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Llawhaden Castle

10m E of Havorfordwest, Pembrokeshire, south Wales

Map link for Llawhaden Castle

Copyright 1998 by Lise Hull

illiam the Conqueror not only brought feudalism to his new kingdom. He also invited various religious communities to establish themselves in Britain. Cistercians, Benedictines, Premonstratensians, Carthusians, and other monastic groups made their way across the English Channel and built beautiful abbeys and priories, many of which are now in ruin. In many ways, however, the leaders of the various orders had much the same power as the lords of the realm. And, with that power came wealth and the ability to build palaces.

Among the most powerful clerics in the medieval realm were the Bishops of St. David's. These men supplanted the native Welsh religious sects in the early 12th century and ruled the See of St. David's in support of the Norman king. Owning vast estates, they lived in grandeur comparable to that of their secular counterparts. Great bishops palaces were erected in St. David's, Lamphey, and Llawhaden. They also owned "inns", or great houses, in London and in Ludlow, where the Council of Wales and the Marches took place. Minor residences also existed in Llanddewi, Llandygwydd, New Moat, Trefin, and Wolfscastle. While none of the smaller houses has survived, the three great palaces remain in splendid ruin, currently under the care of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Men with great power often needed a sturdy residence to defend themselves. The Bishops of St. David's were no exceptions. In many ways, a bishop's palace was his castle. Like a castle, the palace contained quarters for a garrison and servants, a domestic wing with the hall, kitchen and service rooms, and the bishop's luxurious private apartments. Oftentimes, the structure was fortified with battlements, an encircling curtain wall or deep moat, and a gatehouse. Generally however, the palaces were not as heavily fortified as a real castle. Only one of the three palaces of the Bishops of St. David's resembled a true castle. That castle still towers high above the valleys of Pembrokeshire. That castle is Llawhaden.

Below: the 13th-century gatehouse at Llawhaden Castle.

Llawhaden Castle is located about 8 miles east of Haverfordwest, just off the A40. Bounded by hedgerows, the narrow approach road into Llawhaden gives no hint that the great bishops once took refuge here. Even the village itself, quiet and rather secluded, hides the splendor of its medieval past. The bishop's castle takes a little effort to locate, but the short stroll from the car park is a nice surprise, lined with pretty flowers and charming homes. The name of the village and its castle, Llawhaden, apparently derives from Llanhuadain or Llanaedan, "the Church of St. Aidan" (which still stands to the east of the castle).

Most likely, Llawhaden began as an earth and timber castle in the 12th century, the prize of the Norman Bishop Bernard. Over time, Llawhaden underwent several alterations as different bishops left their mark. Like many castles, this one sat high atop a hill. Like many castles, a deep ditch and earthen embankment formed the earliest outer defenses. They still give the castle a sense of power. And, like many earth and timber castles, the defenses were refortified with stone, in this case, in response to a siege led by the Welshman, the Lord Rhys, in the late 12th century.

In the 13th century, Bishop Thomas Bek (1280-93) made arguably the greatest impact at Llawhaden, when he established and expanded the village. Bek's work at the castle includes the complex hall block, with its kitchen and service rooms (buttery and pantry) and stone-vaulted undercrofts, and the bishop's elaborately adorned chambers above (complete with latrines!). Today, this sector of the castle is largely ruined, but still radiates the prestige of its occupant.

During the next century, the bishops added the twin-towered gatehouse, the most impressive structure at Llawhaden Castle. Looming directly over the dry ditch, its foreboding face would have intimidated anyone seeking entry. Although the exterior has been well preserved, the interior of the gatehouse is now disappointingly decayed.

At the same time, a fine range of domestic buildings was added on the southern side of the castle. Some rooms served as apartments and contained fireplaces and private latrines. At the eastern sat the chapel, which still contains lovely arched windows, a cruciform ceiling, and plasterwork. The chapel tower next to the chapel was even more elaborate, with a fireplace, a latrine, vaulted rooms, and access to the battlements. Ironically, the dungeon was located In the basement of the chapel tower.

     

The most distinguishing feature of this wing is a five-storied tower-porch, which can still be climbed and towers high above the other structures inside the castle. Clearly, this unique structure not only functioned as an observation tower, but also announced (albeit silently!) the bishop's superior status.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the roles of the Bishops of St. David's changed dramatically. Their palaces in West Wales fell into ruin and they abandoned their great castle at Llawhaden. Later, Llawhaden Castle became a quarry for local building material, degrading the structure even farther.

Imposing Llawhaden Castle sits aloof yet intimately connected to the nearby village. The neighboring countryside, so typically Welsh, is a resplendent and undulating green, painted with rugged patches of trees and velvety pasturelands. The grey stone castle is a haunting contrast to its vivid surroundings, recalling the eventful history and splendor of the Bishops of St. David's.

 

Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.

 

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