Sunday, 4 June 2017
Pembroke Castle - moody and magnificent
Pembroke Castle stands proud on the tip of a rocky limestone headland at the end of a town between 2 arms of the Pembroke river. The castle has always been more heavily fortified on the landward side - for obvious reasons. The site has been occupied for the past 12,000 years, although not continuously. In a cavern underneath the castle, called The Wogan, have been found stone tools left by Palaeolithic inhabitants and Roman coins. It might also have been an Iron Age fort and there have been suggestions that, in pre-Norman times, there may have been a palace or llys of a Welsh nobleman since the Normans went straight to it as if it were an existing stronghold. My camera chose to turn to sepia as I photographed the castle from the river but this only underlines its foreboding and unyielding aura.
The Normans soon turned their attention to Wales after 1066 and created a system of Marcher lords who had unilateral powers to aid them in subduing the unruly natives. Roger de Montgomery, cousin of William I, provided 60 ships for the invasion and was rewarded with the earldom of Shrewsbury in 1071. He headed to Pembroke after the death of King Rhys ap Tewdwr and founded an earthwork and timber fortification which did not have a motte. The defeat of his son, Arnulf, caused the castle to fall to Henry I.
He appointed Gerald de Windsor as sheriff and encouraged him to marry his own discarded mistress, Princess Nest: she was the beautiful and intelligent daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and this marriage symbolised the attempt at unification. Nest was also quite a gal and went on to have numerous affairs and offspring.
The county of Pembroke acquired Palatine status which gave it independence and the ability to make important decisions quickly. Of the de Clares who held the castle, the most famous is Richard "Strongbow" who also founded Usk town in his spare time. He successfully invaded Ireland from Pembroke and declared himself Lord of Leinster and Governor of Ireland. The castle's fortunes were greatly improved in 1189 when his daughter and heir, Isabella, married the renowned ideal knight, William Marshal, who, as soon as he had full control, started the rebuilding in stone, beginning with the huge cylindrical keep which may be the largest in Britain. This popular family was succeeded by the hated William de Valence who, though cruel, boastful and arrogant, continued the transformation of the castle into stone as did his son, Aymer.
Later the castle declined until a temporary reprieve by Jasper Tudor, whose nephew, the future King Henry VII was born here in 1457 to the young teenager Margaret Beaufort. Anne Boleyn was Marchioness for a brief period. The next excitement was the Civil War in which Pembroke was Parliamentarian, unlike the rest of Wales. Its mayor, John Poyer, strengthened the castle but changed sides along with disaffected soldiers who had not been paid and declared for the king. Oliver Cromwell arrived around 24th May, 1648 with 6000 troops and besieged the castle, also burning nearby houses, cutting off the water supply and offering safe conduct to the garrison. He commented: "The fire runs up the town still: it frights them." After 2 months the castle surrendered to the threat of heavy guns and Poyer was unlucky in the drawing of lots for execution, being shot in Covent Garden in 1649. The castle was then slighted as was the custom so that it could no longer act as a fortress. It had never fallen to the Welsh, not even to Owain Glyn Dwr. Only restoration in the 19th and 20th centuries by J.R. Cobb and the family who still own it, the Philipps, makes it the attraction it is today.
You enter via the restored barbican and are soon on the vast outer ward or enclosure over which loom the many towers and the massive keep which dominates the inner ward. A regular guided tour leads you throughout, up and down, but I am less than intrepid in my senior years and I stayed on the grass. There was a knight school for children who were dressed up and happily pretending to ride horses and give battle, accompanied by thrilling war-whoops, when I was there. There is every sense of trying to attract visitors, particularly the young, but it is done in a pleasantly uncommercialised fashion and, if they can enthuse modern kids with a love of castles, I am only too pleased.
No-one would claim that the castle has charm: it is a bastion of past French imperialism and uncompromising in its severity. So too, unfortunately, was the choice of CAKE in the agreeably situated cafe but I settled for small Welsh cakes and my waistline is the better for it.
I travelled by bus and rail, changing to a small train at Swansea which stopped every few minutes at tiny stations. Pembrokeshire seems to belong to another calmer, slower era - and don't expect too much of the sandwiches either: my plumping for smoked salmon with Philly was gradually transmuted into chicken and cranberries but it was freshly and willingly made.
For opening times click here. I have written about William Marshal as lord of Chepstow on this blog as well as Owain Glyn Dwr. There is an article about the founding of Usk Town and another on the creation and history of the Marcher Lords. Enjoy!