Five Little-Known Tudor Castles in West and South Wales

Monday, 5 September 2022

If you were asked to name a monarch from Britain’s timeline, you’d probably pick one of the illustrious rulers from the reign of the Tudors, which lasted a whopping 118 years. There’s certainly a bunch of extraordinary characters to choose, from a tyrant king with six ill-fated wives to a virgin queen who lived for almost 70 years; a young girl who lasted just nine days on the throne and a Welshman who started the dynasty by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Their narratives live on in our minds, and the castles they inhabited have left an equally indelible mark on Britain’s landscape. England’s Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle are perhaps the most famous Tudor residencies. But Wales, with more castles per square mile than any other European country, has some stunning Tudor castles of its own.

Sadly, Wales’s connections to the Tudors largely goes unnoticed, even by those with a self-proclaimed interest in that period. However, there are five Welsh castles in the west and south of Wales that are shrouded in the mysteries of the Tudors. From once-private residences to large defences, each stronghold is guaranteed to leave you thinking about, or proclaiming, the well-known rhyme “divorce, beheaded, died”.

Raglan Castle – Henry Tudor’s Prison and Boyhood Home

The enormous silhouette of Raglan Castle adorns the magnificent Monmouthshire countryside. It’s a statement piece if ever there was one, and its unparalleled fortress-esque architecture, with its multi-angular towers and Tudor designs, is fitting for a place known as the ‘grandest castle ever built by Welshmen’.

It was built with the intention to astound as much as to intimidate, and Sir William ap Thomas, known as the Blue Knight of Gwent, obviously got this memo. He built the moated Great Tower in 1435 and his son Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, constructed the gatehouse, featuring flared ‘machicolations’. The Herbert family were powerful Welsh nobles and rivals to the Tudor family, as William Herbert was loyal to the Yorkist cause during the War of the Roses.

When the Lancastrian army was defeated in 1461 at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Jasper Tudor, who was Henry Tudor’s (King Henry VII) uncle, was forced to flee the country and leave the toddler Henry behind at Pembroke Castle. After Herbert’s forces captured Pembroke, Henry Tudor fell into their care, as Herbert purchased rights to the young boy. Henry was then taken to Raglan Castle and was brought up as part of the household, despite being essentially a prisoner. The hall is the most complete residential apartment at the castle, while the Long Gallery is considered the finest room of Tudor rebuilding in Britain, featuring an ornate Renaissance fireplace and impressive windows.

Carew Castle – Home to Tudor Loyalty and Treason

Pembrokeshire is the county where Henry Tudor and the Tudor dynasty was born. But the region was also an important area for Marcher lords who were quashing the Welsh resistance to the Normans advancing into Wales after 1066. Carew Castle, with its 2,000 years of history, is an excellent example of both defining moments in Pembrokeshire’s history.

Its enormous footprint was originally a Norman stronghold, before it became a lavish Elizabethan country house, and the 23-acre millpond surrounding it reflects the castle’s diverse architectural features. These include the 13th-century Old Tower, a great hall and chapel and an unusually large windows in the northern wing built in the Elizabethan Renaissance style. The castle was a dominant site for kingmakers, knights, and Elizabethan intrigue, including being the home of John Perrot, who died in the Tower of London after being charged with crimes of high treason.

For a long time, the castle was owned by a powerful Norman family; but after the Battle of Bosworth, it was passed to Sir Rhys ap Thomas for his allegiance to the Tudors during this fight. Sir Thomas was a distant kinsman of Henry Tudor, and he gained the trust of both Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. As a result, he was said “to rule this corner of Wales like a King”, altering a lot of the castle and inserting many of the Bath stone windows you see today. Above a staircase in the inner courtyard there are three concrete coats of arms that belonged to Henry VII, Prince Arthur, and Queen Catherine of Aragon.

Pembroke Castle – The Birthplace of Henry Tudor

Pembroke Castle is one of the most famous forts in Wales as it’s the only castle in Britain to have been built over a natural cave. Much like Carew Castle, Pembroke was established by Norman Marcher lords before being bestowed upon Jasper Tudor in 1452. Its position on the River Cleddau and formidable fortifications, including the 23-metres-tall and 6-metres-thick keep makes it one of the most imposing and well-defended castles in Wales. The keep is also believed to be the biggest of its kind in the UK.

Another reason Pembroke Castle is so well-known is because it was the birthplace of Henry Tudor in 1457. The future king was born in a tower, assumed to be a guard chamber, overlooking Westgate. It is now known as the Henry VII Tower. Inside the tower today, there is an exhibition on the first floor containing a tableau of Henry VII’s birth with life-size statues of the nurses and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, looking after the baby. On the ground floor, there is also a video about Jasper Tudor’s life.

Laugharne Castle – A Private Tudor Residence

Laugharne is known for being the market town where Dylan Thomas, Wales’s most beloved poet, lived and wrote. It was he who described Laugharne Castle as “brown as owls” in Poem in October, and his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog was written in the castle summerhouse, settled above the Taf estuary. Almost everyone who ventures to Laugharne will do so in honour of, or fascination, with the poet. The castle was first established in 1116, before being rebuilt as a Norman fortress, it was then turned into a fortified Tudor manor house in the 16th Century.

Today, visitors will see a haunting silhouette where its mass stone structure is infrequently pierced by jiggered windows and uneven crenelations. The fact that the resident crows screech from atop its immense medieval towers makes this castle one of the most atmospheric in South Wales. It clearly reflects the centuries of conflict between the Anglo-Normans and the Welsh. After these turbulent times, Laugharne was rescued by Sir John Perrot, the same Elizabethan courtier who owned Carew Castle. He rebuilt the 13th-century

castle into a private residence fit for a nobleman, refurbishing a substantial accommodation block, creating a cobbled courtyard, adding a stone kitchen floor and heightening the mock battlements.

Tenby Castle – A Tudor Powerbase

Tenby is known worldwide as a thriving seaside town along the Pembrokeshire coast, where its colourful Georgian houses and pristine beaches have been welcoming holidaymakers since the 19th Century. Throughout history, the town has played a major part in the county’s history, and the castle was first built by the Normans. However, by the 15th Century it was under Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, and his uncle, Henry Tudor’s control.

Jasper was the half-brother of the Lancastrian King Henry VI. Due to his promise to the king and desire to withstand challenges from the Yorkist pretenders, Jasper refurbished and improved Tenby’s defences, adding more turret towers and thickening the walls around the settlement by six feet and increasing its height.

While most of the castle has been destroyed, parts of the walls can still be seen around the town. The most impressive section is the Barbican Gate, which is known locally as the Five Arches, and the castle’s small tower standing on Castle Hill. It is the arches at Barbican Gate that visitors must pass through to get into the main town, where they’ll find St Mary’s Church, dating to the 15th Century, and a Tudor merchant’s house. This establishment gives a snapshot into the life of a successful middleclass merchant. In addition, Jasper Tudor brought his nephew Henry Tudor to Tenby after a Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

It was at this time that Henry Tudor became the most important figure on the Lancastrian side. As a result, he and his uncle had to hide from the Yorkists. They hid in the tunnels under the town, and there is a plaque saying: It is said that Henry Tudor (later King Henry VII) escaped through a tunnel here in 1471 when he fled to France.