Fall and Rise of the Little Fortress - Tenby's Tempestuous Past

There aren’t too many towns in the United Kingdom with as turbulent a past as Tenby’s. This picturesque seaside resort has endured numerous incursions throughout its long history, from the marching feet of armour-clad soldiers to the curse of the plague.

Today Tenby is one of the most popular holiday locations in Wales. But its journey to become one of the treasures of Welsh tourism has not been a straightforward one.

Tenby HarbourOrigins
Human inhabitation of the area around modern-day Tenby is thought to go back around 10,000 years. However, the earliest recorded reference to Tenby can be found in a 9th century poem preserved in the Middle Welsh manuscript, Etmic Dinbych (The Book of Taliesin).

But it was the Norman Conquest in the 11th century that chiefly responsible for the emergence of Tenby in the British consciousness.

The Normans
The Norman invasion of south-west Wales was one of conquest and colonisation. One of its main figureheads was Norman magnate Arnulf of Montgomery. His army had enjoyed numerous successes during a long campaign which saw most of South Wales fall under the yolk of Norman rule. 

Montgomery quickly realised how strategically important Tenby was in securing the newly conquered territories as well as keeping the local populace at bay. So he named Tenby as his headquarters and set about building a hill-fort on the lofty headland which overlooked the town.

Early Incursions
In 1151 Norman soldiers garrisoned at Tenby wounded Welsh nobleman and prince, Cadell ap Grufydd, while he was hunting in nearby Saundersfoot. In response, his two brothers, Rhys and Maredudd conducted a night-time raid and captured the castle.

After exacting revenge on the man responsible for their brother’s injuries, they handed it back to William Fitzgerald who was acting constable for the Earl of Pembrokeshire. 

Some 36 years later, Tenby was attacked and plundered by a marauding Welsh army under the command of Maelgwn ap Rhys, which was followed in 1260 by a siege led by the last sovereign Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.

The Fortress Walls
Soon after the raid by Llywelyn ap Gruffud, Tenby and its castle fell under the feudal ownership of the First Earl of Pembrokeshire, William de Valence. The numerous sackings endured by the town compelled him to build the first stone walls in order to keep local enemies at bay.

By the end of the 13th century the walls had been completed with the addition of a D-shaped barbican and a collection of towers. They were further strengthened in 1457 by Jasper Tudor who widened the exterior ditch and heightened the walls. Yet more modifications were made in the 15th century to protect against a second Spanish Armada which never came.

Tenby ProspersVictorian Tenby
Tenby’s continued upkeep during the late Middle-Ages was funded by Royal grants. These were bestowed upon the town after Henry Tudor was given shelter there during his flight to France following the War of the Roses. Tenby thrived during this period as its harbour became increasingly important on the national stage.

In addition to an already successful fishing trade, the town began to export wool, coal, iron and oil to destinations all over Europe. This was perhaps Tenby’s first golden age during which time it became one of the most important harbour towns in all of Wales. However, difficult times lay ahead.

The Dark Decline

Tenby’s descent into chaos and tragedy began with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1644, which pitted the Royalists of King Charles I against Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians.  Despite most of south-west Wales supporting the Royalist cause, Tenby declared for Parliament.

However, Welsh nobleman, Lord Carbury, persuaded the town to switch sides at the behest of King Charles. This unfortunate about-turn eventually led to a co-ordinated assault by land and sea.

An army led by Rowland Laugharne, together with ships under the command of Captain Richard Swanly bombarded Tenby for three days. Despite fierce resistance, with many Royalists fighting in the streets, the town succumbed to Parliamentary forces and was plundered.

Insurgency Suppressed
Yet further chaos was to ensue. In 1648, a number of revolts against Parliament broke out across the country. Parliamentarian soldiers, enraged at being asked to disband before receiving arrears of pay, declared their allegiance to the King. Colonel Rice Powell at Tenby followed suit with Major General Laugharne also siding with the insurgents. Tenby Castle remained in rebel hands for ten weeks before surrendering to a force of 3000 parliamentarians led by Colonel Thomas Horton.

A Foul and Pestilent Vapour
Following a decline in foreign trade as well as the turmoil of the Civil War, Tenby was in crisis. Indeed, when Oliver Cromwell visited the town following Laugharne’s defeat in 1648, he was appalled at the poverty he came across.  This was made all the more worse by an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.

The disease had already decimated great swathes of the European population some 300 years previously and was equally merciless to the people of Tenby, with around 500 residents succumbing to the illness. Due to the outbreak most people avoided entering into the town for fear of contracting the disease. As a result Tenby became sealed off from the outside world. This desperate situation would continue for over 100 years as the once proud harbour town fell into disrepair and ruin.

The Victorian Resurgence
During the Victorian era, Tenby experienced a profound upturn in fortunes which can still be felt to this day. The Napoleonic Wars, which had raged across Europe during the early 19th Century, had prevented affluent British tourists from visiting the continent. As a result, British tourism took off. Wales in particular became very popular.

Once described as ‘the fag-end of creation, the very rubbish of Noah’s flood’, Wales began to attract people like Charles Darwin and John Ruskin. The advent of the railways also played a key role in the emergence of Welsh tourism providing improved access to a hitherto remote and forbidding land.

tenby harbourThe Bengal Merchant
Tenby’s transformation into a holiday resort owes a great deal to William Paxton. Seeing the town’s potential as a popular holiday-spot, the wealthy landlord, merchant and politician invested heavily in various projects including numerous cottages, seaside properties, a theatre as well as a tower in memorial to Lord Nelson.

His work resulted in the emergence of Tenby as renowned health resort which was helped in no small part by the new railway which connected the town.

Modern Tenby Takes Shape
It was during the mid 19th century that a lifeboat was first deployed to the town. The service which was initially administered by the  Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners' Royal Benevolent Society was taken over by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The first slip way was built in 1905 before being replaced in 2008.

Other locations of note include Tenby Railway Station, which was completed in 1863 as well as Palmerston Fort, which was constructed to protect against invasion in 1867.

A great deal remains from Tenby’s Victorian re-emergence including the bright-coloured Victorian revivalist buildings which overlook the pretty harbour. The castle is still there, as well as sections of the famed walls which defended against marauding bands all those years ago. But instead of fishing and wool exports, tourism is now the main industry in Tenby.

There is however a demand for local crafts from the hordes of visitors who flock to the town each year. It is perhaps testament to the spirit, tenacity and industriousness of local people, that Tenby, despite its tempestuous past has become one of the UK’s most cherished seaside locations.

More information

Visit Tenby

Visit Wales

Tenby Holiday Accommodation


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