In the decades that followed the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, neither William I nor his immediate successor, William II, embarked upon a conquest of Wales. Instead they established substantial Earldoms along the Anglo-Welsh border and appointed magnates who were responsible for suppressing opposition in the area and entitled to seize any land to the west to enhance their estates. These so-called Marcher Lords were nominally subject to the King of England but were effectively defacto rulers in their conquered lands. By the early twelfth century such men had carved territory for themselves throughout South Wales - Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury had secured Pembrokeshire, Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick had conquered Gower and Robert Fitzhamon, Baron of Gloucester had overrun the Vale of Glamorgan. However, these Lordships commanded vast resources far from Royal oversight and threatened the supremacy of the monarch. To offset this, Henry I established his own base in South-West Wales at Carmarthen Castle and he also sought to install loyal followers across the region. In 1106 the death of Hywel ap Goronwy, Lord of Kidwelly saw his lands reallocated to Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. He was one of the Henry’s most trusted servants who held the position of Lord Chancellor and was also a prolific castle builder having constructed fortifications at Devizes, Malmesbury, Sherborne and Salisbury (Old Sarum). He started work on Kidwelly Castle no later than 1114.
Kidwelly Castle was originally raised as an earth and timber ringwork fortification. It was constructed upon a steep scarp overlooking the Gwendraeth Fach whilst its landward side was protected by a crescent shaped earthwork with wooden palisade. There was no Keep in this early castle but a fragment of masonry suggests at least one building, perhaps the Great Hall, was built in stone.
A major Welsh rebellion against Norman rule occurred in 1136-7 with a battle being fought at Kidwelly between Maurice de Londres and Gwenillan, wife of Gruffudd ap Rhys, Lord of Deheubarth. Maurice rose to prominence during the reign of King Stephen (1135-54) and in 1139 he was granted Kidwelly (for Bishop Roger seems to have fallen from grace at this time).
In 1190 Kidwelly was captured by Gruffudd ap Rhys, Lord Rhys. However, his death in 1197 marked a reversal of Welsh fortunes and the castle was back in the hands of the de Londres family by the early thirteenth century. A further Welsh attack in 1215, this time by Rhys Gryg of Dinefwr Castle (one of the sons of the Lord Rhys), successfully seized the castle and it remained in Welsh hands until 1220 when it was once again returned to the de Londres. The castle was attacked once more in 1231 and badly damaged. At some point during this turbulent time the timber defences of the castle were rebuilt in stone although whether this was due to Welsh or Norman work is unknown.
The castle passed through marriage to Patrick de Chaworth and then to his son Payn. The latter was an experienced soldier who had joined Prince Edward (later Edward I) on crusade and fought in the First War of Welsh Independence in 1277. It was he who commissioned significant building works at Kidwelly with construction of the Inner Ward. This took the form of a rectangular curtain wall with round towers on each corner. Its design mimicked the concentric configuration of Caerphilly Castle as well as contemporary Royal fortifications at Flint and Rhuddlan.
In 1283 the castle was granted to William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke who held it due to the minority of the heir, Matilda de Chaworth, and he made further upgrades to Kidwelly. Returning to the de Chaworth family in 1291 it then passed through marriage to Henry, second son of Edmund Crouchback who was brother to Edward I. Henry would be created the Earl of Lancaster in 1327 following the execution of his elder brother, Thomas. It would then pass through his daughter Blanche into the hands of John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster.
John's son, Henry Bolingbroke, had a turbulent relationship with Richard II. He had been temporarily exiled in 1398 for allegedly treasonous comments but when John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard seized the opportunity to confiscate his vast estates including Kidwelly. Henry immediately invaded initially seeking to reclaim his inheritance but expanded his objective into a bid for the Crown. He forced Richard to abdicate, took the throne as Henry IV and murdered the former King in Pontefract Castle. With the Duchy of Lancaster now restored to the new King, Kidwelly became a Royal castle.
In 1403 the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr spread into South Wales and in August of that year Kidwelly was attacked. An initial assault failed although the adjacent town was burned and the castle was placed under siege. However, the onset of Winter saved the garrison as the Welsh forces withdrew in October. A further (unsuccessful) attack was made in 1404 and the area remained troubled until 1407 after which English attacks had largely defused the rebellion. Upgrades were made to the castle in the subsequent years including rebuilding of the Gatehouse.
From the later fifteenth century onwards, Kidwelly declined in importance. Most building work thereafter focused on domestic ranges and by the seventeenth century the defences were described as ruinous. This led to the fortification taking no part in the Civil War and it continued to be neglected until taken into State care in 1927.
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Kidwelly Castle was a substantial Norman fortress. Some of the remains date from the twelfth century but most are later having been built in the thirteenth to early fifteenth centuries. The concentric configuration of the inner defences was clearly influenced by contemporary castles built elsewhere in Wales.
Kidwelly Castle Layout. The distinctive crescent shape of Bishop Roger’s ringwork castle was retained when the castle was rebuilt in stone. However the Inner Defences, which were built after the First War of Welsh Independence, were influenced by Caerphilly Castle and the contemporary Royal fortifications being constructed in North Wales. The design of Kidwelly clearly influenced that of nearby Narberth Castle.
Kidwelly Castle. The castle stands on the high ground overlooking the Gwendraeth Fach.
Outer Curtain Wall. The wall was rebuilt in stone circa-1270 over the line of the earlier earthwork defences of the original ringwork fortification.
Great Gatehouse. The double drum gatehouse was built between 1390 and 1402.
Corner Towers. The rectangular Inner Ward had a round tower on each corner.
Kidwelly Castle is a major tourist attraction and well sign-posted. There is a dedicated car park located directly adjacent to the castle.
Kidwelly Castle was built by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury on behalf of Henry I. It was intended to provide a check upon the power of the Marcher Lords and entrench Anglo-Norman control of South-West Wales. The fortification was regularly upgraded enabling it to withstand a fierce assault and sustained siege during the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion.