Exploring the Rich History of Pembrokeshire Castles: A Journey through Time
Pembrokeshire, nestled on the southwest coast of Wales, is a land of windswept beaches, craggy cliffs, and rolling hills. But amidst this natural beauty lies a legacy sculpted in stone: its majestic castles. These towering sentinels stand as silent witnesses to centuries of power struggles, dynastic clashes, and turbulent history.
They are all worth a visit to be part of Pembrokeshire history - ranging from the town centre castles, such as in Pembroke town to the coastal strongholds such as Manorbier Castle. Although just over the county border into Ceredigion, the recently renovated Cardigan castle has become a major attraction in Cardigan town.
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Pembrokeshire boasts the highest concentration of castles in the UK, with over fifty peppering its landscape. This impressive figure represents 5% of all castles in Wales, according to Cadw, the Welsh Government's historic environment service. From imposing Norman fortresses to elegant Elizabethan mansions, each castle tells a unique story, offering a glimpse into Pembrokeshire's rich and often tumultuous past.
Norman Domination: A Legacy in Stone
Following the Norman invasion of Wales in the 11th century, Pembrokeshire became a strategic battleground. To assert dominance and control the unruly Welsh princes, the Normans embarked on a castle-building spree. Pembroke Castle, the county's crown jewel, is a testament to this era. Built in 1093 by Arnulf de Montgomery, it stands guard over the river Cleddau, displaying the typical Motte and Bailey design favoured by the Normans. Its imposing keep, a rare cylindrical tower with a distinctive stone dome, has captivated visitors for centuries.
But Pembroke Castle wasn't alone. Carew Castle, perched on the banks of the Carew River, boasts a fascinating mix of Norman architecture and later Elizabethan additions. Manorbier Castle, perched precariously on a cliffside, was once the home of Gerald of Wales, a famous medieval historian and writer. Its dramatic setting and well-preserved interiors offer a glimpse into the lives of the Norman elite.
These Norman strongholds weren't just symbols of power; they were also vital economic hubs. Their surrounding lands provided rich pickings for the Norman lords, fuelling a booming agricultural trade. According to a 2018 report by the Welsh Government, agriculture still contributes £1.6 billion to the Welsh economy, highlighting the enduring legacy of these early medieval settlements.
Beyond Battlements: Castles Transformed
As time marched on, Pembrokeshire's castles transcended their purely military roles. Some, like Picton Castle, evolved into luxurious residences. Built in the 13th century, it remains home to the descendants of its original owner, Sir John Wogan. Its grand interiors and meticulously maintained gardens reflect a shift towards aristocratic comfort and leisure.
Others in nearby Carmarthenshire, like Laugharne Castle, met a more tragic fate. Built in the 12th century on a dramatic clifftop, it was besieged by Oliver Cromwell's forces during the English Civil War. Today, its ruined walls stand as a poignant reminder of the cost of conflict. Cardigan castle just over the county border from Pembrokeshire is the home of the National Eisteddfod of Wales and has been renovated in the early 2000's.
Despite their differing fates, Pembrokeshire's castles continue to be significant tourist attractions. According to Visit Pembrokeshire, over 850,000 visitors explored the county's castles in 2019, generating over £34 million for the local economy. This influx of tourism plays a vital role in supporting rural communities and preserving these historic treasures.
Living History: Engaging with the Past
Pembrokeshire's castles aren't merely relics of the past; they offer engaging experiences for visitors of all ages. Interactive exhibits, historical re-enactments, and guided tours bring the stories of these castles to life. Families can explore secret passages, climb winding staircases, and imagine the lives of knights and ladies who once walked these same halls.
These castles also serve as important educational resources. Educational programs offered by Cadw, and other organizations connect students with local history, fostering a sense of place and identity. According to a 2020 report by the Heritage Lottery Fund, 79% of young people who visit historic sites feel more connected to their local community, highlighting the value of these castles in fostering cultural understanding.
Pembrokeshire's castles are more than just stones and mortar; they are living testaments to a rich and often turbulent past. Each weathered wall, crumbling tower, and hidden passage whispers a tale of battles fought, lives lived, and empires that rose and fell. By exploring these majestic sentinels, we not only connect with the past but also gain a deeper understanding of the people and events that shaped Pembrokeshire, and indeed, Wales itself.
So, pack your bags, lace up your walking boots, and embark on a journey through time through Pembrokeshire's crown jewels of the coast.
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