Cilgerran Castle (Pembrokeshire, South Wales)
Updated: Jan 18, 2019
In an imposing location perched on a cliff above the River Teifi, Cilgerran Castle has a fascinating early history.
It is likely that the first structure on the site was a fortified ringwork with a timber palisade built by Gerald of Windsor around 1110-1115. At some point prior to 1165 this wooden palisade was replaced with a stone wall.
The first recorded mention of Cilgerran Castle is in 1165 after its capture by Lord Rhys. Records indicate that Rhys destroyed the castle that was present in its entirety, then began to rebuild using stone and lime mortar. The Normans subsequently failed to recapture the castle, and it was only recovered in 1204 by the knight William Marshall, who was responsible for making repairs.
The castle fell again to the Welsh during Llewelyn ap Iorwerth's successful campaign in south-west Wales (in a single day, whatever William Marshal had done to the castle clearly wasn't very effective!), leaving Marshall's eldest son to once again have to recover the castle in 1223. William Junior then set about completely rebuilding the castle as it is in its current form. When he and his brothers died leaving no heirs the castle ended up in the hands of the Crown, Cantilupe family, Hastings family, then back to the Crown again in the late 14th Century.
By 1400 the castle was a deserted ruin. A large part of the curtain wall later collapsed into the stream beneath after slate mining in the valley below undermined the north/north-eastern edge, so today the northern section of the inner ward lacks the massive curtain wall that it once had.
The castle consists of two large drum towers (known as the east and west towers), an inner ward with a lime kiln, kitchen area, and guards quarters, and the north tower (collapsed). There is a dry moat, an outer ward, and there was also an outer gatehouse that is now just foundations. Unlike many castles from the period, there is no central keep. The towers served as accommodation, guard rooms, and even as the dungeon for prisoners.
As for tales associated with the castle?
Gerald of Windsor (who initially built Cilgerran Castle) was married to 'Nest ferch Rhys' (Princess Nest), daughter of the last king of Deheuberth in Wales and a 'prized hostage'. As per Historic UK -
Nest ferch Rhys, born around 1085, was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr (Rhys ap Tudor Mawr), king of the Deheubarth in South Wales. Nicknamed ‘Helen of Wales’ she was renowned for her beauty; like Helen of Troy, her good looks led to her abduction and civil war.
During a battle against the Normans outside Brecon in 1093, Nest’s father was killed and South Wales was overrun by the Normans. Nest’s family was split up; some like Nest were held hostage, some were captured and executed and one, Nest’s brother Gruffydd, fled to Ireland.
As the daughter of the last king of South Wales, Nest was a valuable asset and taken as a hostage to William II’s court....
King Henry then married Nest off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron much older than his new wife. Gerald was Constable of Pembroke Castle and ruled Nest’s father’s former kingdom for the Normans. Marrying Nest to Gerald was a shrewd political move, lending the Norman baron some sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the local Welsh people.
Although an arranged marriage, it appears to have been a relatively happy one and Nest bore Gerald at least five children.
Constantly threatened with attack by the Welsh, Gerald built a new castle at Carew and then another at Cilgerran where Nest and her children went to live around 1109. Nest was now in her 20s and by all accounts a great beauty.
The Welsh prince of Powys, Cadwgan was one of the leading Welsh rebels. Cadwgan’s son Owain was Nest’s second cousin and having heard tales of her stunning looks, was anxious to meet her.
At Christmas 1109, using his kinship as an excuse, Owain attended a banquet at the castle. Upon meeting Nest and struck by her beauty, he apparently became infatuated with her. Owain is said to taken a group of men, scaled the walls of the castle and started a fire. In the confusion of the attack, Gerald escaped down a privy hole while Nest and two of her sons were taken prisoner and abducted by Owain. The castle was sacked and plundered.
It's traditionally thought that the castle in the tale is Cilgerran. More recently there has been some debate over whether it was a different timber castle somewhere between the site of Cilgerran and Newcastle Emlyn.
The castle is a National Trust property under the guardianship of CADW. It's paid entry, free to members, and although the CADW site says it opens at 09:30 it definitely opens at 10:00!
Pictures taken April 2018