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Llansteffan Castle

8m SW of Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire, south Wales

Map link for Llansteffan Castle

Text copyright 1996 by Lise Hull

Photo above copyright 2006 by Bill Damik
Photo below copyright 2002 by Jan Kohl
Other photographs copyright 1994 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

 

 

The village of Llansteffan ("the church of Stephen") is a small but lovely spot, nestled between the sandy shores of the Tywi estuary and the lush green rolling hills of the Welsh countryside. In some respects, it is an unexpected oasis along the coast in West Wales. Located just 8 miles southwest of Carmarthen, the most remarkable monument in the village is its magnificently ruined castle. However, Llansteffan also contains some pretty homes and shops and a pleasant shoreline. The main car park in the village is situated at the foot of a steep-sided hillock, an outstanding base for a fortress such as Llansteffan Castle. To reach the castle, just leave your car in the large lot and make your way to the southern end, where two paths will take you to the castle. But, be sure to note your surroundings - the beaches are wide expanses of bright sands at low tide worked by diligent cockle- gatherers and sun-worshipers; the opposite shore of Ferryside is an attractive sight; and the fish and chip vendors in the car park serve perhaps the most amazing portions you will ever see (your eyes will bulge, as will your stomach!).

Below: the modern entrance to the castle.

Llansteffan Castle stands at the end of what may seem to be a never-ending pathway to the top of the heavens. Do not be daunted by the unsure footing or the grade of the path, for the castle is certainly a prize worth reaching for. While the castle originated in the early 12th century, built by the prolific Norman conquerors of Britain, earlier peoples recognized the strategic value of building atop the hillock. Just before the magnificent gatehouse, today's main access point into the stone castle, the remains of Iron Age earthworks are visible in the bracken and trees that front the castle.

To properly gain an understanding of the castle's design, one must make a complete circuit around the interior. While it is greatly ruined and only a few buildings stand intact to any degree, it is clear that the castle at Llansteffan was once a building with great vitality and architectural sophistication. It is likely that the Norman fortress began as an earth and timber structure, a ringwork, on the site of the upper ward, but nothing remains to support this conjecture. What does remain is a castle that was constructed in two main building phases, now reflected in the distinct upper and lower wards (baileys).

The castle's history was tumultuous for a time, for the structure was prized not only by the Normans but by the rebellious Welsh as well. In 1146, the Welsh princes of Deheubarth captured the castle from the Normans and held Llansteffan for the next 12 years, when the Normans regained control. In 1189, the Welsh again took Llansteffan Castle, under the direction of the powerful Lord Rhys. Shortly thereafter, the castle fell into the hands of the monarchy. Henry II then granted the structure to the Norman de Camville family, who refortified the stronghold and maintained control until 1338. During the intervening years, the Welsh targeted Llansteffan, capturing and burning the fortress in 1215 (in a rebellion led by Llywelyn the Great) and again in 1257, after the English army's devastating defeat at nearby Coed Llathen.

Nevertheless, the de Camvilles kept ownership of the castle despite Welsh attempts to the contrary. Recognizing the vulnerability of timber defenses, the de Camvilles refortified the castle with stonework in 1192, adding two towers and masonry walling which are now ruinous but would have stood on the boundary between the upper and lower baileys. After the 1215 attack by the Welsh, the Norman overlords built the well-preserved Inner Gate and a round tower (the keep), of which only the basal foundations remain.

The initial de Camville building programme incorporated the remains of the original ringwork castle into the smaller, most southerly portion later known as the Upper Ward. Sitting somewhat higher on a slightly raised platform, this "upper" section of the castle is accessible only by crossing the more spacious but less congested lower bailey. Protected on its northernmost face by a ditch and an embankment that have eroded over the years, the Upper Ward would have been a very tidy fortress for the early Norman lords.

Below: view of the inner gate from the upper ward

The most noteworthy building in the Upper Bailey is the well-preserved Inner Gate (shown at left). Once the castle's main entrance, the three- storied rectangular tower was once connected to the curtain wall with a brief length of masonry topped by a wall-walk. The gate clearly was a defensive structure, built without concern for the guards' personal needs for warmth and relief. Windows are lacking and the tower is only lit with narrow arrowslits. The ground floor was heavily defended with a portcullis and double doors, as indicated by the presence of a groove to slide the iron-gate either up or down, and the fittings for the doors to be bolted (drawbar holes). Stairs allowed movement between the levels, with access to the first story only via the wall-walk.

