Castle of the Week 89 – Raglan Castle
Located in south Wales, Raglan Castle is one of the most beautiful and architecturally interesting medieval castles in the British Isles. Built in the 15th century, its construction is quite deceptive in appearance. It resembles the mammoth 13th century castles of Edward I built out of necessity instead of pleasure. Raglan is one of the last true medieval castles constructed in Great Britain. The construction of Raglan came at a time when the nobility was abandoning their dark, damp and cold medieval fortresses for more comfortable and opulent residences.
Construction was begun in 1435 by Sir William ap Thomas, also known as “the Blue Knight of Gwent”. He was a veteran of the campaigns of Henry V in France and brought back his knowledge of French castles and architecture to Wales. First to be constructed was the keep or Great Tower which was probably built on the site of an earlier Norman fortification. The tower was surrounded by a water filled moat and had a distinctive hexagonal design.
Sir William Herbert succeeded his father in ownership of Raglan and made many additions to the castle. He added the Great Gatehouse, the Pitched Stone Court, renovated the Fountain Court and built sumptuous State Apartments for his family. Raglan was transformed into a splendid palace and was the envy of the Marches (the border region between England and Wales). William Somerset, Earl of Worcester, was the next owner to make extensive changes to the castle. He refurbished the great hall and added the long gallery, which was a standard feature of homes in Elizabethan England.
At the onset of the English Civil War, Raglan was garrisoned for the King. The lord of Raglan was a staunch supporter of the crown and gave generously to the cause. In 1646, nearing the end of the war, Raglan was besieged and pounded into submission by heavy artillery. The castle was sacked, burned and partially destroyed by Parliamentarian forces.
1) Great Tower or Keep
2) Drawbridge to the Keep
4) Moat Walkway
5) Great Gate
6) Pitched Stone Court
7) Closet Tower
8) Office Wing
9) Kitchen Tower
10) Long Gallery
11) Great Hall
13) Fountain Court
14) Grand Staircase
15) South Gate
The Great Tower was a masterpiece of modern engineering for its time. Begun in 1435, it was the first part of the castle to be constructed. It was built to withstand gunpowder, designed for independent defense and was surrounded by a vast moat. The Great Tower was also known as “The Yellow Tower of Gwent” as it was constructed from yellow sandstone from the nearby River Wye. Modeled after French architecture, the hexagonal shaped tower was unique to Wales. The keep was an impressive five storeys tall with battlements crowning its top and a single large room on each floor. The keep even had its own well in order to supply fresh water to troops in the event of a siege. Today the top floor is missing and has a deep gash in one side of the tower. Raglan was bombarded by Cromwell’s men during the Civil War but the bombardment had little effect on the tower other than to destroy the wooden battlements. The destruction seen today is from pick-axes and the undermining of two of the tower’s walls by Parliamentarian forces after the surrender of the castle.
The tower was reached by crossing an elaborate double drawbridge which spanned the moat, a unique feature in Wales. A small hexagonal curtain wall surrounded the base of the keep; it had a turret in each corner and provided access to the moat as well as an all-important latrine. The moat walk was built around 1600 by the 4th Earl of Worcester and was meant to be a pleasant retreat from daily life. While strolling the promenade, you would have seen ornate statues and carvings of Roman Emperors lining the wall of the moat walk along the way.
The Great Gatehouse was built around 1460 and became the primary entrance of the castle. An attacker would have had to cross the dry moat, get past the drawbridge, through a portcullis and breach two separate stout wooden doors before gaining access to the castle’s interior. Oh, lets not forget navigating between the two four storey half-hexagonal shaped towers with gun loops/arrow slits and the conveniently located murder holes crossing the passageway. All in all, quite an impressive defensive system.
The gatehouse was deemed secure enough that the State Apartments of the castle were next to it (between the gatehouse and keep). The interior of the gatehouse had a grand gallery with large interior windows overlooking the Pitched Stone Court, which housed the castle’s library. It is said that the library at Raglan was the largest and most comprehensive collection of medieval manuscripts in Wales. Its contents were burned and plundered by Cromwell’s men after the fall of the castle during the Civil War.
