Haverfordwest’s town wall revealed?

Neil Ludlow and Phil Poucher of DAT look at the results of the investigation at Haverfordwest Castle by Dyfed Archaeological Trust (DAT), as part of a major infrastructure scheme embracing the castle and its setting, has revealed what may be part of the medieval town wall, long thought to have been entirely destroyed.

The remains of the castle still dominate views of the town, particularly from the main eastern approach, crowning a steep bluff overlooking the Western Cleddau river. Founded around 1110 by one Tancard, a Flemish colonist, the castle appears to have begun as a partial ringwork and bailey, perhaps adapted from an Iron Age hillfort. Fortification in stone began under Tancard’s grandson Robert FitzRichard, a decade or so either side of 1200, with the erection of a subrectangular donjon; a curtain wall with at least one round mural tower was later added, possibly by the younger Marshal earls of Pembroke between 1219 and 1245. The castle was transformed into a palatial residence with the addition of an integrated suite of apartments of the highest quality, including hall and chamber-block ranges, and a terraced garden enclosure; they are traditionally attributed to Edward I’s queen Eleanor of Castile who received the castle and lordship two years before her death in 1290. The outer ward was also walled in stone, probably during the early fourteenth century. Although it played no part in the second Civil War of 1648, the castle was partially slighted on Cromwell’s orders and was subsequently used as a gaol, which closed in 1878.

Open to the public since 1970, and housing the town’s museum and County Record Office – but still perhaps an under-valued asset – the castle is now the subject of an enhancement programme to improve access, carry out essential repairs and redevelop the museum. The scheme extends to the castle’s setting, with improved landscaping and restoration of the surrounding burgage-plot boundaries. Preliminary archaeological work includes geophysical survey and test-pit recording.

Figure 1: The walling and archway from northeast. The castle donjon is at far left.

Investigating the castle exterior in early 2021, at the summit of the steep bluff, Andy Shobbrook of DAT came upon a stretch of walling that appears to have evaded previous investigations. Now of no great height, but probably truncated, it is pierced by a wide segmental arch of convincingly medieval form (Fig. 1). Although absent from published plans and descriptions of the castle, it is shown on the large-scale 1:500 map of the town produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1889, on which it is labelled ‘Arch’ in the Gothic script reserved for antiquities (Fig. 3). It lies just within the scheduled area of the castle, corresponding with its boundary, and appears to be in a stable condition.

Figure 2: Plan showing the conjectured layout of Haverfordwest in c.1300

The walling may be part of the medieval town wall rather than the castle defences. The town of Haverfordwest, which is notable for its three medieval parish churches – unique in Wales – was founded soon after the castle and by the close of the Middle Ages had become the de facto county town of Pembrokeshire. Defended by an earthen bank and ditch from an early period, probably before 1200, it was walled in stone after the issue of a murage grant in 1264. The defended area was relatively small, immediately next to the castle and always known as the ‘Castleton’ – while the extensive suburb around the extra-mural marketplace to the south received fortified gateways, they were never connected by any solid barrier (Fig. 2). The town wall had largely disappeared by 1700 and, while the gatehouses survived rather longer, the last were removed at the end of the eighteenth century.

Figure 3: An extract of the Ordnance Survey 1:500 map of Haverfordwest, of 1889,
showing the castle and walling (labelled ‘Arch’).

Vestiges of the wall were apparently still detectable in 1900 but all traces were thought to have been lost soon afterwards. Stretches of its former line are marked by property boundaries but its entire course is not precisely known, nor the points at which it connected to the castle defences. The walling discovered in 2021 butts against the donjon at the northeast corner of the castle inner ward, and runs northwest for 5 metres before petering out. The remains of a return at its northwest end correspond with a 90° turn shown on the 1889 map, on which it is shown to then run north-eastwards before turning west to continue along the outer edge of the castle’s northern ditch. But the medieval wall must have deviated from this line at some point, to run northwards to the eastern town gate. The arch is 3 metres wide but was probably always too low – and perhaps too wide – to represent an entry. Its function may simply have been to drain the area immediately to the west, which slopes steeply downhill towards the east and seems to have been a continuation of the castle ditch where it ran out at the crest of the bluff (Fig. 3). Two phases of work within the arch are possible, suggesting it was modified and perhaps narrowed at some point.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

Pembroke Castle keep – William Marshal’s statement in stone

Neil Ludlow, co-project lead in both the Castle Studies Trust funded 2016 geophysical survey and 2018 excavations looks at Pembroke Castle’s most iconic structure, it’s keep.

