Castle of the Week 80 – Pembroke Castle, Pt. 2

This is the second installment featuring Pembroke Castle as Castle of the Week. I have attempted to create a virtual tour of the castle. The overview diagram and drawing of the castle have numbers which also correspond to the article and photos in hopes of giving you, the reader, a better understanding and appreciation of this magnificent structure. Sit back and fasten your seatbelts as we begin our tour of Pembroke Castle.

First to be built in the inner ward was the spectacular round keep (1). It was built around 1200 A.D. by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. It is the most prominent structure in the castle with walls 19 feet thick at the base and soaring to a height of 75 feet (22 meters).

One aspect that makes the keep unique is its domed roof, an architectural masterpiece of its time. The keep had four floors which were connected by a spiral staircase. Every floor had battlements with holes and grooves in the stone for wooden timbers to support hoards or fighting platforms. If the castle were attacked, the hoard could have been erected to provide an extra defense outside the battlements far above the heads of would-be attackers. If the outer walls and towers were breached, the garrison would have fallen back to the keep as a last defense.

Anchoring the east corner of the inner ward is the Great Hall (2). It is an impressive structure with large windows dating from about 1280 – 1290. It was originally a two-storey structure with two large fireplaces, one for each floor. These rooms were living quarters for prominent residents of the castle.

There is yet another feature of Pembroke that is unique. The Great Hall actually projects over the cliff edge and encloses a large natural limestone cavern below. The dimensions of the cave are 60 x 80 feet with a high ceiling (3). A spiral staircase leads from the hall down to the cave, which was used for storage and a boathouse. If besieged, the castle could be re-supplied by water.

Pembroke was the administrative center of the region. A single storey courthouse was built between the keep and the Great Hall (4). Court for the County of Palatine was held there for centuries. Adjacent to the court building are the remains of the Old Hall or Norman Hall, which was built with the keep in the 11th century.

A small thin curtain wall rims the cliff edge, overlooking the river, enclosing the rest of the inner ward (5). A high thick wall was not needed due to the steep cliffs along the river’s edge. It would have been virtually impossible for attackers to reach and breach that part of the castle’s walls. An observation tower is located at the point of the castle along with a large square platform to support a huge catapult for defense against attack from the sea.

To the east of the gate was the Dungeon Tower, a strong round tower with a basement, which was used as a prison (6). In the corner of the basement is a sinister hole in the ground known as an oubliette – a hole where prisoners were thrown and forgotten. There was no other access to the chamber below other than through this opening.

The entrance to the inner ward was through a fortified horseshoe-shaped gate to the southwest (7). Attackers would be funneled through a small, heavily defended, opening in order to even reach the gate. Immediately inside the gate was yet another hall, this one fortified with a turret and many arrow slits. Adjacent to this western hall was a simple chapel. A medium height curtain wall separated the two wards with a deep dry moat running along the wall in the Outer Ward. A wooden drawbridge would have been used to traverse the moat.

The Outer Ward of Pembroke is a very large area. In fact, Jeff Thomas from from said, “All of Harlech Castle could probably fit inside Pembroke’s courtyard!” The Outer Ward was defended by a fine series of round towers, a Bastion and the spectacular main gatehouse, all making Pembroke a formidable fortress.

The main gatehouse was a monstrous complex by itself (8). It consisted of two portcullises, stout wooden doors, three murder holes and a series of arrow slits in the vaulting. Combined with a horseshoe shaped barbican, “By-Gate Tower” and “Barbican Tower” with walls 9 feet thick, formed a fortified unit larger than many castles. The main gatehouse was an important residential part of the castle, which was roofed with timber and sealed with lead. It is hard to imagine, but with tapestries on the walls, rushes on the floor, glass windows and blazing tree trunks in the fireplace, it could have been quite comfortable in the cold Welsh winters.

A high thick curtain wall separated the castle from the town of Pembroke. In the center of the west wall is Henry VII’s Tower (9). It is named after King Henry VII of England who was born at Pembroke. Although it is fact that Henry was born at Pembroke, the exact location has been disputed. This tower is the most likely location and where legend says he was born.

The Outer Ward is anchored to the North and West by large round towers. They were connected to the fortified town walls of Pembroke to enhance its defenses. The West Gate Tower overlooked the main gate of the town (10). Finally, there were two postern gates on either side of the Outer Ward guarded by Monkton Tower (12) and St. Ann’s Bastion (11).

In 1648, when the English Civil War was almost over, the leaders of Pembroke switched sides from Parliamentarian to Royalist. Cromwell himself came to conduct the siege which lasted for seven weeks. Only after the water supply was cut and the arrival of siege cannon did Pembroke surrender. As punishment for their defiance, explosive charges were set to most of the towers and gates, rendering Pembroke useless as a fortress. Most of what is seen today is the result of many years of restoration and renovation work, most of it conducted in the 1920’s.

I hope you have enjoyed your tour of Pembroke Castle.

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

Write-up courtesy of Duke of York.