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3 m NW of Crickhowell, Powys, Mid Wales
SO 184 212
Map link for Tretower Castle
Photographs copyright © 2002 by Laurie Oliver
From the Cadw guidebook for Tretower Court & Castle,
by C.A. Raleigh Radford & David M. Robinson.
At Tretower one is confronted by a particularly interesting group of medieval buildings on two distinct sites. The visitor arrives at Tretower Court, a late medieval defended house, which, perhaps better than any other surviving example, reflects the changes in fashion and taste of the wealthy landowners in Wales between 1300 and 1700. However, this house itself was a direct successor of an earlier castle stronghold just 200 yards to the north-west. Together, they demonstrate the transition from castle to domestic residence, and thereby reflect important changes from a situation of warfare and defence in the early Middle Ages, to one of peaceful and more settled times in later centuries.
There were essentially three principal phases in the development of Tretower Castle. Initially, a motte and bailey castle of earth and timber, was constructed by Picard. In the mid 12th century a (stone) shell keep was created on the motte, replacing the early timber defences. The third major phase involved the construction of the great tower, and the addition of walls to the castle bailey. Although evidence for a late building suggest periodic refortification, the castle may have been abandoned as a residence by the early 14th century.
Very little is known of the earliest earth and timber castle built by Picard at the turn of the 11th century. None the less, it is likely to have resembled many other motte and bailey castles built at this time. The motte lay to the west of the site, and the base had a diameter of between 80 and 90 feet. This small mound was surrounded by a ditch about 30 feet wide, and was revetted with a rough wall of stone. The revetment is earlier than the building of the mid-12th century and is apparently an original feature, necessitated by the soft nature of the soil. The bailey lay to the east of the mound and was roughly triangular, measuring about 200 by 150 feet. The line of the bailey defences is now marked by the later stone curtain wall, currently surrounding the modern farmyard. Wooden palisades surmounted the summit of the motte and crowned the bank of the bailey, and the buildings within were also of wood.
About the middle of the 12th century, the wooden buildings on the motte were replaced in stone, probably by Roger Picard or his son John. A shell keep was constructed, with a contemporary gatehouse on its east side. Although somewhat smaller, it would have resembled similar developments at, for example, Cardiff Castle. The hall and solar, an L-shaped block, were erected within this shell on the south-west side of the mound. A kitchen, set at lower level, was placed between the outer wall of the hall and the circumference of the enclosure.
The surviving architectural detail of this mid 12th-century building, particularly that of the windows, includes carved ornament of fine quality. Although much weathered, it is a precious survival of Romanesque domestic work and ranks among the best of this period now surviving in Wales.
The first half of the 13th century saw an extensive modernization of Tretower Castle, the central feature of which was the imposing circular tower constructed within the earlier shell keep. To provide space for this tower, the block forming the hall and solar was gutted and the inner walls were demolished.
This round keep was characteristic of the first half of the 13th century, with about a dozen other examples known from the southern March. The Tretower keep is of three storeys with a basement. A slight offset marks the level of the third stage, which shows slight differences in detail and may therefore be slightly later, though they do not imply any long pause in the construction. The tower was designed to give the garrison a clear field of fire over the outer parapet. Communication between this new tower and the curtain was provided by means of a bridge crossing from the west side of the former wall-walk along the curtain. Within the completed keep, each of the main stages formed a single room, with a fireplace and windows set in deep embrasures. The detail is carefully finished and the building was clearly intended for residence.
The outer walls of the earlier hall, solar and kitchen were incorporated in the curtain surrounding the great tower, together with the earlier wall of the shell keep. All the older openings were thoroughly blocked with masonry and the walls were thickened and heightened where necessary in order to provide a parapeted wall-walk at a uniform level. This survives today on the west side, above the site of the solar.
At the same time as this work on the mound, the wooden palisades enclosing the castle bailey were replaced with a stone curtain wall with circular towers at the angles. Together, the details of the tower point to the second rather than the first quarter of the 13th century, and the design of the defences surrounding the bailey is also typical of this period.
Although the initial construction of Tretower Court may date to the early years of the 14th century, the castle was not abandoned entirely at this time. Indeed, at some point when it was still defensible, a four-storey building was erected on the north-west side of the mound, between the tower and the shell keep. Holes cut in the face of the tower indicate the position of the floor beams and indicate the extent of this structure. An oven, inserted in the south-west angle of the basement below the 12th century solar, appears to be contemporary with the erection of this late building. The foundation of stairs leading up from the basement level to the upper floor is also visible. The purpose and date of this building are uncertain, though it is clearly later than the 13th century tower. It occupied an extremely cramped position between the tower and the curtain, but may perhaps have been built to provide quarters for the garrison and storerooms at a time when the castle was needed, as in 1403 during the Glyndwr Revolt.
Tretower Court appears to have become the residential focus of the site at some point in the early 14th century, and from then onwards was developed according to the needs and tastes of the successive owners.
Standing in the central courtyard, it soon becomes apparent that there are four major phases of building represented in the surrounding ranges. The north range is essentially 14th century, the west range 15th century, and the gatehouse and wall-walks on the south and east were added in the later 15th century. All three sections were modified at later dates, but in particular the courtyard acquired much of its current aspect in alterations carried out in the early 17th century, probably by Charles Vaughan.
The earliest building at Tretower Court is the north range. The masonry of the walls, including the projecting latrine turret at the west end, dates to the initial years of the 14th century, perhaps as early as about 1300. The doors of the south front, the two projecting turrets with latrines at the back of the range, the window and fireplace on the upper at the east end and the pointed window in the west gable are all of this date. The 14th century house apparently consisted of a central ground-floor hall open to the roof, with a private living room or solar and a bedchamber on the upper floor at the west end, together with a separate apartment, also on the upper floor, beyond the hall to the east.
About 1540 Roger Vaughan was given Tretower by his half-brother Sir William Herbert, and soon afterwards he began an extensive programme of modernization and new building. He seems to have begin by refurbishing the existing north range, inserting a new floor across the central hall, and dividing the whole block into a two storey structure. On the upper floor a new range was laid out in the normal medieval plan. In this new arrangement, the lower storey served as storerooms, with a kitchen at the west end. At the eastern end of the ground floor a separate room was created with its own entries. This eastern room has a fireplace, and the beams still retain the grooves for a boarded ceiling. Sir Rogerís alterations of the north range were just a part of a scheme to enlarge Tretower to a scale more befitting his position as the most prominent commoner in Wales. In effect he more than doubled the extent of his accommodation by adding a long west range. This range included a new ground floor hall open to the roof, a new solar, and other rooms on the upper floor. Developments continued under Vaughanís son, Sir Thomas, who held Tretower in the last quarter of the 15th century. He added the battlemented wall-walk and gatehouse enclosing the courtyard on the east and south sides.
The succeeding generations who resided at Tretower under the Tudors, have left less evidence of their tenure. However, in the 16th century a cellar with an external stair down from the courtyard was inserted under part of the northern range, and necessitated the construction of an alternative entry into the north-west room. Other alterations were carried out about 1630 probably by Charles Vaughan. When the Vaughans ceased to reside at Tretower, the house became a farm. The 17th century living rooms at the end of the west range continued in use, and the other buildings were adapted as barns and sheds. The structure was left uncared for, rough patches being added where necessary, so that the whole medieval plan was disguised.
Additional Photos of Tretower Castle by Jeffrey L. Thomas
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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas