Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links
Off the A40 7m SW of Monmouth, Gwent, southeast Wales
Map link for Raglan Castle
Photographs Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Above: the ornate gatehouse at Raglan Castle.
Below: the Great Tower at Raglan viewed from near the gatehouse.
Jeff Thomas 1994
How does one begin to describe the handsome majesty that is Raglan Castle? Raglan, with its great multi-angular towers and Tudor-styling, is unlike any other castle in Wales. There were only three times during our vacation, when visiting a site, I said to myself, "this is why we came to Wales." The first time was while viewing Conwy Castle from the spur wall near the Quay. The second was upon seeing the cathedral and Bishop's Palace at St. Davids, and the last was while standing in front of the double-towered gatehouse at Raglan.
The main stone used in construction of the castle is sandstone, but of two different types. The 15th century castle is characterized by pale, almost yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the Wye river, three miles away. The other sandstone is local Old Red Sandstone, red, brown or purplish in color, used in the Tudor work. A paler stone was also used in the fireplaces. From a distance, Raglan seemed to have a reddish cast, although on approaching the gatehouse, the castle's yellow sandstone becomes obvious.
The castle is probably most closely associated with William ap Thomas, who fought with King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In 1426, ap Thomas was knighted by Henry VI, becoming known to his compatriots as "the blue knight of Gwent." Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was the next owner of the castle, and it is Herbert who is responsible for Raglan's distinctive Tudor-styling. The castle was also the boyhood home of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII. As a boy he bided his time at Raglan, while his uncle Jasper agitated a Lancastrian return to the throne in the person of young Henry.
Both William ap Thomas and William Herbert fought in France, and undoubtedly, the castles that they saw in that country influenced their work at Raglan. The elaborately decorated polygonal keep, as well as the double-drawbridge arrangement of the keep, unique in Britain, demonstrate French influence. In 1492, Elizabeth Herbert married Sir Charles Somerset, a natural son of Henry Beaufort, third duke of Somerset, and it is to the Somerset family as earls of Worcester that we owe the final architectural touches of the castle.
On approaching the gatehouse, we passed Raglan's Great Tower, surrounded by its apron wall and beautiful moat. Pink wildflowers spring from the apron wall, creating an unforgettable image. The wall has six corner turrets, one of which has a postern door to the moat. The Great Tower, known as "The Yellow Tower of Gwent," is the most striking feature at Raglan. It was begun by Sir William ap Thomas and was designed very much in contemporary French style. Unfortunately, the tower was largely destroyed by Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War. The tower and moat are outside the main body of the castle. The Great Gate leading to the Pitched Stone Court lies next to The Great Tower. It was raised by Sir William Herbert, and served as the main entrance to the castle after 1460, however, we chose to continue surveying The Great Tower from the outside, via the park surrounding the moat, finally entering the castle from the South Gate.
Through the South Gate, we entered the main Apartments. The porch and Grand Stair lead to the apartments in the Fountain Court. The Grand Stair reminded us of a similar structure at Carew Castle. The two most impressive rooms at Raglan are The Hall and Long Gallery. The hall is the finest and most complete of the castle's surviving apartments. A plaque over the dais in the hall bears the distinctive arms of the third earl of Worcester, as Knight of the Garter. Viewing the Great Tower from the apartments, we saw a finely carved shield and badge over the first floor chamber, a good example of the castle's surviving detail. The Long Gallery has been called one of the finest rooms of Tudor rebuilding in Britain. Once a showcase of Tudor elegance, the gallery contained handsome paintings, tapestries and sculptures. During this time, Raglan was one of Britain's social centers. Important guests were entertained until the early hours of the morning. The gallery had a series of windows overlooking the Fountain Court, and an ornate Renaissance fireplace. The remains of the fireplace, clearly showing two carved human figures, are a major highlight of the castle.
Re-entering the castle through the Great Gate, we entered the Pitched Stone Court, a large cobblestone area. Standing at the end of the court gives a magnificent view of the rear of the gatehouse and the Attic. The Attic, with its stunning Tudor-style windows, housed another gallery running along the rear of the gatehouse range. The building once held the castle's extensive library, which was also destroyed by Cromwell's soldiers. The wonderful thing about Raglan is that there are so many parts of the castle retaining detail and beauty, that you could spend an hour or so just admiring the beauty of any one area. A green park with benches surrounds most of the castle, giving visitors the chance to sit and contemplate the magnificence before them. There are several on-site exhibits explaining the history of the castle, and an extensive giftshop is planned for the future.
