuries, together with radiocarbon dates obtained from organic material, suggest that the site was continuously occupied up to Norman times. Only then were the ramparts flattened and the ditched filled in.

These discoveries pose intriguing questions about Carew before the Normans. Whose fort was it, and why was it so important? The 11th-century Carew Cross, standing to the east of the castle beside the main road, may provide a vital clue. On a small panel half-way down one side is carved the name of Maredudd ap Edwin, joint ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth until his death in 1035.

If the cross is a memorial stone, then Carew may have been a royal residence of this ancient Celtic kingdom. This would explain why, when Princess Nest - granddaughter of the last king of Deheubarth - married the Anglo-Norman lord Gerald de Windsor, her dowry included the fort and lands of Carew.

Against this background, Gerald’s decision to flatten the old defences and build his own castle on this spot takes on a new political significance. It was a display of Norman authority which, at the same time, harnessed many centuries of Celtic tradition.


Additional photos of Carew Castle
Information on recent excavations at Carew Castle

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas