Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links

Nevern Castle

Welsh Name: Nanhyfer Castle

1m from Newport, Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales

Map link for Nevern Castle

Text copyright 1996 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright 2004 by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Drawing of Nevern Castle copyright by John Northall

After viewing this page follow this link to learn about the exciting new excavation project at historic Nevern Castle!

Above: the overgrown motte at Nevern viewed from the bailey.
Below: John Northall's drawing of how Nevern may have appeared in the 12th century.

est Wales is a region replete with historic and prehistoric phenomena. Yet, most visitors travel to the better advertised sites in the north, and either miss West Wales (Pembrokeshire) altogether or visit the main towns, like St. David's (with its wonderful cathedral and bishop's palace, Celtic sites and coastline), Pembroke (to see the magnificent castle with its astounding round keep and intricately towered curtain wall), or Tenby (a scenic resort with much to offer: beautiful beaches, extensive medieval town walls, pretty harbor and lifeboat station). Who can blame the visitor? These are all sites of importance and should not be missed. But there are other riches in West Wales most worthy of discovery.

Nevern is one of these riches. A tiny village off the main A487 between Fishguard and Cardigan, Nevern has ancient origins and offers many sites of interest. It is a charming village best known for its impressive church as well as its location along the pilgrimage route to St. David's (three pilgrimages to St. David's were once considered the equivalent of one journey to Rome). The parish Church of St. Brynach traces its origins back to the Celtic Christians and contains 6th century engraved stones (one is carved with Latin and Ogham writing); the churchyard is the site of an enormous Celtic cross (below) and a legendary bleeding yew tree. Nearby, the pathway to St. David's is marked by a fine cross cut into a rock - at its base is a stone with impressions said to be worn down by the knees of the pious.

 

Below: view of the parish Church of St. Brynach and the Nevern Cross.

 

 

A fine motte and bailey castle may be located by climbing the short but winding road that continues up the hillside beyond the pilgrims' route. Also known as Nanhyfer, the castle was originally a native Welsh stronghold, but was seized in the early 12th century by the Norman Robert Fitzmartin, lord of Cemmaes. Fitzmartin strengthened the castle and created a double-motted structure. Later that century the Welsh Lord Rhys promised peace with the Fitzmartins upon the marriage of his daughter, Angharad, to William Fitzmartin (Robert's grandson), but that peace was short-lived. In 1191, the Lord Rhys stormed the castle at Nanhyfer and turned it over to his son, Maelgwyn. The Fitzmartins, in turn, moved about 2 1/2 miles to the southwest and built another, greater castle at Newport (remnants of which have been incorporated into a fine residence).

 

Below: the modern entrance to the castle

 

Ironically, in 1194 the Lord Rhys was made a prisoner at Nevern Castle, by his own sons, Maelgwyn and Hywel Sais. Shortly thereafter, Hywel reconsidered his actions and released his father. The following year, the Lord Rhys captured his other two equally rebellious sons, Rhys Gryg and Mareddud, and imprisoned them at the castle at Ystrad Meurig. After 1197, the descendants of the Welsh lord abandoned Nevern Castle and the stronghold fell into ruin.

Today, Nevern Castle towers well above the surrounding countryside, still defended on its southeastern side by a steep gorge carved by the narrow River Gamman. The small river also served as the castle's main water supply and the link to the River Nevern which flowed into the farther reaches of Pembrokeshire. Initially camouflaged by bracken and trees, the site gives the visitor the impression of insignificance. However, once entering the grounds of Nevern Castle, its enormity becomes immediately apparent. The large bailey is triangular and was defended by a set of double earthen ramparts (perhaps the remains of an earlier Iron Age hillfort). A broad area, the bailey easily would have held the garrison, livestock and several timber structures.

 

Below: closer view of the overgrown motte.

 

At the western end of the bailey is the massive motte, now obscured by a small grove of trees. The earthen mound once dominated the site and would have offered a clear view of the countryside as well as the activities in the bailey. At the opposite side of the bailey is a smaller mound, a second motte created by modifying a natural rocky hillock during the late 12th century. A deep ditch separates the mound from the bailey and was probably crossed by a wooden bridge, most likely at the site of the modern footbridge. This secondary motte is topped by shaley sheets of rock, and it is difficult to distinguish what is natural from what was modified when the site was inhabited.

 

Below: view of the "second motte" at nevern which features the site's only visible masonry.

 

 

 

A walk around the entire circuit of the double-motted castle presents the explorer with the opportunity to visualize life in a typical Norman/Welsh castle of the 12th to 13th century. Certainly, life was harsh, fairly isolated, and had few luxuries. The bailey would have been the hub of activity, quite noisy with busy workshops and livestock, and atop each motte would have stood timber towers (perhaps later fortified in stone) which held living quarters for the lord and his household and observation posts for the guard on duty. Today, Nevern Castle is a quiet, peaceful site, and remains a fine example of a primitive stronghold, one of many fortifications employed by William the Conqueror to subjugate his new kingdom after the Norman Invasion.

Nevern Castle, the Church of St. Brynach, and the pilgrimage route through the village are freely accessible. Parking is limited, but available at the castle and the church. The climb from the church is exhilarating and worth the extra effort. There is a nice public house as well.

 

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.

 

Additional photographs of Nevern Castle

 

Additional view of the motte taken from the bailey.

 

View of the bailey at Nevern Castle.
Note the high bank connecting to the motte at the far right of the photograph.

 

View of the top of the bank leading to the summit of the motte.

 

Approaching the summit of the motte.

 

The summit of the motte

 

View of the steep-sided motte leading down to the stream below

 

A rock-cut ditch protects the bailey and divides the two mottes at Nevern.

 

Additional views of the rock-cut ditch.

 

 

 

Follow this link to learn about the exciting new excavation project at historic Nevern Castle!
Follow this link for more information about the Nevern Cross and the Church of St. Brynach
Visit the Castles of Britain Web Site

Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links

Copyright 2009 by Lise Hull, John Northall, Jeffrey L. Thomas and the Castles of Wales Website