We could have easily spent a half day at Raglan, to properly survey the castle. By the time we finished looking at the exhibit rooms, it was late afternoon and time to find lodging for the night. Still, I had to take just one more walk around the moat and Great Tower. I used the excuse that I had not yet seen the back of the castle to prolong our stay. As I took my final walk around the moat, my eyes were fixed on the castle, not on the ground before me. I knew it would be quite some time before I'd experience a site such as this, and I wanted to burn this view of the castle into my memory forever. I was probably lucky I didn't fall into the moat! Raglan was like a fairy tale castle I was afraid would disappear if I looked away. Carew had its aspects of beauty, but stately Raglan is a handsome, unique structure in every detail. I knew that our trip to Raglan would be a highlight of the trip, but if I had known just how magnificent the site was, I would have certainly set aside more time than the two hours we were there. If you ever travel to south Wales, make seeing Raglan Castle your number one priority. If necessary, drop all other plans, just don't miss seeing Raglan! Once you visit this wonder of medieval architecture, you'll understand why.
Follow this link to view of drawing of 17th-century Raglan Castle.
Raglan, stately and handsome, is perhaps deceptive. The might of its angular towers bears comparison with the great castles of Edward I, and suggests its origins lay in the bitter conflicts of the later 13th century. In face it belongs mainly to the 15th century, and was as much a product of social aspiration as it was of military necessity.
It was begun by Sir William ap Thomas, a veteran of the French wars, who grew wealthy through exploiting his position as a local agent of the duke of York in south-east Wales. About 1435 he began building the Great Tower, subsequently known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent, probably on the site of a much earlier Norman motte-and-bailey castle. Surrounded by a water-filled moat, the unusual hexagonal plan of the tower, together with its elaborate drawbridge arrangements, are more easily paralleled in France than in Britain. Within, there was a single large room to each floor, and the entire structure echoed the power and influence of its builder.
Following ap Thomas's death he was succeeded by his son William Herbert who continued to develop Raglan. As a prominent Yorkist, he played a major role in securing the throne for Edward IV in 1461, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Raglan. Eventually rising to earl of Pembroke, his political career is reflected in his sumptuous building. Under Herbert, Raglan became a veritable palace, unmatched in the 15th century southern March. He added the great gatehouse, the Pitched Stone Court and also rebuilt the Fountain Court with a series of formal state apartments for himself and his household. All of these repay careful examination. Notice, for example, the circular gun ports in the lower part of the gatehouse. The great kitchen lay in the tower at the corner of the Pitched Stone Court, and its huge ovens and fireplaces remain.
Herbert was beheaded following his defeat at the battle of Edgecote in 1469, and there were no further major alterations to Raglan until the ownership of William Somerset, earl of Worcester (1548-89). In the main, he was responsible for extensive changes to the hall, which remains the finest and most complete of all apartments in the castle. The huge fireplace survives, as does the tracery of the beautiful windows. These were once filled with heraldic glass, and the roof was built of Irish oak. Earl William also added the long gallery, without which no great Elizabethan house was complete.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Raglan was garrisoned for the king. Henry, the new earl, and later marquess of Worcester, poured his fortune into the royal cause. By 1646 the castle was under siege, one of the longest of the Civil War. It was pounded by heavy artillery under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, and finally the elderly marquess was forced to surrender.
The fall of Raglan virtually marked the end of the Civil War, and Cromwell's demolition engineers were soon at work reducing the great walls. However, the strength of the Great Tower was almost great enough to defy them. Only after 'tedious battering the top thereof with pickaxes', did they eventually undermine the walls and two of its six sides were brought crashing down in a mass of falling masonry.
For additional information and photographs take our Virtual Tour of Raglan Castle!
Below: view of the surviving half of the White Gate, one of the last additions to the castle.
Below: view of the Porch leading to the Hall taken from the Pitched Stone Court.
Below: the oriel window in Raglan's Hall is one of the castle's most distinctive features.
Below (2): view of the Hall and the plaque in the dais of the hall bearing the arms of the 3rd earl of Worcester.
Below: view of the South Gate leading to the Fountain Court at Raglan.
Below: view of the Great Tower from the castle moat.
Below: view of the finely carved shields and badges above a first floor chamber of the State Apartments.
Below: close-up view of the detail above. Note the intricate carving of the shields.
Below (2): two views of the castle and beautiful surrounding countryside from the top of Raglan's Great Hall.
Take a virtual tour of Raglan Castle
View a ground plan of the castle
Photo Essay: The Gargoyles of Raglan Castle
Destruction: The Story of Raglan and the Civil War
Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links
Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas