Powis castle (Trallwg Llywelyn) was founded on its current site in 1111 by King Cadwgan ap Bleddyn of Powys, the most powerful Welsh ruler of his day.  Unfortunately power brought many rivals and that year Cadwgan was slain there while 'not wishing to harm anyone'.  That this was the site occupied and not the motte is ascertained from the siege of Powis castle (Trallwg Llywelyn) waged by the archbishop of Canterbury against Gwenwynwyn in 1196.  According to the Welsh Chronicles the archbishop:

labouriously laid siege to it with diverse engines and siege contrivances, at last by wondrous ingenuity they won the castle by sending sappers to dig under it and to make hidden passages underground.

This sounds like an attack upon a castle upon a rock and not as is so often claimed an assault through Welshpool lake against the water defences of Welshpool motte.

Gwenwynwyn retook his castle before the year was out and the castle remained the chief stronghold of the princes of Powys for the thirteenth century, although it occasionally fell to the princes of Gwynedd.  Thus in 1216 Llywelyn ab Iorwerth warred against Gwenwynwyn and drove him in flight to Cheshire taking all of his possessions for his own.  Llywelyn then proceeded to deal with Powis castle as his own, parcelling it out to his sons as he felt fit.  In 1241 Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn regained his castle and held it until 1274 despite an abortive attack by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1257.  In November 1274 Prince Llywelyn sent messengers to Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn to the castle of Welshpool (kastell y Trallwg).  After a show of defiance by Gruffydd which included raising his banner from the great tower (in maiori turre) and clearing houses from the castle environs the Prince came with his army and 'burned the castle and destroyed it to the ground'.  In 1276 with the help of Roger Mortimer and the earl of Lincoln, Gruffydd regained his lands, and no doubt rebuilt Powis castle with Gruffydd demanding compensation from the prince for la Pole Castr'.

The castle remained lived in after the Middle Ages and was extensively and repeatedly remodelled after 1587, when it was acquired by Sir Edward Herbert.  In the midst of all this the castle was besieged and taken in a siege during 1644 and not returned to the Herberts until 1660.

The castle consisted of 3 wards, outer one to the E&W and an inner one with is now the east ward, the original east ward, towards the town, having been swept away by landscape gardening in the seventeenth century.  Recent study of the site has concluded that the rectangular keep thought to lie at the SE corner of the enceinte is merely a part of the enceinte and not even the oldest masonry of the castle.  Instead the 'blister' on the south side of the gatehouse would appear to be the remnants of a shell keep some 70' across.  This would make it the smallest one in the UK, but, as was noted by the surveyors, this size is a minimum estimate.  Shell keeps are discussed in Tonbridge castle.

The current rectangular gatehouse might be the original entrance to the postulated shell keep, but it has been massively rebuilt and has two unusual rounded turrets at its eastern angles.  The thickness of the NE angle of the curtain would suggest that this is also the second phase work, like the SE corner.  This block ran westwards to join up with the great west gatehouse and seems to have housed the great hall.  These first two phases, the shell keep and the rectangular curtains to the east, seem to have been made with quarried stone.  The great twin towered west gatehouse, however, appears to be made with rubble from collapsed buildings.  In style it appears to be of the turretless variety which is the most common.  Various English examples of such great twin towered gatehouses survive at
Beeston, Bungay, Clifford, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington.  In Wales they exist at Caerphilly, Carmarthen, Chepstow, Criccieth, Degannwy, Dinas Bran, Llawhaden, Neath, Oystermouth, Rhuddlan, Tinboeth and White Castle.  In Scotland they can be found at Kildrummy and Urquhart and finally elsewhere in Ireland at Carrickfergus, Castle Roche, Limerick and Roscommon.

At Powis the gatehouse stands to its full height, the original battlements being fossilised in their Georgian replacements.  Peculiarly the gate passageway is not straight at Powis, presumably this was done so that the new gatehouse joined to an internal building or courtyard.  The layout is now lost under later building.  At the east end of the south wall a few modified loops can also be seen, one possibly marking the position of a garderobe.  

To the west of the great gatehouse is the only surviving outer ward.  This consists of 175' of 10' thick curtain wall with central a D shaped tower, similar to those at Castell Dinas Bran, Denbigh town walls and Dolforwyn.  At the NW corner is a small round stair turret.

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