Built in the wake of the Norman Conquest of Pembrokeshire, Manorbier Castle remained relatively untouched by warfare until the fourteenth century. It was later garrisoned for the King during the Civil War but was surrendered without a fight when Parliamentary forces took the area. Thereafter it was slighted to prevent further military use.
Manorbier Castle occupied a prime position with easy access to the sea, natural cliff defences and ample supplies of fresh water. For these reasons the site has been fortified since at least the Iron Age when a hillfort was established on the site no later than the sixth century BC. When the Normans commenced their incursions into Wales in the latter half of the eleventh century, the rights of the local native Welsh ruler - King Rhys ap Tewdwr - were respected due to his alliance with William I (the Conqueror). This agreement came to an abrupt end in 1093 when King Rhys was killed in a border skirmish and a Norman baron, Roger de Montgomery, seized the opportunity to take South West Wales for himself. He built his own castles at Cardigan and Pembroke but he also granted land to his key supporters who had provided military aid. Manorbier was given to Odo de Barri who built an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle to cement his domination over the area. His son, William de Barri, augmented this basic structure with a stone Hall Keep in the 1130s. This structure served both the function of the main administrative and ceremonial facility plus also as a stronghold in which to retreat should the castle be overrun. With thin window slits, essential for defence, it would have been relatively dark and dingy compared to other castles where the Great Hall was a separate, weakly defended structure. The imposing 'Old Tower' was also built at this time. Of note the famous scholar and chronicler Gerald de Barri, better known as Gerald of Wales, was born at Manorbier Castle in the twelfth century.
The castle's defences were significantly upgraded in the 1230s due to the increasingly intense war between the Normans and Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great). The wooden palisade was now replaced with a stone curtain wall augmented by two round towers and the gatehouse was rebuilt in stone. However, despite the fears from the native Welsh, Manorbier was never attacked by them up to and including the Wars of Welsh Independence. Instead the first assault on the castle came in 1327 when it was attacked by Richard de Barri in a succession dispute with members of his own family.
In 1359 Manorbier Castle was sold but the transaction did not go smoothly. It was seemingly sold to two separate buyers with disputes ensuing for decades afterwards. Ultimately it was granted by Henry IV to the Countess of Huntingdon who had been mistress to Edward III but by this time Manorbier was past its prime. The castle no longer acted as a grand residence for its rich owners and was allowed to drift into ruin.
During the seventeenth century Civil War the castle was hastily re-activated and garrisoned for the King. Efforts were made to make it defensible once more with ditches dug around the structure and arrow slits and windows converted into musket loops. Despite these modifications by the time Parliamentary forces arrived at Manorbier, the Royalist cause was lost and the castle surrendered without firing a shot. Like many other fortifications across these islands, it was slighted to prevent further military use.
The ruined castle was sold to Sir Erasmus Phillipps in 1670 and it has remained in his family ever since. He did not use the castle as a residence though and its main function in subsequent decades was as a farm. However its relatively remote location, with easy access to the sea and ancient vaults ideal for storing produce, made it ideal for smugglers who used it for such throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some restoration work was carried out in 1880 by a tenant of the castle, J R Cobb, which stabilised the structure. The repairs enabled the final military use for the castle which was as a billet for RAF service personnel during World War II. The castle has featured in many film and TV productions including the BBC 1989 version of the 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'.
Dashwood, C (2013). Manorbier Castle. Cardiff.
Kenyon, J (2010). The Medieval Castles of Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.
Reeves, A.C (1983). The Marcher Lords. Christopher Davies Publishers.
Turvey, R.K (2014). The Marcher Lords. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.
Manorbier Castle is hugely impressive due to its relatively unaltered nature. Parapet access is possible climbing refreshingly unmodified and dimly lit spiral staircases. The Hall Keep is also a superb example of a Baronial Manor. Overall a fantastically presented castle which is well worth a visit.
Round Towers. The Round Tower on the left of the photograph was part of the upgrades made in 1230s and represented the latest military thinking compared with the squared design of the ‘Old Tower’ in the centre/right.
Hall Keep. The Hall Keep was built by William de Barri in the 1130s. It served as both the main administration centre within the castle and also as a stronghold hence the battlements and limited windows