Castle of the Week 79 – Pembroke Castle

Pembroke Castle, a massive Norman Stronghold located in southwest Wales, sits atop a high rocky ridge on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the tidal River Cleddau. It consists of a large round keep, inner ward and an outer ward larger than most entire castles. It played a prominent role in the history of England, Wales and Ireland.

Soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the victorious William the Conqueror turned his eyes toward Wales. Nearly thirty years later in 1093, Earl Roger de Montgomery established the first Norman settlement at Pembroke and ordered it fortified. The strategic value of this terrain was also recognized and put to use by the Romans. Although the castle was fairly basic in design and consisted of earthworks and a wooden palisade, it stood firm against two Welsh sieges.

Over the next hundred years, both the castle and settlement grew in importance and were fortified together. Due to direct access to the sea from the River Cleddau, Pembroke became a major seaport and chief staging area for the Norman campaigns into Ireland from England. It also became the administrative hub of the region and the seat of power for the Earls of Pembroke.

In 1189, William Marshall became the 4th Earl of Pembroke and over the next thirty years transformed the castle from an earth and timber fort into an impressive stone fortress. William Marshall was a very prominent man. His titles included Marshal of England, Protector of the Realm and Regent of England from 1216 until his death in 1219. He was a Crusader and faithful knight of Henry II; he championed the causes of both Richard I and King John, whom he advised on the Magna Carta. His primary legacy at Pembroke was the Great Round Tower (keep), and most of the inner ward. William was succeeded by his five sons as Earls of Pembroke, each strengthening and extending the castle.

The Marshall line ended in 1245 when the castle passed to the hands of William de Valence (King Henry III’s half brother). Over the next 70 years, the Valence family strengthened and improved the defenses of the outer ward adding strong round towers and a high curtain wall. They also fortified the town, strengthening the walls and adding towers and three gate houses. In 1389 the death of John Hastings at age 17 ended the Valence line of inheritance and the castle passed to the crown. King Richard II granted Pembroke out in a series of short tenancies and the castle began to fall into disrepair. In 1400 Owain Glyndwr led an insurrection against the English settlers but was persuaded not to attack Pembroke by the Constable Francis a Court, who paid him a large sum of money.

Jasper Tudor became Earl of Pembroke in 1454. He was the first owner to convert the Spartan stone structure into something resembling a comfortable home. It was during this time that Jasper’s older brother, Edmund the Earl of Richmond, sent his pregnant wife to Pembroke for protection during the War of the Roses. It was there that she gave birth to her son Henry Tudor, who later defeated Richard III of York at the battle of Bosworth Field to become King Henry VII, the first monarch in the Tudor dynasty. Henry spent his childhood at Pembroke but never returned after ascending the throne. He did however install his son as the first Prince of Wales.

Peace was shattered when the English Civil War erupted. Most of South Wales sided with the Royalists but fortified Pembroke Castle declared for Parliament. Pembroke was besieged by Royalist forces under Lord Carberry but was saved by Parliamentarian reinforcements who arrived by sea. The Royalists then turned their sights on the surrounding castles. In 1648, when the war was almost over, the town leaders of Pembroke made an unexpected switch in sides. Lord Cromwell himself came to Pembroke to direct the siege. Seven weeks later, after the water supply was cut off and a large train of siege cannon arrived, Pembroke surrendered to the Parliamentarian forces.

As punishment, parts of the walls and most of the towers were set with explosive charges. Though Cromwell’s men did considerable damage, most of the remarkable workmanship of the medieval craftsmen held firm. The castle never recovered and was left in ruin. Vegetation, wind, rain and time did what Cromwell’s explosives could not do over the next two hundred years.

Pembroke Castle remained an ivy-covered ruin until 1880 when J. R. Cobb began three years of restoration work. Forty-five years later in 1928, Major General Sir Ivor Phillips acquired the ruins and began an extensive restoration of the castle. Over the next decade, he restored the castle walls and towers as near as possible to the original design. Most of what is seen today is a result of his restoration efforts.

Today the castle is open to the public and visitors can walk and view the majestic scenery from the castle walls and towers. The castle is home to several festivals including medieval banquets, Shakespearean productions, military exhibitions, and living history exhibits.

Special Thanks go to:
Jeff Thomas of Castles of Wales
Paolo Ramponi of Great Castles of Wales
Andrea Williams of Pembroke Castle

This is part one of a two part series featuring Pembroke Castle. The first installment covers the development and history of the castle. Part two will discuss the military aspect and features of the castle.

Write-up courtesy of Duke of York.