The fortress was founded in 1093 when Roger Montgomery (d.1094) invaded Dyfed.  The castle then passed to his youngest son, Arnulf and was subsequently isolated by the resurgent Welsh in 1094.  The storyteller Giraldus Cambrensis says much about the era that is worth translating.

Initially this castle was built by Arnulf Montgomery, during the reign of King Henry I, from stakes and turf.  Which afterwards, on his return to England, he consigned to the care of the worthy and prudent Gerald Windsor, his constable and principal war leader, leaving it guarded by a few men.  All the Welshmen of South Wales, their manly and bellicose prince - that is Rhys ap Tewdwr, who a short time before had been slain by the treachery of his own people in Brycheiniog (Brecheinoc), leaving his son, Gruffydd, a child - surrounded the castle in siege.  It happened however, that one night, when 15 soldiers had deserted the castle and endeavoured to escape in a small boat, Gerald, the next morning, gave their esquires the arms of their lords with their fees and immediately decorated them with the belt of a knight.  Truly the inconvenience of the siege, becoming more severe as time dragged on, had finally reduced the castle to extreme famine; Gerald, feigning hope and comfort with the utmost prudence, had the last 4 remaining bacons diced and thrown from the ramparts to the enemy.  However, the next day, he ran to a more refined scheme, he made letters, sealed with his own seal, to be scattered before the court of Bishop Wilfred of St Davids, who happened to be present at that time, as if accidentally dropped.  The letters were to state that Earl Arnulf would not need to send relief to the castle for the next 4 months.  Upon hearing this, the letters being read through the army, the siege was immediately dispersed with each returning to his own home.

These stories have been taken as true, but Giraldus was a known forger and liar, even in his own times.  In this case it can be seen that there was much 'improvement' on real history.  Firstly, Pembroke castle was built during the reign of William Rufus (1087-1100), not Henry I (1100-35).  Secondly, the site of the castle is distinctly egg-shaped and not oblong, although the entire town site is oblong.  
Thirdly, there is no hint of treachery in the early accounts of Rhys ap Tewdwr's death in 1093.  Finally, although the first castle may have been built of wood and turf, as it was on a rocky eminence, as Giraldus himself states, was it likely to remain just a palisade for long, or was it likely to be given a ringwall in short order?  Certainly Giraldus wished to honour his ancestors, Gerald Windsor and Rhys ap Tewdwr and this no doubt led him to colour his accounts.  The stories of the wasted bacon and misleading letters are a common story told by European soldiers and as a Giraldus tale, should probably not be given as much credence as it generally is.  

What can be said with certainty was that there was a great siege of the castle in 1098 and that Gerald Windsor was a belligerent constable of the castle by 1097 and therefore he probably held it for Arnulf who was
with King William Rufus in Normandy at the time.  The Welsh war largely ended in 1099, but King William II was killed in 1100.  This led to more political instability.  In 1102 Arnulf Montgomery chose exile rather than live under the rule of King Henry I and so withdrew from Pembroke castle to Ireland and then France.  The castle was subsequently passed to a knight called Sear and in 1105 to Gerald Windsor, as constable of the Crown.  The borough and castle then remained royal with Henry I granting Pembroke a charter of privileges in 1130.  In 1154 Henry II confirmed 'to my burgesses of Pembroke all their liberties, immunities and free customs as freely as they had them in the time of King Henry, my grandfather'.

In 1138 King Stephen made Gilbert Clare (d.1149) earl of Pembroke, having apparently already granted him the castle.  On the death of Gilbert's son, Richard, in 1176, the castle came again to the Crown during the minority of the heiress, Isabella Clare (d.1220/40).  This ended in 1189 when Richard I granted the castle to William Marshall
(d.1219) with the hand of the heiress in marriage.  As Earl William Marshall of Pembroke he is alleged to have built Pembroke keep on the solid old illogic of because he was a big man he must have built big castles.  

As a backwater the castle did not see much action during the Middle Ages, although it did control the port from which armies irregularly set off for Ireland.  Probably as a sign of favour to the Earl Marshall,
King John granted another charter to Pembroke borough, confirming that made by his father in 1154.  He also granted Pembroke castle mill to the Knights Templars.  The Earls Marshall died out in 1245 and the castle and earldom passed to William Valence (d.1295) and after the Valences died out in 1324, their heirs, the Hastings family.

In 1389 the castle reverted to the Crown when Earl John Hastings of Pembroke, the then heir of the Marshalls, died.  In 1452 King Henry VI (1422-71) gave the castle to Jasper Tudor and Jasper's nephew, the future Henry VII (1485-1509), was born there in 1457.  The castle supported parliament in the Civil War (1642-51), but was battered into surrender after a 7 month siege by parliament in 1648 after supporting the king in the second Civil War (1648-49).  The fortress was then demolished and left a quarry for stone until 1928 when parts of it were refurbished.  This, the largest privately owned castle in Wales, was used in several films, The Lion in Winter, Jabberwocky, Prince Caspian, Richard II and Me Before You.

Pembroke castle currently consists of one large, oval main ward, 250' across by 420' long.  It was originally divided into an eye shaped
inner bailey about 180' across by 140' deep and a large outer bailey about 250' across by 230' deep.  The fortress is set at the north-western end of a rocky ridge set between two tidal inlets.  The whole ridge is occupied by the rectangular town defences over 3,000' long and some 700' wide.  It is possibly this area which made up the wood and earth fortress mentioned by Giraldus in the late eleventh century.

Within the inner ward stands the great round keep, its 4 storeys being over 72' high.  It is topped with an original stone domed roof. 
The keep is 52' in diameter with walls up to 15' thick.  There are a few keeps this size in Wales, viz. Degannwy at 50' and Hawarden at 70' diameter with walls 15' thick.  Pembroke can also be readily compared to two Irish sites, Nenagh, 52' diameter by 15' thick walls and Hook Lighthouse.  In England round towers over 50' in diameter exist at Barnstaple 65', Berkhamsted 58', Buckenham 65', Chartley 59', Conisborough 66', Miserden 60' and Plympton at 50'.  Some of these have a greater diameter than shell keeps, the difference between the two essentially being that a shell keep is open to the elements, while a tower is roofed.

Just south-east of the keep is the line of the mostly destroyed curtain dividing the two wards.  Of this the Prison Tower to the east is the main survivor with the attached Norman and adjoined north hall.  Beneath this and accessed via a spiral stair was a great cavern where supplies could be brought in to the fortress by sea.  Towards the point of the spur was a large rectangular boss of masonry.  Whether this supported a winch, a catapult, or most likely a tower, is unknown.  To the south was a D shaped gatetower known as the horseshoe gate.  This is similar to the gate at Caldicot.

The main
fortress defences were in the larger outer ward.  From the north-east these consisted of St Ann's and the Mill bastion and then 5 round towers of various sizes with a much damaged twin towered gatehouse to the south, which has been skewed to allow easier access.  Of the towers the Monkton bastion to the west is best preserved, the rest being heavily rebuilt.  Posterns can still be seen to east and west, commanded by adjoining towers.  Sadly much of these have been heavily rebuilt and it is hard to judge folly from medieval work.

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