Hidden between the bustling streets and promenades of Tenby’s old town, its imposing stone steps and towering turrets can be seen from many vantage points around the bay.
Built in 1290 as a defence against the Welsh, it was one of south Wales’s earliest medieval castles. Besieged during Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in 1403, during which much of northern and south Wales rose up against English rule for six years, it was also attacked by Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1645. It still remains an imposing fortress to this day.
The site of the castle has been used as a fortification for over 2,000 years, with Roman remains found under the top tier of the castle. However, the original castle was constructed by Lord Rhys ap Thomas in 1290.
It was part of a chain of castles along the coast to defend against invasions from Ireland and France. It is part of ‘’The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward I in South Wales’’; one of three castles that were built by Edward I in Tenby. Following his conquest, he feared a return by the Welsh, so set about turning Wales into an English county and establishing a new capital at Caernarfon. The new castles were built as part of a strategy to defend against attacks from Ireland, and to demonstrate the strength of royal power over Wales.
The castle was made in two parts; the Upper and Lower wards, with a central tower. The Lower Ward was made of three smaller courtyards that contained stables and ancillary buildings; while the Upper Ward was further divided into two. A series of chambers, symmetrical guardrooms and private apartments were all contained within the thick walls that were surrounded by a moat. Stone spiral staircases linked all floors, while some stairs led directly outside, giving access to turrets along the fortifications.
The castle was occupied for over 200 years, with regular royal visits from the 14th century onward. In 1403 however the castle and town were attacked by Owain Glyndwr’s forces as part of his rebellion against the English. As well as Tenby Castle, other sites along the Pembrokeshire coast including Carew Castle and Stackpole Tower were attacked by Glyndwr’s forces.
During the 16th century, Swansea-based pirates known as The Laugharne Welsh attacked coastal communities in south-west Wales as far north as Cardigan Bay. The Laugharne Welsh were a group of pirates, operating in the seas around the Pembrokeshire coast. They were described as using small boats to attack larger merchant ships and coastal communities. The Laugharne Welsh attacked Tenby in 1545 and used Tenby Castle to hold several of their prisoners for ransom; including two Franciscan friars from Oxford and a handful of Tenby residents.
By 1600, the castle was in disuse as Wales was changing from Norman rule to parliamentary democracy, created under the Act of Union 1536 with England.
In 1645, Parliamentarian troops led by Colonel Powell occupied the town and castle for two days before being ousted by Royalist forces. The 16th century gatehouse was destroyed in the late 17th century during the Third English Civil War when Royalist forces attempted to retake Tenby. The failure of this attack marked the end of significant fighting between supporters of King Charles I and those who supported Parliamentary rule under Oliver Cromwell.
The remains were consolidated during the late 18th century and it is thought that some renovation work was performed on the castle prior to this, although no records remain. Ruins would have been common at this time throughout Britain and remain a popular architectural feature.
By 1812, the castle was already being used as a tourist attraction by people in Tenby. The castle was gifted to the town by Sir John Stepney in 1874 and is still owned by the Borough Council today. The castle and its grounds have been maintained by Tenby Town Council since then, although it is not open to the public as it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The castle has been used as a filming location for several films and television programmes. A scene set on Hadrian’s Wall from “The Last Legion”, starring Colin Firth, was filmed there. It has also been broadcast on television shows such as “Iron Bridge”, ‘Abandoned’ and ‘Most Haunted’.
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