Swansea Castle was built by Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick shortly after he was granted the Lordship of Gower in the early twelfth century. With Norman control hotly disputed by the native Welsh, it witnessed multiple attacks before being remodelled into a comfortable residence in the late thirteenth century.
The early twelfth century saw the Normans starting to extend their influence into South West Wales and around 1107 Henry I granted Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick the Lordship of Gower. He built an earth and timber castle, most probably a motte-and-bailey, at Swansea to function as his primary stronghold. Overlooking the River Tawe, the castle may have been imposed over an existing settlement as it directly straddles the line of High Street and Wind Street.
Concurrently with the construction of Swansea Castle, the Normans also built numerous other fortifications across the Gower peninsula including Loughor, Oystermouth, Penrice, Penmaen and Pennard. These fortifications were all required as Norman occupation was hotly contested - Swansea itself was attacked in 1116 and the outer defences destroyed. After it was rebuilt, the castle seemingly avoided any further attacks for the next seventy years despite continued hostilities in the region. In 1136 it provided a safe haven for Normans fleeing a Welsh led massacre.
The death of Henry II in 1189 saw renewed hostility between the Normans and the native Welsh. That King had agreed a peace with Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth but this fell apart when Richard I (the Lionheart) came to the throne. The outposts of the Gower peninsula came under attack again in 1189 and 1192 although in both instances Swansea resisted the assaults.
William de Braose
The Lordship of Gower, including ownership of Swansea Castle, was granted to William de Braose in 1203 by King John but was later confiscated when he was suspected of disloyalty. William fled abroad but his wife and eldest son were captured by the King and starved to death (either in Corfe or Windsor castles). This harsh treatment was indicative of John's fractious relationship with his senior magnates and, coupled with the failed continental policies of the reign, caused widespread instability in England. In Wales, the surviving members of the de Braose family entered into an open conflict against the Crown in partnership with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. On William’s behalf Rhys Gryg, son of The Lord Rhys, attacked Swansea Castle in 1212. John's death in 1216 and the subsequently policies of reconciliation pursued by Henry III and his regent - William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke - led to de Braose returning his loyalty to the Crown. However, this change of allegiance prompted yet another attack on Swansea in 1217 by Rhys Gryg. The de Braose family recovered control of the Lordship of Gower in 1220 and they rebuilt much of the fortress in stone.
Wars of Welsh Independence
Following the Wars of Welsh Independence in 1276-77 and 1282-83, the political landscape in Wales became markedly different. Edward I had soundly defeated the last native Prince of Wales and conquered the Principality. In light of the reduced threat associated with this conquest, Swansea Castle was substantially rebuilt as a comfortable residence. The new structure, built in a corner of the previous castle's bailey, consisted of a number of substantial towers connected by a curtain wall. One of these structures - the South Tower - was an elaborate building that housed the Great Hall on the first floor. However the castle retained functional defences and in 1287 successfully repelled an attack by Rhys ap Maredudd although the town itself, and nearby Oystermouth Castle, were sacked. Rhys was later captured and held at Swansea prior to his execution.
The South Hall was built in the corner of the Outer Bailey in the 1280s.
Swansea Town Walls
By the early fourteenth century, Swansea town had expanded significantly from its eleventh century footprint. A proposal by the then owner - William de Braose - to levy a tax for construction of a wall was met with anger by the local populace and was ultimately abandoned. Edward II authorised a tax in 1317 and the wall seems to have been standing no later than 1332 as a charter of this records the foundation of St David's Hospital "next to the wall of Swansea". The Town Wall, which consisted of a stone wall fronted by a ditch, enclosed a broadly L-shaped area but the wall was only constructed on the north, west and (possibly) south sides; the east was protected by the River Tawe whilst the south was protected by marshy ground and Swansea Bay. The castle was enclosed within the Town Walls. In 1338 Edward III granted a further tax, presumably to pay for repairs to the Town Wall, but it had to be abandoned after four months due to the fear collection would lead to a riot.
John de Mowbray
The Lordship of Gower passed through marriage into the hands of John de Mowbray in 1331. He joined the rebellion of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was with him when he fought the King's forces at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was captured in the immediate aftermath of the battle, executed at York the same year and his estates were forfeited to the Crown. After the accession of Edward III, the Lordship was restored to the Mowbrays although they rarely visited. The impressive parapet level arched walkway was added around 1330.
The impressive arched parapet dates from circa-1330.
Later Medieval Period
In September 1400 a major Welsh rebellion erupted under the leadership of Owain Glyndŵr. His forces overran the Gower peninsula between 1403 and 1405 but Swansea Castle seemingly was not attacked. The rebellion was suppressed by 1410 but Swansea Castle continued to be maintained by the then owners, the Herbert family. They made minor upgrades to the structure to support artillery during the Wars of the Roses although the castle ultimately saw no action.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Swansea Castle was in a poor state of repair and was not used as a defensive site by either side. Along with the rest of the Lordship of Gower, it was owned by Oliver Cromwell from 1647 through to his death in 1658 but was thereafter returned to the Herberts, who by then held the title Earl of Worcester.
The castle's final role was as a drill hall for local militia and also served as a debtors prison; it performed both roles until the mid-nineteenth century. The River Tithe, which used to run to the immediate east of the castle, was diverted in 1878 to make it easier to navigate.
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Swansea Castle consists of the ruined remains of a thirteenth century hall with some later modifications. The rest of the structure has been obliterated by subsequent urban development although an octagonal tower associated with the castle’s Outer Bailey can be seen on the Strand. The Town Walls have been demolished.
Swansea Castle and Town Walls Layout. The first Swansea Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification with an associated town that extended to the south. The castle was significantly expanded in the 1300s and the Town Walls were added a few decades later.
Swansea New Castle (de Broase Hall). The twelfth century fortress was remodelled in the late thirteenth century with a lavish new hall replacing the former interior. This became known as the ‘New Castle’.
Decorative Arches. The decorative arches were added in the 1340s/1350s. The style is similar to ecclesiastical buildings in Pembrokeshire (such as Lamphey Bishops Palace) suggesting a possible link with the church.
Prison Block. This part of the castle served as a debtors prison during the nineteenth century.
Solar Tower. A Solar Tower was adjoined to the South Range.
Outer Bailey Tower. A single tower from the Outer Bailey wall survives in a private garden.