Pembroke Castle – Extract from Tudor Wales

The following is an extract from Tudor Wales which was released by Amberley Publishing in 2014.

Tudor Wales is a guide which will take you on a journey throughout the beautiful country of Wales and expose the reader to the hidden gems of the Tudor era, from Harlech Castle in the north to Pembroke Castle in the west, and from the holy Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey to the sacred Cathedral at St David’s. From Dale, Carew and Penmynydd to Raglan, Conwy and Denbigh, every part of Wales has Tudor links, both to the royal Tudors and their more obscure Welsh ancestors.

If you like what you read, why not buy the book and take a look at the other 40 plus sites featured in the book. To view reviews or to purchase the book click here – Tudor Wales

Pembroke Castle

When one considers the plethora of Tudor locations within Wales, arguably none enjoy the strength of connection to the great royal dynasty which Pembroke Castle proudly boasts. It was in this mighty regional fortress that Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond from birth and future King of England, was born during one winter night in the mid-fifteenth century as the country around him descended into the brutal civil war known to posterity as the Wars of the Roses. No one at the time could have foreseen that this small new-born would benefit from the escalating tensions between the houses of York and Lancaster to become the first monarch of England’s greatest family in what has to be one of the most unlikeliest outcomes in British history.

A castle has been at Pembroke since before the Norman Conquest although, in a situation replicated throughout the area from the eleventh century, it was the Marcher lords empowered by William the Conqueror who truly began to fortify the location. Standing on a rocky promontory beside the Cleddau Estuary with convenient maritime access to the Celtic Sea and Ireland, Pembroke Castle enjoyed a status as an invaluable stronghold from which successive generations of magnates conducted their political and military activities. Perhaps the greatest noble to possess Pembroke was Sir William Marshal, the first Earl of Pembroke who became one of the most powerful men in England and beyond during the early thirteenth century. It was Marshal above all who is perhaps most responsible for Pembroke’s transformation into a domineering and impenetrable fortress. One of the peculiar claims that those who held Pembroke would regularly boast about is the curious fact that it had never been captured by the native Welsh in battle and had even remained secure during the Glyndŵr uprising in 1400, a testament to the security and safety the castle offered to its lord.

Tudor involvement in Pembroke Castle began when the fortress was presented to Jasper Tudor in 1452 as a core part of his new earldom of Pembroke, a title which had been bestowed upon him by his compassionate if politically and mentally unstable half-brother King Henry VI. After his brother Edmund’s death at Carmarthen Castle in November 1456, Jasper endeavoured to offer protection for his pregnant widow Margaret Beaufort, a vulnerable young teenager of only thirteen years old. Placing her in his care at Pembroke, it was in one of the outer wards to the west of the gatehouse on 28 January 1457 that Margaret gave birth to her son, a child without a father but in the devoted care of his mother and uncle within the safe confines of Pembroke’s impenetrable walls.

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In addition to her young age Margaret was noted to be slender and had a small frame not suited to the rigour of child birth; by all accounts it was a difficult pregnancy and probably rendered her infertile for the remainder of her life as there were no other instances of her baring child in spite of two further marriages. The birth is traditionally stated to have taken place in one of the outer guard chambers which flank the great gatehouse. Consisting of three stories, a fireplace and a garderobe it is an unusually subdued location for the birth of a noble child and there has not been a sufficient explanation as to why the birth allegedly took place here. Today this momentous occasion is commemorated by a waxwork exhibition of the nativity scene depicting Margaret Beaufort, the newborn Henry and two ladies-in-waiting shortly after the birth whilst the guard chamber itself has been proudly named the Henry VII Tower.

The child was sickly soon after his birth and good care by both his mother and the attendant nurses seem to be the core reason for the newborn not becoming yet another statistic for the alarmingly high infant mortality rates of the period. Although the baby was christened Henry, a regal English name and probably in tribute to the child’s half-uncle Henry VI, a later tradition suggested the original name was in fact Owain. Although no contemporary evidence exists to corroborate this account, it is interesting to note nevertheless that Welsh poetic prophecies suggested an Owain would come to lead the Welsh to freedom from the English as their Mab Darogan, or son of prophecy. Whilst it is a possibility the legend could contain a shred of truth, particularly as the child’s still-living paternal grandfather was named Owain, the likelihood is that it was an apocryphal tale from later generations of the Welsh gentry attempting to further increase the acceptance of the later Tudors in Wales through the circulation of such an emotive myth. By blood Henry of Richmond was one quarter French, one quarter Welsh and half English but with his birthplace and paternal grandfather’s pedigree it was always expected that the Welsh people would proudly claim Harri Tudur as their own, an acceptance which would remain consistent until the advent of modern Welsh twentieth century nationalism.

