Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Pembroke Castle

Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Pembroke Castle

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By James Turner

While Caernarfon was the ultimate manifestation of Anglo-Norman occupied Wales wrought into stone and mortar, Pembroke was its beating heart. Today ensconced upon a spur of rock, the Cleddau estuary flowing gently by, Pembroke Castle stands still, its long shadow silent and serene. Yet its walls and towers as tall and proud now as they ever were echo with purpose.

Born on the ragged bleeding edge of Europe’s latest and most disreputable empire, from the efforts of a caste of mercenary adventurers, few castles can boast a history as long, varied or as significant as Pembroke’s. The bulwark of Anglo-Norman power in southern Wales and the springboard for their invasion of Ireland, the Castle was an essential component in the success of their burgeoning imperialistic ambitions which slowly crystallised out of good old fashioned greed and opportunism, the twin engines of Norman political expansion. In its time Pembroke Castle has sheltered budding Norman warlords, Chivalric heroes, great hosts of conquest, the crème de la crème of European aristocracy and the birth of a new royal dynasty. Many are the times that Pembroke Castle has been the fulcrum upon which the destiny of Britain turned.

The site of the Castle has been a place of shelter since time immemorial; beneath the Castle carved out over millennia by the lapping tides from the great rocky outcrop upon which it stands lies Wogans Cavern, a natural cave which was home to a Neolithic settlement, substantive numbers of which can be found throughout Pembrokeshire. An igneous solution to the numerous and presumably toothy problems our Stone Age ancestors struggled against. Its natural defences and strategic location make it likely that the site retained its significance into the Bronze Age, a hypothesis lent further weight by archaeological evidence pointing to the eventual presence of a Roman outpost on the site.

Well within a generation of the Norman Conquest of England, the roving eyes of the Norman aristocracy had started to turn west and north to Wales and Scotland in a bid for further wealth and perhaps autonomy from the newly minted and increasingly centralised monarchy. The mindset of the average Norman nobleman in the 11th century can perhaps best be described as the balancing point between a Viking and a Mafioso. Their cultural forbearers and relatives had ranged across Europe as mercenaries, enjoying particular success in southern Italy where they soon discovered it was far more efficient to simply overthrow the local Lombard lords and take their gold in a onetime lump sum rather than have them fritter it away hiring the Normans over a period of several years. The rapacious Norman aristocrats who had participated in the conquest were sharks never satisfied, forever compelled by the confluences of nature to swim forward in search of future prey unable to pause for fear of drowning.

Thus in 1093 with his countrymen tearing chunks out of the Welsh Princedoms in a ragged tide of aggression, Earl Roger of Montgomery the right hand man of William the Conqueror constructed a keep at Pembroke as a means of dominating his freshly won Welsh possessions. During the Castle’s formative years it repulsed two separate sieges by the probably understandably irate Welsh, while dozens of hastily built Norman castles constructed during their patchwork conquest fell around it.

Upon Roger’s death his eldest son Robert of Belleme inherited both his Norman lands and then his Welsh and English acquisitions after the premature death of his younger brother Hugh. Roger was now one of the most powerful men in the Anglo-Norman world, however he enmeshed himself in the dynastic squabbles of the Conqueror’s sons, throwing his lot in with the erstwhile King’s eldest and partially disinherited son, Duke Robert of Normandy. When in 1101 Robert’s latest attempt to seize the throne failed, Henry I moved quickly against his brother’s supporters in England and in 1102 confiscated all of Belleme’s lands forcing him to flee to Normandy.

The Castle was eventually gifted, alongside the new Earldom of Pembroke, to Gilbert de Clare by Henry’s nephew and successor, King Stephen. Gilbert was in turn succeeded by his son Richard de Clare known to history as Strongbow. His wealth and titles threatened by ill fortune in the ongoing Anarchy, Richard joined the vanguard of the Norman Invasion of Ireland when he intervened in the ongoing dynastic dispute in the Kingdom of Leinster, soliciting for himself the hand of King Diarmait Mac Murchada’s eldest daughter in marriage. Despite his initial success and attempt to contest the succession after Diarmait’s death, Richard’s dreams for an Irish crown were thwarted when the irrepressible and talented Henry II intervened in Ireland directly subjugating the local rulers and quashing his vassals’ experiments in militarily-minded free enterprise. If Wales and Ireland were to be conquered from the walls of Pembroke Castle, which now prospered as both a trading post and staging area, it was to be done under the auspices of an English Crown.

