The fortress was built upon an early hillfort by the family of Marmion before 1146 when it was seized by the princes of Deheubarth.  The lord of the castle at this time was Geoffrey Marmion (d.1161+).  In the inevitable counterattack the young Prince Maredudd ap Gruffydd (d.1155), at just 15 years of age, was recorded as throwing the Normans' scaling ladders down into the castle ditch.  In 1158 the castle was probably retaken by Marmion troops.  Geoffrey was last mentioned in 1161 in his home county of Devon.  Many of the Deheubarthian Marchers came from Devon and Somerset and controlled the sea passage up the Bristol Channel to Gloucester and beyond.  Geoffrey left an only daughter, Aubreye, and before 1180 she married William, a younger son of Richard Camville (bef.1100-76).  As a younger son he seems to have held no lands in chief, other than his Marcher barony, which was generally outside of royal taxation and therefore pretty much invisible in the royal records.  Llanstephan was seized and destroyed by the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1189, but was regained probably in 1191.  The castle was certainly operational again by 1192 when William was granted 10 marks (£6 13s 4d) to help garrison it.

William Camville died between 1206 and 1219, as too did his eldest son, Geoffrey, possibly in the fighting that engulfed Deheubarth at this time.  The castle was taken by the princes of Deheubath again in 1215 during the civil war of King John's reign.  Llanstephan, or its ruin, was therefore inherited by William's youngest son, Thomas, who died in 1271.  In 1221 the castle was returned by Rhys Gryg (d.1234) to Thomas as part of an abortive settlement of the Welsh disputes.  Despite this, the castle was seized by Cynan ap Hywel (d.1238+) while Thomas was still under age in 1223.  The castle was regained before 1241, but fell again to Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1257.  This was the castle's last main military event.  In 1370, during a French invasion threat, the garrison was recorded as the constable and 12 archers.  In 1415 the castle was confiscated by the Crown from Henry Gwyn, who had been killed fighting for the French at Agincourt.  King Henry VII (1485-1509) eventually granted the castle to Jasper 'Tudor' in 1495 and he is supposed to have allowed the fortress to fall into disrepair.

The earliest part of the castle is the polygonal inner ward, which occupies the inner part of a hill fort enclosure, similar to the site found at Elmley Castle in Worcestershire.  The cobbled wallwalk from which Maredudd ap Rhys threw down his Norman opponents still stands in part with traces of a parapet and parados.  This inner ward was entered from the north via a rectangular gatetower of 3 storeys which stands internal to the enceinte.  The main gateway is pointed and the windows in the 2 floors above rectangular, but covered by prominent relieving arches.  The upper floor is internally and externally inset, which may suggest that this is an addition.  Access to the portcullis gate chamber was only gained via the wallwalk from the east.  The join between curtain and gatetower suggests that the curtain has been raised and thickened.  The original curtain was only about 10' high.

On the east side of the enceinte was a round tower, added centrally to the curtain and suggested as a small 30' diameter keep.  Similar small round towers thought to be keeps exist in Wales at Cardigan (37'), Dinefwr (45'), Dolbadarn (42'), Dolforwyn (40'), Dryslwyn (40'), Ewloe (40'), Laugharne (35'), Llawhaden (32'), Skenfrith (30'), Tenby (19') and Tretower (42', within an earlier shell keep).  There are also round towers that are definitely keeps set upon mottes existing in Wales at Bronllys (35'), Caldicot (36') and Nevern (30') as well as in England at Caus (34'), Hertford (30'), Huntington (c.30'), Launceston (39' and within a shell keep) and Longtown (46').  Larger round keeps over 50' in diameter are discussed under Pembroke.

Only the foundations of this round keep at Llanstephan now remain, although the base of a garderobe chute survives to the south-west.  This was effectively blocked by the later rectangular building which stands close against the external west face of the 'keep'.  At the north-west side of the enceinte stands a small, internal rectangular turret, between which and the gatetower are the shattered remnants of the original great hall along a thickened west curtain.

The inner ward was later protected on its vulnerable north and east sides by a large outer bailey.  Access to the wallwalk was reached either via the gatehouse, the north-east tower, or via a flight of steps running from the entrance to the inner ward along the inner enceinte to join the outer ward wallwalk at right angles.  The stretch of inner curtain covered by the outer ward to the north has been reduced to its foundations.  Built against and around the eastern inner enceinte were a series of buildings and an apparent sallyport through the outer enceinte.  These must post-date the outer curtain judging by the way they butt against it.  Another sallyport exists in the south-east wall of the inner enceinte.  

The outer ward has a great twin towered gatehouse to the north, similar to those with rear stair turrets found in Wales at AberystwythHarlech, Caerphilly
and in England, only at Tonbridge in Kent.  There are also the enlongated versions at Llangibby and Beaumaris.  The floor holding corbels were once proudly decorated, the bust of a man surviving on one.  Presumably all this structure is thirteenth century.  At least a hundred years later the gate passageway was sealed and the gatehouse converted into a towerhouse, although the portcullis grooves and murder holes were not removed in the old, dark gate passageway.  Simultaneously as the gates were blocked the curtain was broken down east of the gatehouse and a new internal gatetower inserted.  This looks similar to the gatetower inserted into the curtain at Ogmore castle in Glamorgan.

East of the gatetower was a long narrow building which had been converted into a single storey thatched hovel by the nineteenth century.  This was terminated by a powerful 4 storey D shaped tower at the north-east apex of the ward.  Like the gatehouse this too had similar decorative corbels.  It also had a polygonal stair turret added to its east side and a rectangular garderobe turret to the west, confirming this tower's residential status.  South-east of this tower was another building and then in the east corner a projecting garderobe turret, before the curtain took a straight line back to the inner enceinte.  The west side of the outer enceinte has one vulnerable sharp turn and a medium sized D shaped tower of 2 storeys, the basement being vaulted.  The loops in this are unique to the site, having two high sighting loops, making it a pronounced cross-shape.  Presumably this was built at a different time to the rest of the outer ward defences.

Why not join me at other Lost Welsh Castles next Spring?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2017 Paul Martin Remfry