Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008
It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.
When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.
Four hundred of these sites are listed in an appendix, and eighty or so described in varying detail in the main text. A copious number of monochrome photos are included though no plans, as if to whet the appetite for the potential visitor and encourage them to explore for themselves with the aid of local guidebooks. It becomes clear that every site has an individual story to tell (sadly the short descriptions can only hint at these), of local rivalries and shifting allegiances, Welsh princes and Marcher lords, bloody conflict or genteel inactivity and decay.
At a rough count I’ve visited (or at least viewed from a reasonable proximity) about forty of these castles, a few so slight as to escape any mention here. Some are magnificent edifices dominating their situation, such as Caernarfon, Conwy, Pembroke, Caerphilly, Chepstow or Harlech; some are romantic ruins, like Llandovery, Aberystwyth, Dinefwr, Cilgerran (painted by Turner) or Crickhowell; others barely survive beneath later urban development, like Hay-on-Wye, Cardigan, Haverfordwest. A few (witness Carew, Tretower and Raglan) were developed as mansions at the tail end of the medieval period only to fall into eventual redundancy, yet others have been so transmogrified in later centuries — structures such as Castell Coch, the Pembrokeshire castles Dale, Picton and Newport — that it is hard to see where what is genuinely medieval has survived. And let’s not forget Cardiff Castle which has morphed from Roman fort to medieval bastion, then Victorian neo-Gothic mansion and wartime bomb shelter to one of the city’s top five visitor attractions.
As well as the gazetteer the more than 250 pages of this handbook succinctly list and organise these sites under the old county headings, to which is added the usual panoply of appendices, notes and index, together with a shortlist of background reference material. This is the kind of guide that used to be promoted as suitable for the jacket pocket or handbag; but wherever you choose to carry it Castles in Wales is a worthy companion for those we might call ‘castelophiles’.
Below: a selection of Welsh castles. Raglan (2), Harlech, Carmarthen, Dinefwr, Aberystwyth, Crickhowell, Cardiff (2), Haverfordwest, Pembroke (all author photographs) and, as it was in 1880, Roch in Pembrokeshire
Note 1. Is Wales the castle capital of the world?
Accessed 7th March 2017
Accessed 7th March 2017
Note 2. Its area is variously given as 20,760 sq km (8,016 sq miles), 20,779 sq km (8,023 sq mi), or 20,782 sq kms (8,024 sq miles): you may take your pick.