Pembroke Castle is probably best-known for its magnificent cylindrical keep, begun in 1201-2. But why was it built? And how was it used? These and other questions are being explored as part of the wider study of the castle.

Great keeps like these were bold statements of power and prestige. At Pembroke, it seems the keep was also celebratory and commemorative, marking the marriage, ennoblement and inheritance of its builder, William Marshal – and in the most conspicuous way. But it was not intended for residential use: there is neither bedchamber, latrine nor water supply. Household accommodation was instead provided by the great hall, while a chamber block served the Marshal earls on their rare visits to Pembroke.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

Use of the keep, as intended, was restricted and episodic, probably confined to the handful of occasions when the earl visited. Access was clearly limited to those above a certain rank – for instance, there is only one spiral stair and no separate stair for lower ranks. And the interior had to be crossed to get to the stair, showing that its use was strictly controlled.

Pembroke Castle keep section drawing. Copyright Neil Ludlow

The main chamber lay on the second floor, which has a high-quality window and a fireplace. It may have been intended as an audience or reception chamber, and a setting for formal and ceremonial occasions. It has been suggested that its external doorway was served by an external bridge and stair from the curtain wall, but such an arrangement is inconsistent with the remains. The doorway may instead have led onto an appearance balcony, visible from the town before the outer bailey was added and allowing the earls to be seen by their subjects. Similar balconies existed at King Henry II’s round keeps in France.

Pembroke keep second floor door. Copyright Neil Ludlow

The first floor, at entrance level, may have been an anteroom or ‘waiting area’ for the second floor. It too has a fireplace. The uppermost chamber lies beneath the unique, masonry dome. It lacks a fireplace, suggesting events here were of short duration. Nevertheless, it is lit by a second elaborate window, while a decorative painted scene can perhaps be envisaged on the underside of the dome. It may have been a ‘prospect chamber’ for entertaining special guests. Other openings, at all levels, are very narrow slits which are too small, too narrow and too high up to have been used by archers, and were probably for light and ventilation only.

At summit level, at least one major change in design occurred during construction, which culminated with the crenellated parapet and concentric inner wall that now crown the keep. As originally built, the dome seems to have been circled by a wide, slate-lined drainage channel. The slates are fossilised, as a series of crests and troughs, within the concentric inner wall and seem to have been truncated when the present wall-walk was established. It is not known whether they were contemporary with the overhanging timber hourd, the sockets for which can be seen beneath the present parapet, but it is difficult to envisage how the two could have worked together.

Pembroke Castle keep from southeast (photo: Adam Stanford @ Aerial-Cam)

Hourds like this are now thought to have often been leisure-related rather than military,providing a viewpoint from which a lord’s estates could be shown off to his important guests. At any rate, this overall scheme was replaced, possibly before it was complete, by the present parapet, wall-walk and concentric inner wall. Another slate channel, within the latter, runs around the haunches of the dome and is of very similar design to the earlier drain. These substantial drainage arrangements may indicate that the dome was not roofed, perhaps instead being finished with slates like the domes of some later medieval church towers in south Pembrokeshire.

Much later alterations at summit level included the insertion of a floor beneath the dome – creating an attic space which was accessed from the wall-walk through a secondary doorway, and lit by crudely-inserted window – showing how the keep’s role changed through time, with loss of its original prestige. And much of the dome’s facework was robbed, perhaps to make the central ‘turret’ that now occupies the summit. Part of the second drainage channel was removed in order to create access to this turret, confirming that it is a later addition, but it was present by c.1600 when it was shown in a sketch of the castle.

Either one of these summit alterations may be contemporary with the partition in the body of the keep, the chase (or scar) for which survives in the internal plaster. The plaster contains coal fragments; a corresponding absence of charcoal suggests that the present finish may itself be late, but also means that it cannot be radiocarbon-dated.

Pembroke Castle keep from north (feature photo) Adam Stanford @ Aerial-Cam

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter