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 and husband to a daughter of Picot Say of Clun.  Unfortunately power brought many rivals and that year Cadwgan was slain there while 'not wishing to harm anyone'.  That the current mansion was the site occupied and not the nearby 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 fortress 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 personal property, 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 of Wigmore and Earl Henry Lacy of Lincoln (d.1311), Gruffydd regained his lands, and no doubt repaired Powis castle with Gruffydd demanding compensation from the prince for la Pole Castr'.

The castle remained inhabited 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, an outer one to the east and west and an inner one with is now the east ward.  A further, original east ward, towards the town, was 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 south-east corner of the ward 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.

The current rectangular gatehouse to the east of the inner ward might be the original entrance to the postulated shell keep, but it has been massively rebuilt and has 2 unusual rounded turrets at its eastern angles.  The thickness of the north-east angle of the curtain would suggest that this is also second phase work, like the south-east corner.  This block ran westwards to join up with the great west twin towered gatehouse and seems to have housed the great hall.  These first 2 phases, the shell keep and the rectangular curtains to the east, seem to have been made with quarried stone.  The twin towered 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 in the thirteenth century.
 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, presumably this was done so that the new gatehouse joined to an internal building or courtyard.  The layout of this is now lost under later building.  At the east end of the south inner ward 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 remant of the outer ward.  This consists of 175' of 10' thick curtain wall with a central D shaped tower, similar to those at Castell Dinas Bran, Denbigh town walls and Dolforwyn.  At the north-west corner is a small round stair turret.  The rest of the ward has been swept away.

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