Around the south side of the Upper Ward a sturdy curtain still stands, although its function as an impediment to attack was essentially cosmetic, for this face of the castle drops rapidly to the estuary below! The views from this section of curtain wall are simply superb, and certainly would have allowed the garrison to spot any unsavory characters approaching the castle. Today, when the tide is out, you will more than likely spot characters of a more gentile nature, gathering cockles from the muddy sands before the tide rushes back in to claim the shellfish for its own. (Rumor has it that the tide comes in so quickly that a running person cannot get back to shore before being consumed!)

Other notable structures in the Upper Ward include the castle's well, the foundations of the Round Tower (the castle's keep) and other auxiliary structures (probably including workshops, stables, and a small hall).

After Llywelyn the Last's siege in 1257, the de Camvilles extended the defensive boundaries of their castle, and created what is now known as the Lower Ward. Although this area seems relatively open and vulnerable, it was actually surrounded with some very formidable structures: the Great Gatehouse, two impressive corner towers, a fighting platform (the East Bastion), the Great Hall, and more stalwart curtain walling. The two towers gave added protection to the landward side of the castle, the side also fronted by the Great Gatehouse, the most vulnerable to attack. Now called the West and North Towers, these two structures were built slightly earlier than the Great Gatehouse. The smaller West Tower is D-shaped (normally a characteristically Welsh feature) and quite ruinous today. It may once have provided quarters for the garrison, as well as a lookout point. The three-storied North Tower is also D-shaped and contained additional living quarters, probably used by the lord and his family. It was a luxurious accommodation, with its latrine turret and fireplaces.

Not too far to the east of the North Tower stands the East Bastion. This structure is merely a reinforced portion of the curtain wall, a platform from which the garrison could fire down upon invaders and gain access to an adjacent building, now completely ruined. This decadent structure was most likely the site of the Great Hall, and later superseded by a Barn during the Tudor Era in the late 15th century.

Below: rear view of the great gatehouse at Llansteffan.

Llansteffan Castle's most remarkable building is the monumental Great Gatehouse, initiated in the late 13th century. Situated at a slight angle from the adjoining curtain wall, the three-storied gatehouse is comprised of two massive D-shaped towers, which date to 1280 and were altered many times over the years. Two smaller turrets face inward at the opposite southern end of the gatehouse. The original entry into the gatehouse was blocked some 200 years after its construction, in favor of a much smaller and relatively insignificant opening in the wall to the immediate east.

At first, the Great Gatehouse would have served as an intimidating barrier against siege, a self-sufficient, heavily- defended building which was able to withstand an onslaught of the severest nature. Mechanisms to thwart an attack included two portcullises, heavy double-doors, murder holes, arrowslits, and guardrooms. Ironically, there was no access to the upper levels from the ground floor entrance point, so that, if by some chance the gate passage was blocked by attackers, the soldiers defending the castle were trapped with no means of escape. The upper levels were reached by an entrance on the western side of the gatehouse, at first floor level. Each of the upper levels were well-lit and consisted of a single large chamber. Apparently, the first level, with its elaborate fireplace, would have served as the lord's great hall (as well as the house for the portcullis machinery!). The uppermost story would have functioned as private apartments. The turrets at the southern end enclosed a staircase as well as latrines. During the very late 15th century, major modifications were made to the Great Gatehouse by Jasper Tewdwr, King Henry VII's uncle. These changes were largely decorative and effectively changed the gatehouse from a defensive stronghold to a grand residence, fit for a king.

In 1338, the last male heir of the de Camville family died and their estates passed into the female line, to Robert Penrees. By 1377, the Crown had regained control of Llansteffan Castle, but allowed the Penrees family to continue as custodians. In the early 15th century, the legendary Welsh folkhero, Owain Glyndwr, threatened English sovereignty and Sir John Penrees was ordered by the king to strengthen the castle. Nevertheless, Glyndwr's men captured the fortress at Llansteffan for a short time. Soon, it was back in the hands of the king, and in 1495 Jasper Tewdwr received the castle from his nephew. Surprisingly, despite his grand renovation of the gatehouse, Jasper then allowed the castle to fall into a state of disrepair.

For the next 200 years, Llansteffan Castle continued to be neglected and became a ruin. By the 18th century, the structure had survived as a part of a private farm. With the 19th century wave of romanticism and antiquarian interest in castle ruins, Llansteffan was revitalized, initially as a spot of historic contemplation for tourists, and finally, in the 20th century, as an Ancient Monument. This remarkable castle is now in the care of CADW:Welsh Historic Monuments, which maintains the site in excellent condition, having conserved and preserved the fortress for the future. Amazingly, Llansteffan Castle is open at any reasonable time, and there is no charge for entry.

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. Lise Hull

 

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