Pembroke Castle is one of Pembrokeshire’s most iconic historical visitor attractions. It is one of the most vivid examples we have of the tumult this region of Wales endured during the long and eventful past of the British Isles.
To shed some light on this awesome stone keep, we delve into the history of the castle as well as its evolution into one of the most important historical sites in the United Kingdom.
The Norman Era
The origins of Pembroke Castle can be traced back to 1093, when Arnulf de Montgomery, one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted counsellors, built a small earth and timber bailey on a bluff overlooking the Cleddau Estuary.
Its purpose was to defend Norman-controlled lands in south-west Wales. And despite its seemingly flimsy design, it resisted numerous attacks against marauding Welsh armies and became central in ensuring Norman supremacy throughout the region.
From Earth to Stone
The man chiefly responsible for the majestic stone keep we see today was William Marshal. When he became Earl of Pembroke in 1189, he took ownership of the earth and timber construction and transformed it into a forbidding stone fortification.
The castle’s transformation from a simple earth and timber bailey into a majestic stone keep would take some 30 years and it was also enlarged further by Marshal’s third son Gilbert once he succeeded his father.
Changes of Ownership
In the mid 13th century, Pembroke Castle was inherited by Henry III’s half-brother, William de Valence and remained under the ownership of the Valence family for over 50 years. It was at this time that the imposing stone tower and walls were constructed.
Due to its more robust design, the castle became an important military base during the conquest of North Wales in the late 13th century. Following the death of Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembrokeshire and William de Valence’s son, Pembroke Castle was passed through marriage to the Hastings family. However, the death of John Hastings in a jousting accident in 1389 brought to an end a 250 year line of inheritance. This resulted in the castle reverting to Richard II before it fell into disrepair.
Birth of a King
Eventually, Henry VI presented the castle to his half-brother Jasper Tudor who brought his recently widowed sister-in-law, Margaret Beaufort to live there. It was at Pembroke Castle, that she gave birth to future king, Henry VII. Under the ownership of the Tudors, the castle became a home rather than a military outpost.
The 15th and 16th centuries were rather uneventful periods in Pembroke Castle’s history. However, this tranquillity was shattered in 1642 when the English Civil War broke out. Despite most of South Wales declaring its allegiance to the King, Pembroke took the side of Parliament.
As a result, Royalist troops laid siege to the castle before being beaten off by Parliamentary reinforcements. However, as the civil war drew to a close Pembroke’s leaders inexplicably decided to change sides and lead a Royalist rebellion. The castle then endured a seven-week siege by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell, following which townspeople were encouraged to re-use its stone for their own uses. It was then left abandoned and decayed into ruin.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that work was undertaken to restore the castle to its former glory. Unfortunately, the project was short-lived and once again it fell into disrepair. However, in 1928 World War I veteran Sir Ivor Philipps acquired the castle and oversaw an extensive restoration which saw the castle returned to its former glory.
Today, Pembroke Castle, despite its turbulent past, sits proudly on its promontory overlooking the Cleddau Estuary. The five-storey keep with its domed roof, as well as the wonderfully intricate gatehouse still dominate the town of Pembroke. Those who venture inside will be greeted with a labyrinth of stairs and tunnels once used by Normans and Tudors. The outer walls that withstood countless sieges now afford fantastic views of a region once beset by unrest and incursion.