Our first point of call was Carmarthen, an ancient town, the oldest in Wales, high on a bluff above the river Towy at the point where it becomes tidal. The Romans were there building a fortress and later a town - Moridunum, the civitas of the Demetae. Remains of the amphitheatre are east of the town centre. Carmarthen is at the southern end of the longest branch of the 'Sarn Helen', the network of Roman roads in Wales, the construction of which is traditionally credited to 'Elen Luyddog' - 'Helen of the Hosts', daughter of Eudaf Hen and wife of Macsen Wledig, the late Western Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. That ancient legend, the 'Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig' or 'Dream of Macsen Wledig', forms part of the Mabinogion and appears too in different form in Geoffrey of Monomouth's 'Historia Regnum Britanniae'. But I digress. Carmarthen is however associated with another mythic cycle that of Arthur, for Carmarthen, Caerfyrddin, is Merlin's town. (There is some scholarly discussion as to whether Caerfyrddin actually refers to Merlin or not; either way there are number of local monuments that are connected to him.) Be that as it may Carmarthen was an important centre in the Kingdom of Deheubarth - seat of a bishop, three monasteries within the walls, that sort of thing. The centre of the town presents a mainly Georgian and Victorian face, the public spaces intimate, streets narrow, something that all old Welsh towns have in common I wonder? Coloured plaster predominates. The view from the south is dominated by the muscular County Hall building designed by Sir Percy Thomas architect of the Guildhall in Swansea. It is, like the Guildhall, a building of impressive heft, with a nod in the direction of Richard Norman Shaw with its great chimneys and impressive graded slate roof. There is however, like the Guildhall, some that twentieth century froideur about it. It is an austere, somewhat aloof, that sits squarely within the remains of the castle on the site of the gaol that John Nash built during his Welsh sojourn. Its not helped by the fact it is now encircled by a puddle of parked cars. I left wondering what Josef Plechnik would have made of the commission like that. We had time to pop into St Peter's church. Full of civic pomp, and a dash over restored, but worth a visit. It contains the lavish tomb of Sir Rhys ap Thomas supporter of Henry Tudor in his rebellion against Richard III and reputed slayer of the king at Bosworth Field.
Then on into Pembrokeshire and the mighty castle at Pembroke - no time really to look at the town. This incredibly powerful Norman fortress, which stands at the point of a great tine of land, between two branches - south one silted up) of the Milford Haven ria. While doing a research for this post I've been struck by the shear political and cultural dynamism of the Normans; R H C Davies in 'The Normans and their Myth' (London 1974) talks about the Dukes of Normandy forging 'a new aristocracy, a new church, a new monasticism and a new culture'. At the same time as the Normans were first conquering England, and then conquering and settling south Wales, Norman knights were conquering first the southern Italian peninsular, defeating the Lombards and the Eastern Roman Empire in the process, and then island of Sicily, before eventually launching the invasion and attempted conquest of North Africa. In the following century they would nearly conquer all of Ireland and settle peacefully, at the behest of the monarch, in Scotland, and wherever they went they brought that new culture with them - there are Norman churches, for instance, all over the British Isles (including areas such as the Shetlands (Kingdom of Norway) and Pre-Conquest Ireland, that politically were beyond the Norman world). Castles too such as Pembroke.
Pembroke fell to the Normans in 1093, to put it in context that is twenty-nine years after the Norman Conquest of England and just two years after the Norman conquest of Sicily. As at Abergavenny, Kidwelly and Brecon in addition to building a castle a monastery was founded. A pattern also followed here in south Lincolnshire at South Kyme, Castle Bytham/Grimsthorpe and more importantly for this post at Bourne under the aegis of Baldwin Fitzgilbert. In 1138, the same year that Baldwin was founding Bourne Abbey, his brother Gilbert was raised to the Earldom of Pembroke with Palatine powers. It was his son Richard de Clare 'Strongbow' that began the Norman invasion of Ireland. In 1170 Henry II embarked for Ireland from Pembroke in an attempt to control that invasion, but being virtually impregnable Pembroke played little part in British history again until, that is, the Wars of the Roses. By then Pembroke was in the hands of the Lancastrian Tudors, and it became a stage, as it were, for several key events in the rise to power of Henry VII - his birth in 1457, his dramatic escape from a Yorkist siege and flight to France and his return to claim the throne. For this blog the resonate event is his birth, for Henry's mother was the remarkable Lady Margaret Beaufort, wife of Edmund Tudor, descendant of Baldwin FitzGilbert.
Back to the architecture. It is, it has to be said, not only very grand and imposing, but also rather workman-like, utilitarian. Which is probably what you'd expect with a castle. Almost all lacking in detail and being constructed almost wholly of rubble masonry the castle has a very homogenous look. It's hard to differentiate sometimes the work of different periods. Thinking back it seems to be that though there are Early English details and some Geometric detailing in the residential block north of the keep there was nothing later in style. No Curvilinear Decorated or Perp. Nothing either of a Great Hall. All that is left, and there is a lot of it, is the defensive. The most distinctive is the great circular keep - a massive cylinder of stone, 53 feet in diameter at the base and 80 feet high. It is thought to date from the time of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke of the second creation, who was the husband of Isabel de Clare, daughter of 'Strongbow' and Aiofe McMurrough, daughter of the King of Leinster. The view from the top is exhilarating.