Henry would spend his first few years living comfortably at the castle until national politics would have an adverse effect on his peaceful existence. The increasingly hostile battle for supremacy between the House of Lancaster, to which he and his uncle Jasper belonged, and the aspiring Yorkist faction had descended into open warfare during 1459 and two years later the conflict was brought to Pembroke. In February 1461 Henry’s grandfather Owen Tudor had been killed at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire and by September Jasper’s castle at Pembroke was besieged by Yorkist forces led by Sir William Herbert. With Jasper forced to flee in order to escape execution at the hands of his enemies, the constable of the castle peacefully surrendered the fortress to the Yorkists and the four-year-old Earl of Richmond fell into the hands of Herbert. Henry would remain in the guardianship of Herbert for the next decade, finding himself relocated from Pembroke to Raglan Castle until Sir William’s violent death in 1469. Pembroke would briefly feature once more in Henry Tudor’s early life when its fortifications provided respite to him and Jasper in 1471 on their way to Tenby during their incredible flight into exile.

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Once he became King Henry VII, Pembroke Castle did not feature highly amongst his immediate concerns although his son would temporarily draw attention to the Tudor connection with this West Walian fortress when Anne Boleyn was invested as the Marquess of Pembroke on 1 September 1532 in anticipation of her eventual progression to queen. The ceremony was presided over by Henry VIII himself at Windsor Castle and was attended by the highest ranking magnates in the realm eager to be seen acquiescing to the king’s desire to take a new wife. The association of Pembroke with Anne was designed by Henry to be a typical example of Tudor propaganda to integrate Anne into the family and the ceremony itself was effectively a coronation before the coronation.

The area that Pembroke Castle covers is vast and possibly unrivalled in South Wales such is the scope it covers. The outer ward is largely empty as previous buildings have long crumbled although excavations in the early twentieth century unearthed Jasper Tudor’s private house which he had built during his tenure as Earl of Pembroke in the late fifteenth century. In the inner ward stands a heavily weathered oriel window on the west wall of the Solar, a private room for the benefit of the lord, which Jasper was also responsible for adding although its one-time splendour is now unable to be appreciated.

Unquestionably the premier attraction of Pembroke Castle is Sir William Marshal’s Great Keep, construction of which was begun in 1204 and a behemoth of a structure which still stands proudly defiant as one of the largest of its kind still standing anywhere in the UK. The keep is seventy-five feet tall with a sturdy base twenty feet thick. The tower contains five stories with a single spiral staircase which was initially reached by an external timber staircase to the first floor. The view from the domed summit is breathtaking with commanding views of the surrounding landscape reducing the observer to an awestruck silence. The tower would have been the greatest structure many generations of the local community would have encountered and certainly would have been viewed with a degree of wonder by the young Henry Tudor during his brief childhood stay at Pembroke.

Pembroke can legitimately claim to be the birthplace of the Tudor Dynasty yet sadly lacks the reputation and promotion that other Tudor locations in England enjoy. Whilst it can be expected that this medieval stronghold will never rival a Hampton Court or Hever Castle for tourists, it certainly deserves to be included on the itinerary of any Tudor enthusiast. There has been a concerted effort of late to promote Pembroke with greater assertiveness to the title ‘Birthplace of the Tudor Dynasty’ and a recent development has been the announcement of a paved Tudor Rose in the town centre.

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One thought on “Pembroke Castle – Extract from Tudor Wales

  1. Meryl Gibson

    So true my son and family visited in June and when came home did not know this was the birth place of the Tudors , I did not know all the above , maybe it needs to promote its history more , it’s well situated being close to Temby and the weather as it is in Wales ideal for a visit on a wet day maybe

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