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Kidwelly Castle

Near town center, Carmarthenshire, south Wales

SN 409 070

Map link for Kidwelly Castle

All photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Cadw Guidebook

Kidwelly is a mighty and imposing monument of Norman power. It is also a beautiful example of castle development, as the castle was dramatically altered on a number of occasions to conform to the latest thinking in military science. Roger, bishop of Salisbury, the justiciar of England, established Norman power in the area and the ringwork castle (shown below) that he built here was one of a series of strongholds designed by the Normans to secure the new conquests of south Wales by commanding the river passes here and at Laugharne, Llansteffan and Loughor.

The ringwork at Kidwelly was constructed on a steep ridge overlooking the River Gwendraeth at its upper tidal limit. No further strengthening was needed on the riverside, and the present semicircular bank and ditch formed the 12th-century defences which would have been supplemented by a timber palisade on the bank, probably further strengthened by towers and certainly by a gate. In the interior would have been the timber domestic buildings of the lord. This castle fell to the Welsh on a number of occasions in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, including once in 1159 when the Lord Rhys took it and burnt it. He is later credited with rebuilding the castle in 1190. By 1201, however, it was back in Norman hands and remained English from then on, despite periodic attacks.

In the mid-13th century the de Chaworth family gained possession, and began a long work of building the mighty stone castle that we see today. The earliest parts are best viewed from the centre of the castle, as they consist of the square inner ward with the four large round corner towers and simple portcullis gates to the north and south. By building this inner ward, set as it is within the outer ward, Pain de Chaworth converted Kidwelly into a strong concentric castle, with an inner and outer ring of defences.

Kidwelly passed by marriage in 1298 to Henry, earl of Lancaster, who quickly set about upgrading the accommodation to suit his status. A large first-floor hall reached by a semicircular external stair was built on the east; this has largely fallen, though the wall footings and a fireplace can still be seen. The chapel, housed in a projecting tower overlooking the river, was also built at this time, and the massive spur buttresses of the tower are a distinctive feature of the castle and are best seen from the outside. The chapel has white Sutton-stone mouldings around the doors and windows, piscina and sedile, making it one of the finest parts of the castle. A small building on the south of the chapel house housed the sacristy above the priest's bedchamber. Its fine cruciform roof can be seen from the wall-walk leading from the Great Gatehouse.

 In the early 14th century, the present mighty outer defences were constructed. The stone curtain wall with its wall-walk and series of mural towers was built, or, more probably, an existing wall was considerably heightened. On the north was a small gate with a drawbridge over the ditch, while on the south, the Great Gatehouse was constructed, achieving a hitherto unattainable strength. The four inner towers had to be heightened also to maintain an effective field of fire. The marks of the early crenellations may still be seen, now blocked by the later, heightened stonework.

The Great Gatehouse (right) took at least a century to complete. It was evidently unfinished at the time of the Welsh siege in 1403 during the Glyndwr uprising. Despite the fall of the town to the Welsh, the castle resisted the siege for three weeks until an English army arrived to give assistance. By this time, the castle was in the hands of the crown, and the 15th-century refurbishment after the damage caused by the siege cost over L500. It was not until 1422 that the building finally received its lead roof. The gate passage has a tower on either side with basements which could have functioned as store rooms or as prison cells as their doors are secured by draw-bars on the outside only. The ground floors may have housed porters or guards in the front rooms, while one of the back rooms has a large, bare, dark beehive-shaped prison. On the first floor, over the gate passage and tower rooms, was a massive hall, well appointed despite its having to accommodate the inner portcullis and murder hole, the slots for which may still be seen in the floor. The private apartments of the owner, or perhaps the constable of the castle, were on the second floor above the hall.

The gatehouse was extremely well defended, and indeed was designed so that it could be held independently if the remainder of the castle had fallen to besiegers. A small room in front of the hall housed the outer portcullis and murder hole, and the rooms above must have held the mechanism for lifting the drawbridge. The gatehouse displays a fine array of defensive features. On the towers are a series of arrowloops to defend the entrance; above the arched doorway is the rectangular recess into which the drawbridge would have been drawn, raised by chains running through the small holes in the corners; above the entrance are three arches, or machicolations through which missiles could be dropped on to the hapless invader; on the top of the gatehouse would have been battlements, now mostly gone though their supporting corbels still survive providing for a wider wall-walk for the defenders behind. Within the gate passage were an outer portcullis and gates, three murder holes in the vault above, and an inner portcullis and gate.

The last significant addition to the castle was at the end of the 15th century when a large hall was built on the west of the outer ward with a connecting kitchen within the inner ward. Another building and bakehouse were added, probably the work of Rhys ap Thomas who was granted the castle by Henry VII. In the early 17th century the judicial court was held in the castle, perhaps in the new hall, but by that time the castle's life as a fortification was well-nigh over and it played only a minor part in the Civil War, laying as it did far away from the central area of the struggle.

A walk around the exterior of the castle is recommended, as its dominating position within the town is best appreciated from outside. Kidwelly retains the street pattern of the medieval walled town, and though the walls themselves have disappeared, the early 14th-century South Gate of the town still stands on the main street opposite the castle. The line of town defences survive as hedge lines and probably boundaries, and the northern outworks are particularly well preserved. The foundation of the town was an early one, only shortly after that of the castle, and a small priory was established for the Benedictines at the same time, in 1114.

Additional photographs of Kidwelly Castle


Below: view of the hall range, the south-east tower and the rear gatehouse (inner ward).



Below: view of the north gatehouse (outer ward).


Below: view of the north west tower & outer ward from the south-west tower.


Below: Interior view of the chapel at Kidwelly, and view of the oven from Kidwelly's kitchen (the outer ward)




Below: the towers of the outer ward from the inner ward's south-west tower



Below: view of the later hall (right) and the outer ward.









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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas