One of the most enduring and awe inspiring legacies of the Normans are their castles. Located across the country, but concentrated in particularly problematic locations, the Norman castle was a manifestation of both royal power and the regime’s insecurity. As timber and mud gave way to stone and iron, castle building reached a climax in complexity and size until gunpowder and changing politics made them somewhat redundant as fortresses.
The Normans were keen to ensure vital locations were guarded by these huge, solid statements of their domination. The City of London was guarded by the Tower of London, a vast fortress complex, centred on William the Conqueror’s original White Tower, that would eventually extend over 14 acres.
The immediate post-Conquest period saw William the Conqueror order similar structures built in the key medieval cities of Norwich, York, Bristol, Winchester, Durham and Lincoln. A testament to the skill of the Norman masons is that all bar Bristol Castle survive and are used in various ways (museums predominate, but 100 students at University College, Durham live in the quite unique castle-based student halls of residence).
The Norman’s aggressive forays against neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland ensured that castle building become concentrated in both border areas (such as Shropshire, Herefordshire, Cumbria, Durham, North Yorkshire and Northumberland) and newly conquered areas (north Wales and south-west Wales).
North Wales’s castles are justifiably renowned – four of their number in Gwynedd (Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech) are inscribed as a World Heritage Site (the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd). Wales has been described as the “castle capital of the world”, with up to 400 castles studding the landscape in an astonishing density of military might.
The reason for the preponderance of Welsh castles is simple – conquest, subjugation and rebellion. From the original Norman invaders of south Wales to the conquest of the unruly north by Edward I, the foreign rulers feared their Welsh vassals and readily built huge castles to deter rebellion and to defend themselves should the locals revolt. The English fear of the Welsh is attested by the concentration of castles in the Welsh Marches of Powys and Monmouthshire.
The focus on the castles on the north Welsh coast and the border diverts attention from the astonishing collection of fortresses in the south west of Wales. Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion boast some of the most amazing castles in the country. This week I have visited some of the most stunning extant examples in Pembrokeshire.
Carew, Manorbier, Pembroke, Tenby and Haverfordwest all remain as permament reminders of the Norman invader’s to impress their power on the locals.