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Pembroke Castle

In the town of Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales
Map link for Pembroke Castle

Photographs copyright by Irma Hale

Above: the Outer Gate & Barbican at Pembroke Castle

King 1978; King & Cheshire 1982

he 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.

Below: Northeast view showing Great Gatehouse (L), Northgate Tower, St. Ann's Bastion, Hall Block (R)

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 Marshal, 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.

Below: the Great Gatehouse viewed from the Outer Ward

Enclosing the keep was the inner ward curtain wall, to the south-west stood the large horseshoe-shaped gate, which only survives at footings level, and to the east was a strong round tower with a basement prison. Only a thin wall was required along the cliff edge; it had a small observation turret at the point and the square stone platform on the north supported a huge medieval catapult for defence against attack from the sea. The domestic buildings on the west and east of the inner ward included William Marshal's hall and private apartments. These were improved and further buildings added in the later 13th century, when the new Great Hall was built with a towering mass of walling projecting over its south-east corner to enclose the mouth of a large cavern in the rock below, which may have served as a boathouse. At the same period, a large single-storey building was added near the keep to serve as the county court. By this time, the castle had passed to the de Valence family; the Hastings family then held it from 1324 to 1389, after which the castle passed into the hands of the crown.

Below: the Westgate Tower & Wall Walk (left) and the Wall Walk between Northgate Tower & St. Ann's Bastion, with Hall Block in the distance (right).

   

Much of the building work in the outer ward may also belong to the early 13th-century work of William Marshal, and the main plan of the present defences remains as originally constructed. However, the apparently almost perfect preservation of this work is largely an illusion, as there was at the castle a systematic programme of restoration in the 19th and early 20th century.

Below: William Marshal's Great Tower (left) viewed from the wall walk.

The fine series of round towers, the north-east bastion and the remarkable gatehouse on the south made the defences of the outer ward well-nigh impregnable. There were postern gates on either side, defended by the St Ann Bastion and Monkton Tower respectively, but the main gatehouse, with its two portcullises, stout doors, three machicolations, or murder holes, in the vaulting and its series of arrowslits, is one of the finest and earliest of its kind. The western Bygate Tower has a prison in its basement, then each gate tower has a ground and two upper floors reached by stairs spiralling in opposite directions. Doors lead from the upper rooms on to the wall walk. The gatehouse is in essence a double-towered gate, with one of the towers moved along the curtain wall to clear the oblique entrance approach; its outer part is further defended by a fine semicircular barbican.

Below: interior ruins of the Old Norman Hall at Pembroke Castle.

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.

Below: the Wogan Cavern at Pembroke Castle.

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

Below: Henry VII Tower (center) & Bygate Tower (right) as viewed from the Great Tower.

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 Marshal's late 12th-century or early 13th-century work on the castle.


Jeff Thomas 1994

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 Marshal, 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.

We entered the castle through the mighty gatehouse tower and were immediately impressed by its size. Pembroke's high curtain wall is connected by a series of well-preserved towers. The castle's towers and walls are complete due to extensive restoration efforts. The central courtyard is a huge space of green grass and park benches, dominating the center of the castle. To illustrate just how big the courtyard is, consider that all of Harlech Castle could probably fit neatly into Pembroke's courtyard!

Below: the Wall Walk between Henry VII Tower (near) and Westgate Tower (far).

Climbing to the top of Pembroke's towers allows visitors to walk sections of the wall. Although the Henry Tower, named after King Henry VII, and Northern Hall are impressive, complete structures, it's William Marshal's massive Keep that dominates Pembroke Castle. The Keep was built by Marshal in 1200 and was the last place of refuge for soldiers defending the castle. The walls are 19 feet thick at the base of the keep, and rise to 75 feet in height, crowned with a stone dome, set as a centerpiece in a triple crown of parapet and turret. The Keep is roughly twice the size of Conwy's impressive towers. Having seen over two dozen Welsh and English castles in the last two years, I can think of no one castle structure more impressive that William Marshal's great Keep at Pembroke. The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of the Keep highlights the tremendous defensive position enjoyed by the castle, which dominates the landscape from all approaches. Although it was the longest and most difficult climb of the vacation, the view from the top of the Keep more than justified the effort!

 


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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas