About ten years ago I visited Carmarthenshire, Wales and discovered the ruins of Kidwelly Castle with a friend and fellow couch-surfer. It was a delightful and fascinating day, full of overcast grey weather, souvenirs, bara brith, Welsh rarebit and early medieval history.
Perched close to the wind-swept seaside and encircled by beautiful lapwings, ducks and geese, Kidwelly Castle begun its story in 1106 although the story is older and begins at the time of Norman conquest in England in 1066.
William the conquerer
When William the Conquerer 1066-87 overran England with the Normans after the battle of Hastings in 1066, Wales was already divided into several distinct kingdoms.
So instead of dividing and conquering these individual kingdoms, William established a buffer zone along the border of Wales (the Marches) where he established many of his own Norman lords in the area, where they built many major strongholds such as Chepstow and Chester.
It wasnt until the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr ruler of South West Wales in 1093 that the Normans could finally penetrate further south. Bases were established in Pembroke and Cardigan and then a royal castle was founded in 1095 in Carmarthen.
Copyright Content Catnip 2010However in 1096 many of these castles were taken back by the Welsh in a series of uprisings against the Normans. The re-establishment of Norman rule only came with the accession of Henry I (1100-35), William’s son.
The birth of a castle
And so in 1106. Kidwelly Castle was born. Bishop Roger of Salisbury was granted the lands by Henry I. There he built a remarkable castle. Although the Welsh weren’t going to give up their land without a fight.
Gwenllian the brave
One of the more dramatic medieval events was he valiant battle of Gwenllian, the wife of Deheubarth prince Gruffydd ap Rhys against the Normans near Kidwelly Castle.
In 1136 an opportunity arose for the Welsh to recover lands lost to the Marcher Lords. The revolt against the Normans began in South Wales.
While her husband was in another town seeking an alliance from a neighbouring army, Gwenllian came under attack by the Normans led by Maurice de Londres. Gwenllian was forced to raise an army. The battle was fought near Kidwelly Castle, Gwenllian’s army was defeated, she was captured in battle and beheaded by the Normans.
Although defeated, her revolt led to more rebellions in South Wales against the Norman invaders. Afterwards, her brothers Owain and Cadwaladr hearing of the news of her death invaded and took control of nearby towns Llanfihangel, Aberystwyth, and Llanbadarn.
To this day, Gwenllian’s bravery is compared to another female Celtic leader of armies, Boadicea. The field where the battle took place near to Kidwelly Castle is known as Maes Gwenllian or the Field of Gwenllian. Centuries later Welshmen would shout a battlecry of Revenge for Gwenllian when going into battle.
The castle’s remnants today are largely the result of the rebuilding that occurred by the de Chaworth family who occupied the castle in the 13th century.
In the south gatehouse you can find creepy prison cells, this place looked and felt a lot colder than in other parts of the castle. No natural light permeated here and instead there was a lonely old light bulb illuminating the tiny, meagre room. The atmosphere in here was claustrophobic and reminded me of how a gallows and a dungeon would feel, or how I would imagine these places to feel.
One particularly nasty Norman invention was the ‘bottle dungeon’ or the oubliette, a trap door below ground level, where prisoners could be lowered and never to be seen again. They would be held in truly revolting conditions in a funnel shaped cell. This was truly the point of no return!
Overall this place filled me with awe and wonder because it was so well-built and sophisticated, despite how old it was. When all of our own timber, plaster and brick houses will collapse and rot, these majestic castles still remain and are a testament to medieval building practices.
Chapel: hallowed, sacred ground
According to the wall’s signs, which I helpfully photographed ten years ago. (Thanks 27 year old me) The chapel served to defend the castle’s eastern flank and was also an elegant set-piece of worship.
The chapel was above a fortress room and contained an altar on the left hand wall and to its right a basin for washing the sacred vessels. There was also a small sacristy.
Arrow-slits in the windows
Here you can see the arrow-slits in the windows of the castle. These provided people inside of the castle with an ample view outside to despatch arrows, but the invading army outside would have very little chance of aiming through the tiny slit in the castle, giving a supreme advantage to those inside. After the invention of gunpowder – these arrow slits included a circular hole for a cannon to be put against the window to shoot out.
The Secrets of the Castle by the BBC
I recently became totally transfixed by medieval forms of engineering after watching this riveting BBC series, Secrets of the Castle, where a real life castle is rebuilt using all of the same methods as they did in the olden days of yore.
The technology and techniques they used were obviously completely analogue and quite novel, however they were anything but primitive. To create such a thing of sublimely symmetrical window mouldings, arches and buttresses makes these medieval artisans and engineers actual geniuses. Respect!
This isn’t the only castle I’ve visited. I’ve also been to
Edinburgh Castle in Scotland,
Linlithgow Palace in Scotland,
Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye
The Renaissance fortress in Zamosc in Poland.
All of them are really impressive and I want to visit more.