I visited lots of medieval castles on my recent trip to Wales. However, the one that I enjoyed the most was Pembroke Castle. It has an enviable waterside location, and is designed to appeal to both families and history-lovers. And, although the history of Pembroke Castle might seem to begin in the Middle Ages, visitors will discover that it goes right back to the Stone Age!
The Turbulent History of Pembroke Castle
Hundreds of castles were built in Wales in the Middle Ages, as the Anglo Norman overlords sought to separate and protect themselves from the Welsh people. Pembroke Castle began as a motte and bailey construction, built by Earl Roger of Montgomery in 1093. Following a series of attacks and sieges, the building was extended and remodelled in the 12th century, until it became the strong stone structure that you can see today. A particular feature is the massive cylindrical keep, which was both a defence from invaders and a place from which to attack them.
The early owners were protégés of the kings of England, and the castle changed ownership several times over the centuries. Probably the most famous resident was Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII of England, who was born here in 1457. During the Civil War the unfortunate inhabitants changed their allegiances, and found themselves successively attacked by both Royalists and Parliamentarians!
The castle was abandoned after the Civil War and fell into decay. The ruins were purchased by a new owner in the early 20th century and there was a massive programme of restoration. Today Pembroke Castle is the largest privately owned castle in Wales.
Wogan Cavern: The Stone Age and the Romans
But the history of the site long predates the castle. Beneath the Great Hall is the Wogan Cavern, a massive limestone cave. Archaeologists have found stone tools here, showing that it was inhabited as far back as the Middle Stone Age. They also found Roman coins, an indication that the Romans may have used the cave as a trading area. And, because this is Wales, the cavern is also said to be the lair of a fierce dragon…
The Norman castle dwellers built a stairway down to the cavern and fortified it with a wall and barred gateway. There was access to the river and it may have been used as a way for people and goods to enter the castle. It was also used as a store room.
Exploring Pembroke Castle
If Pembroke Castle seems familiar, that may be because it has featured in a number of films, most recently Me Before You. Built on a rocky promontory and surrounded by water, it has a spectacular location. The building itself is picturesque, with extensive ruins and plenty to explore.
Start by climbing up to the perimeter walls, where you will have fabulous views over the water and across the Pembrokeshire countryside. When you’ve walked around the walls, you can explore the buildings. Don’t forget to climb down the steep spiral stairway that leads to the Wogan Cavern.
I was impressed by the way the castle was laid out for visitors. A large map of Wales occupies much of the central courtyard, showing the location, and type, of the numerous Welsh castles. And on each of the picnic benches is a laminated display board (in English and Welsh) with subjects like “How to be a Knight” or “Medieval Trip Advisor”. All of which makes it an excellent place for families.
The Mill Pond Walk
But you haven’t finished yet. When you leave the castle walk into the town and follow the Mill Pond Walk. As the name suggests, this goes around the Mill Pond, a body of water that was created as a sort of defensive moat around the castle. As you walk you will be rewarded by fabulous views of the castle across the water.
The Normans certainly knew how to choose a site for a castle!