The Pitched Stone or Cobbled Stone court is located directly inside the Great Gate. It had a large well at the far end and was enclosed on all sides by the castle. To the right of the Great Gate is the Closet Tower. Hexagonal in shape, it continued the architectural theme of the castle and was four storeys tall. The basement floor was most likely used as a dungeon or prison. The first, second and third floors contained large rooms which were reserved as living quarters for important members of the household staff such as the steward who was responsible for the administration of the lord’s estate.
Adjacent to the Closet Tower and lining the Pitched Stone Court was the Office Wing. It was two storeys tall and divided into many rooms which contained large fireplaces and ovens to supplement the kitchen’s capabilities. It also contained a brewery and mill capable of producing up to three barrels of flour per day, quite sufficient for the castle’s needs.
The Kitchen Tower was located at the far end of the Pitched Stone Court. It again is hexagonal in design and is an impressive sight to behold. The Kitchen Tower was also four storeys tall with a stone vaulted basement used as a storeroom for meats, cheese and other dairy products. Today, the underground basement is even cool in the heat of summer. The main floor of the kitchen is dominated by two large fireplaces which also contain ovens. They would have been used to cook the vast quantities of food needed to feed the castle’s inhabitants and garrison.
Moving around the castle we see the pantry and buttery which were also two storeys tall. The ground floor was used for the respective names and above them on the second floor were apartments and living quarters for staff. Adjacent to the Buttery is the Long Gallery. This was the most elaborate and ornate room of the castle. It was considered one of the finest rooms in England at that time. It would have been used to entertain important guests for social occasions. The Gallery was lined with fine timber and decorated with tapestries, painting, sculptures and other artwork. The room was well-lit and contained large windows that overlooked the fountain court and picturesque countryside. It was heated by a very large and splendid fireplace, which contain carvings of human figurines.
The Great Hall is the most complete and best preserved of Raglan’s apartments. It is a very large room that contains a massive fireplace which has an interesting double flue divided by an ornately molded window. There was also a dais at the end of the room closest the keep where the lord of the castle would dine with his family for formal occasions. Other features of the hall include intricate stone carvings and other marvelous examples of 16th century craftsmanship.
The Chapel was located adjacent to the Great Hall and flanked by the Fountain Court. The Chapel was staffed by both a Chaplain and a Chorister. Three of its four walls are now destroyed; the only remaining wall is the one it shared with the Great Hall. Located between the Great Hall, Chapel and Keep were the State Apartments of Raglan. This two-storey space had a parlor on the first floor and a private dining room for the Lord and his family on the second floor. Jeff Thomas from Castles of Wales documented in his research, “The Parlor was noted in the 17th century for its inlaid wainscott and curious carved figures, as also for the rare and artificial stone work at the flat arch in a large and fair compass window on the south side…”. The private living quarters of the Lord were located between the Parlor and the Great Gate overlooking the Pitched Stone Court.
The Fountain Court was a large open area enclosed by the Chapel, South Gate and three elegant apartment blocks. The Fountain Court got its name from the large bubbling fountain with a white marble statue of a horse as its centerpiece located in the middle of the court. The opposite side of the court featured two blocks of 15th century apartments, which were divided by the Grand Staircase. A third set of apartments was located between the South Gate and the Keep. All of these apartments were two storeys tall and had large interior windows overlooking the pleasant court below. The Grand Staircase was and is a beautiful example of Welsh craftsmanship. The elaborate stone work on the staircase as well as other carvings in the Fountain Court suggest the high level of masonry skills employed in the construction of Raglan.
The South Gate was the original entrance to the castle built by Sir William ap Thomas in the 1430s. After construction of the Great Gate around 1460, the South Gate became a secondary entryway. It was then used as a more private entrance for the Lord of the castle. A dry moat, drawbridge, portcullis and double doors at the end of a short passageway defended the South Gate. In the 16th century, the drawbridge was replaced by a permanent one which led to the bowling green along the south side of the castle.
Raglan Castle was indeed one of the finest castles constructed in Wales. It was not only a fortress, but also a palace with hundreds of statues, sculptures, tapestries and various other art treasures. Raglan boasted the largest collection of Welsh literature of the day as well as great displays of craftsmanship and splendor.
I hope you have enjoyed this article about Raglan Castle and have came away learning just enough to get your curiosity up to do some research for yourself. I would like to especially thank Jeff Thomas of Castles of Wales who has a wonderful website that I highly recommend! I would also like to thank the many others that allowed me the use of their images in this article; please visit their links provided below:
Write-up and download courtesy of Duke of York.
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