People might say Tenby Castle is certainly real. After all, you can see it and walk round it. It’s a castle in Wales like all the others, isn’t it? A military defence built by the Normans when they invaded Pembrokeshire because they needed to defend Tenby. Who were the enemy? Well, it’s obvious….. Welsh attackers trying to take back their own land. Logical. End of story….
…. And that was how most historians looked at castles up until recently. All the books and guidebooks stressed the military side. They were built for defence and gradually improved with ever more elaborate defences. Wooden walls gave way to stone, outside ditches got deeper and wider, perhaps with stretches of water, concentric plans appeared with one higher set of walls inside an outer circuit, keeps were built and then seen as unnecessary as gatehouses became stronger and more elaborate. There was a gradual development as castles got bigger and more formidable until gunpowder called a halt at the end of the Middle Ages. The only people who lived there were the lord and his servants, and his knights and soldiers to man the walls.
Except it’s not so simple or logical. What are you really looking at when you look at Tenby Castle?… Is it a real major fortress or an aristocratic country house? Is it like Harlech Castle, a magnificent stronghold in a similar position, or does it have more in common with the clifftop Georgian and Victorian houses in Tenby but older by eight hundred years?
Modern research suggests that castles were able to be defended, of course. More important, they were places for comfortable living and to show off how rich and powerful the lord was. The aim was to awe the peasants and to impress the neighbouring lord, or even king, who might come to visit. The suites of rooms, the hall for dining and the kitchen, the stables for visitors’ horses, how smelly (or not) were the garderobes (toilets); all were as important as the height of the walls. The view from the castle was necessary to survey the surrounding country and spot the enemy coming. More important were the features which made the castle a great place to live in: a pleasant view with deer parks or woods to hunt nearby, looking out over the lord’s gardens with perhaps even a sea or mountain view.
Which of those two ideas fits Tenby Castle better?
On the one hand the main entrance is very impressive. A visiting aristocrat would see a powerful fortress as he approached the castle. To get into the castle our visiting lord would have to climb a steep hill to reach the main gate, needing close attention to his horse. The castle walls loomed over the path to the left, and there was another wall to left, now gone. He is hemmed in. On top of the walls would stand the garrison, perhaps to honour the visitor but also to imply strength. The main entrance gate was a semi-circular bastion in the latest military fashion but quite small. The gate would be either closed or open. If the visitor was high status, the gate would be thrown open and the visitor could ride in. If he was lower in rank, he would have to dismount and go in through the small door in the main gate. In any case, our visitor is again hemmed in by walls but he also has to turn sharp left through another gatehouse in order to gain access to the castle itself. He cannot see the interior at once. Above him are portcullises and murder holes above and firing holes on either side of the passage.
Finally, he reaches the main courtyard. There are buildings to the right above the cliff but he can just see other buildings on the other side of the hill. There are lots of doors. He doesn’t know which he should go through to find his host. At this point a senior servant, the constable, seneschal or butler would appear, take his horse and any servants and have them led away to the servants’ hall and stables, perhaps on the left. Depending on how important he is, the nearer his accommodation is to his host – a single room in the gatehouse is good enough for a squire or local knight. If he is higher status his rooms, with en-suite garderobe, are near the hall on the right, overlooking Castle Sands, perhaps with a view of St. Catherine’s and St Margaret’s Islands with their chapels and Caldey with its monastery. A pleasant place for the religious medieval man to wait, as his military brain admired the steep cliffs protecting the castle on that side. How long he had to wait would depend again on how superior he was. Sooner or later the higher or lower servant would guide him to meet his host, somewhere at the end of winding passages to confuse attackers and also our visitor. Of course, if the visitor was very important, the prince or king, the host would meet the king outside the main gate and escort him inside, no doubt pointing out how strong his castle was.
It appears here that the military side was important, but with a strong hint of showmanship, precedence and ritual. So, how effective was it as a fortress?
Well, as a stronghold Tenby Castle was a bit of a failure. It was successfully attacked at least twice. If it was designed to protect Tenby then it is in the wrong place, inside the town. As it is on a headland near the harbour, perhaps it was put there to defend against attacks from the sea? When the first assault on Tenby by the Welsh came, it came by sea, in boats they boarded at Amroth. After they sacked the castle and burnt the town they handed the remains back, almost as if to say, that’s what we think of your puny excuse of a castle.
And puny it appears now. So perhaps this was all for show? What other evidence is there that Tenby Castle was more a country house than a fortress?
Firstly, there is the site. A modern estate agent would go into purple prose to describe its many advantages: magnificent situation, superb views, comfortable accommodation on the sheltered south side of the peninsula with healthy sea air, kitchens, stables and other smelly occupations on the exposed north side, downwind and out of sight, English servants available from the village outside, easy supplies of fresh fish on Fridays, (very important for the medieval Catholic), superb facilities for hunting in Coedrath Forest beyond Northcliff, easy passage by boat to Pembroke, the heart of the earldom or farther afield to Bristol and England. A paradise. Then there are the walls which appear magnificently strong, a credit to any lord wanting to display his high status. But are they what they appear?
The strong main gate has already been described. But there was another much weaker and more vulnerable gate, a postern. If you were a tradesman delivering a side of beef or venison carcass, or a fisherman a basket of fresh mackerel for the lord’s table you were too low status to go in through the main gate, you went in through the servant’s postern past where the former Paxton baths are now, continued inside the low wall on the left overlooking Butler’s Hard and then turned sharp right back on yourself to go up the narrow climbing path directly to the kitchen. Defensively it is weak, to keep the riff-raff hidden it is perfect.
No one is quite sure if the wall continued around the headland from where it now stops near the Old lifeboat station. Those who wish to stress the military defence aspect will say the cliffs meant a wall here was unnecessary. They were un-scaleable. At eight years old the author proved that contention untrue.
Rather than an impressive keep on the highest point like that at Pembroke Castle there was a mere tower, usually called a lookout tower but which may also have been a medieval gazebo and which had a stair tower added to the side of the original tower with ladder to ease access, perhaps for the aged and infirm, or perhaps for women and children.
So far reference has been exclusively to men. What about women? Certainly there would have been women in servant roles but there is one last intriguing possibility. Perhaps Tenby Castle was designed or adapted for an important woman? There is a candidate.
Nest ferch Rhys (c. 1085 – before 1136) or Nesta was the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last king of Deheubarth in Wales. Given as a valuable hostage she was held at the court of William Rufus where she became the mistress of the future King Henry II and bore him a child. She was afterwards married off to Gerald de Windsor (c. 1075–1135), constable of Windsor and later Pembroke Castle, with whom she had another five children, one of whom was the grandmother of Gerald de Barri, better known as Geraldus Cambrensis. The nineteenth century legend goes that in 1109 Nest was abducted by her second cousin Owain ap Cadwgan. According to the Brut y Tywysogon, Owain and his men entered the couple’s castle home and set fire to the buildings. When Gerald was woken by the noise, Nest urged him to escape by climbing out through the drain-hole of the garderobe. Owain then seized Nest and her children and carried her off. Some sources suggest that she went with him willingly. Eventually Gerald got his wife and children back and later still killed Owain in revenge.
Historians generally assume the castle in question was Cenarth in North Pembrokeshire. Perhaps, much nearer to Pembroke, the castle was Tenby? Or perhaps Tenby was where Gerald confined Nest after the abduction to make sure no other man could get his hands on her?