In 1189, William Marshal inherited the Earldom and its Castle through his marriage to Isabel de Clare kindly arranged for him by Richard I. The Marshall, was The Beatles of his time – that is if The Beatles had all been rolled up into one and given a sword. Rising from modest roots, William became renowned upon the European tournament circuit through a cunningly deployed mixture of consummate skill and paying troubadours to sing about his consummate skill. Widely hailed as the greatest knight in Christendom and the soul of chivalry, William was made the tutor of Henry II’s eldest son, Henry the Young King. During the younger Henry’s rebellion, William clashed blades with his pupils younger brother, the future Richard I. When the chivalrically immersed Richard became King, he welcomed his erstwhile enemy with open arms.

The new Earl of Pembroke undertook a substantive building campaign replacing the earlier wooden and earth fortress with one of stone. William went on to serve as Regent to the infant Henry III during which period the now elderly former tournament champion defeated an invasion by Prince Louis of France. The Marshal was succeeded by his sons all five of whom served as Earl before dying without issue, although each added to the increasingly formidable defences of Pembroke Castle.

Nepotism is a phenomenon that never goes out of fashion and in 1247 William de Valence was gifted the Castle by his half-brother Henry III, along with Joan Marshall’s hand in marriage: marrying the daughters of strangers to get their land, being one of the middle ages most cherished traditions. As the most powerful lord in Norman dominated southern Wales, William was his brother’s de facto representative and came into sporadic conflict with the Welsh Princes, resolutely preserving the Normans powerbase within Pembrokeshire. Naturally then, during the reign of his nephew, Edward I, William was a major figure in the 1283 conquest of Wales, leading a substantive force from the south while Edward attacked from the north. During their tenure as Earls, the Valence family gave the Castle its current and most enduring shape, erecting the curtain wall and towers which stand today. In 1389 with the death of John Hastings, the last of the Valence descendants, the Castle defaulted back into royal hands.

And so it languished under a succession of constables and royally appointed functionaries in the gathering twilight between the Hundred Year War and the War of the Roses. The genial but incapable Henry VI bestowed the Castle and its accompanying lands and titles to his half-brother, Japser Tudor, in 1452. Jasper’s elder brother, Edmund, was created Earl of Richmond and was married to the young Margret Beaufort, a distant cousin of the King. When Edmund, a natural Lancastrian through this dual links of Henry VI and his wife died in the opening stages of the War of the Roses, a heavily pregnant Margret was brought to the shelter of Pembroke Castle where her son, the future Henry VII, was born and raised. Following the victory of the House of York and Edward IV, Jasper alongside his nephew fled to France. When they returned fourteen years later, it was at a head of an army, defeating Richard III, the last son of the now depleted House of York at the Battle of Bosworth.

Henry Tudor ushered in a new royal dynasty that would change the face of the world and brought the middle ages to a close with the clash of steel. During the War of the Three Kingdoms the Castle sided with Parliament, successfully repelling a royalist siege only for the garrison, who didn’t know when they were onto a good thing, to switch sides near the close of the war. Oliver Cromwell reacting with the level headedness and magnanimity for which he is well remembered, had them all executed before levelling much of the Castle which was only returned to its former glory after two separate restoration projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Classically good looking, with just enough rough edges to make it interesting, Pembroke Castle if it was to star in a movie, would be the leading man in a big budget summer romantic comedy. Framed beautifully rearing gently above the pleasant and peaceful town of Pembroke, the Castle’s stolid and sturdy battlements on its landward side are capped by a network of smooth rounded towers. The most formidable and visually pleasing of the Castle’s outer defences is the great twin turreted gatehouse which incorporates within its construction the cutting edge of militarily architectural techniques as well as harbouring the lavish living accommodation which was added to and fully utilised by the Valence family during their tenure as Earls. A clear distinction can be made by even the most casual observer between the outer defences and the older inner ward which contains the ruins of the Great Hall and Pembroke’s piece de résistance, the Norman Keep raised by William Marshal. The Keep miraculously intact rises from the heart of the Castle; the scale of its grandeur and artifice of construction reflecting the status of the man who raised it and the paradoxes of his age.

The Castle’s Gatehouse now shelters the majority of its educational resources which do an exceptional job in conveying the Castle’s disparate yet always significant history in admirable detail. In addition to this, a number of the Castle’s towers also contain audio visual presentations focusing on the life of several of the Castle’s masters which while lacking the sheer level of detail of the Castle’s literature are well worth a watch.

Pembroke Castle is a ‘must see’ for all fans of Medieval history. Besides its classical good looks and stunning location, Pembroke exerted an incredible power and influence over the fabric of the British Isles time and time again. A remote border outpost whose presence coalesced a nation about itself. A home to some of medieval Europe’s most influential figures, Pembroke Castle has always found itself in the maelstrom of unfolding events which created modern Europe, yet now unbent and unbroken it slumbers.

You can also follow on Twitter @pembscastle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Stirling Castle

Top Image: Pembroke Castle – photo by James Turner

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