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Norman Castles in Wales


Historic Chepstow in southeast Wales (above), and mighty Kidwelly in south Wales (below),
two excellent examples of Norman-built Welsh castles.

Photographs copyright © by Jeffrey L. Thomas


he Norman Barons responsible for the conquest of Wales were a small group of men, rarely exceeding twenty in number, who, in the immediate aftermath of Hastings, were far too busy with problems of security and control in England and Normandy itself to give much attention to Wales. However, the defense of a frontier soon turned to aggressive expansion. As a contemporary historian recorded, the Normans were "a war-like race...moved by fierce ambition to lord it over others." Having practiced the techniques in England and elsewhere, they well understood that the first rule of successful appropriation was to make sure of the territories overrun. To this end, the Normans had developed the castle. Castles had not yet existed anywhere in Wales before the Norman Conquest. Yet over the following two centuries many hundreds were to be established. In order to understand the pattern of building a little more clearly, it is well to think from the outset of a three-fold division.

First, by far the largest group of castles were those built by the Anglo-Norman lords of the March (from the French word marche meaning frontier). The Marcher lordships eventually swung in a great arc from Chester in the north to Chepstow in the south, and then west to Pembroke. The grandest and most powerful of these strongholds were those built by the lords themselves: Caerphilly, Cardiff, Chepstow, Kidwelly, and the rest. But there were smaller examples too, such as Bronllys and Tretower, built by followers and lieutenants of the major barons.

The Bayeux Tapestry detailing the Norman invasion of England.

The second group was confined largely to the north and west of the country, the area known from the late 12th century as pura Wallia (pure Wales). Following the Norman Conquest, it was to take 200 years before Edward I extended the overlordship of the English kings to this area. The Welsh princes had, however, begun to imitate the Norman example soon after 1100, and gradually castles spread throughout their territories. Today, fine later Welsh stone building can be seen at Dinas Bran, Dinefwr, Dolbadarn, or Dolwyddelan.

Finally, in the background of this castle-building in Wales stalk the figures of the English kings. Until the late 13th century, their influence and involvement were not great, but, when employed, the royal hand was generally steady and the policy assured. Though having something of a chequered history, Carmarthen served as a royal castle from the reign of King Henry I (1100-35). At Newcastle, Bridgend, and White Castle, substantial building works in the 1180s were probably commissioned by Henry II.

Plundering ruthlessly along the river valleys and coastal plains, the Norman lords set out to terrorize the country and force the Welsh into subjugation. As early as 1067 William the Conqueror placed William fitz Osbern, one of his most trusted confidants, at Hereford. By 1071 Roger of Montgomery had been installed at Shrewsbury, and Hugh of Avranches ("The Fat") at Chester. In each case a new earldom was created, and in each case a new earl was granted royal demesne in the country and control of the county town. Within these virtually independent lordships - the foundation of the March itself - the earls ruled as miniature kings.

Before his death in 1071, fitz Osbern had overrun much of south-east Wales, and his exploits had set the pattern for the remaining conquest of this area. In all of the Norman's initial advances, the castle was the means by which short-term victory was converted into conquest and domination. Only in the most securely held areas of the march do we find substantial stone castles of early date. The outstanding example is the work of William fitz Osbern at Chepstow, where the keep - still the core of the castle today - was built during 1067-71, and was quite exceptional for the period. Gradually, as the 12th century progressed, the use of stone became more common, sometimes at new sites, but more often replacing earlier timber constructions.

The end of Henry II's reign marks something of a watershed. It would be some years before an English king would invade Wales again. What is more, the map of the division of the country between Marcher lord and Welsh principalities had reached the shape that was to last, in the main, right through to 1277 and the conquests of Edward I.

Wales - Castles and Historic Places, by CADW, Welsh Historic Monuments, Wales Tourist Board, publisher, Brunel House, 2 Fitzalan Road, Cardiff CF2 1UY, 1990.

Follow this link to visit the Bayeux Tapestry website

More Information about Norman Motte and Bailey Earthwork Castles

Learn more about the history of Norman Marcher Lords in Wales

William Fitz Osbern

William de Braose

Gilbert fitz Richard

Gilbert de Clare

William Marshal

 Medieval Kings of England and their Times

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas