At the first glance, on the road leading up to Tretower Castle and Court, it didn’t look that much: just a ruined round tower poking its head up from the fields. Indeed, even on closer inspection the tower had clearly seen better days, but at least I got a better impression of its original size.
In its day, it was an important Marcher fortress – maybe not as big or as important as, for example, Chepstow or Caerphilly, but still a vital link in the chain of fortifications that dotted the war torn border between Wales and England in the Middle Ages.
It was first built as a Norman motte and bailey with a wooden keep by John Pichard in the late 11th century, during the conquest of Brycheiniog by Bernard de Neufmarche. The Pichards, or Pychards, continued to own the castle for the next six generations until it passed to Ralph Bluet by marriage to Amicia Pichard sometime after 1308.
The early wooden structure was replaced with a stone shell keep and gatehouse by 1160, and these earliest parts (the bits that still survive) show some fantastic examples of early domestic Romanesque architecture. This castle was captured and mostly destroyed during the Welsh uprisings of Llywelyn Fawr in 1233, although by 1240 it was back in English hands again.
This time it was rebuilt with the three storey round tower, mentioned above, within the shell keep. Walls of stone were also constructed around the whole site, and four new defensive towers strengthened its position against any future Welsh attacks.
By the early fourteenth century, a manor house had been constructed close by (Tretower Court, next post), and it seems that the family abandoned living in the castle for the greater comfort of a domestic dwelling. Of course, they still had the castle to retreat to if things got a little rough!
Tretower Court from close to the castle
However, this was not the end of new buildings for the castle. Sometime in the fourteenth century, probably during the uprising of Owain Glyndwr, a large four storey building – now no longer in existence – was erected between the tower and the shell keep. Its exact purpose has not been discovered but it is assumed that it served as a barracks for the garrison brought in to defend the castle. Maybe the old castle buildings weren’t in a very fit state for living in at that point. The castle was indeed attacked by Glyndwr in 1404, when the lord was a man called Sir James Berkeley. He was the son of Maurice Berkeley and Elizabeth Despenser (Hugh the younger’s youngest daughter), so in effect the grandson of Hugh the younger. I’m glad to say he held off the attack. James had married Elizabeth Bluet, the last Bluet heir of Tretower, and so the castle passed into yet another family.
Ovens at Tretower Castle
After the Berkeleys came the Vaughans and the Herberts, both related again by marriage, although at this point I must admit the genealogical lines got a bit fuzzy for me and because it was out of my subject area I decide to let it drop.
Once the manor became the family home and the trouble on the Welsh borders stopped, the castle started to fall into ruin. The manor continued to be lived in by nobility until some time in the nineteenth century when it became a farm and it, too, started to deteriorate. Thankfully both were saved from being lost forever in the 1930s by CADW, who have taken care of them ever since. Even so, their fates have not been even. The manor house has recently been restored and life in the fourteenth century reconstructed in some of the rooms. The castle, meanwhile, remains open to the sky, inhabited by jackdaws and surrounded by sheep.
A picture of the grim basement containing leftovers from jackdaws’ meals