After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, neither king William the Conqueror nor his successor William II were ready for aggression against the Welsh lands. Instead, they established marches, border regions managed by earls, with very extensive prerogatives. They were responsible for suppressing the opposition in their lands and had the power to conquer the Welsh territories in the west. In the early twelfth century they invaded south Wales: Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury took Pembrokeshire, Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick conquered Gower, and Robert Fitzhamon of Gloucester conquered Glamorgan. Although nominally under the authority of the king of England, their great lordships, far from the supervision of the Crown, threatened the authority of the monarch. To balance it, Henry I founded his own base in southwestern Wales at Carmarthen, and tried to give lands to loyal supporters, including Roger, the bishop of Salisbury, who was one of the most trusted servants of the king and who held the position of Lord Chancellor. It was him, not later than in 1114, who started working on the castle at Kidwelly.
In 1136-1137, the Welsh rebellion against Norman rule broke out. Near Kidwelly, a battle was fought between Maurice de Londres and Gwenillan, wife of Gruffudd ap Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth. Maurice quickly advanced during the reign of king Stephen and in 1139 he received the Kidwelly. In 1190, the castle was captured by Gruffudd ap Rhys, but his death in 1197 meant the collapse of Welsh influence and the castle returned to the hands of the de Londres family at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Another Welsh attack on Kidwelly took place in 1215. This time it was led by Rhys Gryg from the Dinefwr castle, one of Gruffudd’s sons, who won the stronghold and held it for another five years, when it was returned to the de Londres family again. The castle was again attacked in 1231 and seriously damaged. It is possible that during the reconstruction a stone was used on a larger scale, although it is not known whether it was the work of Welsh or Anglo-Normans.
In subsequent years, the castle passed into the hands of Patrick de Chaworth, and then his son Payn. The latter was an experienced soldier who fought on the Edward’s side during his crusade to the Holy Land and during the First War of Welsh Independence in 1277. He commissioned significant construction work at Kidwelly on the building of the inner ward.
In 1283, the castle was given to William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, who owned it because of the minority of heiress, Matilda de Chaworth. Before handing it over to the Chaworth family, he managed to carry out further modernization. In 1291 Kidwelly passed by marriage to Henry, son of Edmund Crouchback, who was the brother of king Edward I, and then passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, the first Prince of Lancaster. John‘s son, Henry Bolingbroke in 1398, was expelled from the country for alleged treason. When John of Gaunt died in 1399, king Richard took advantage of the opportunity and confiscated his enormous fortune, including Kidwelly. Finally, Henry Bolingbroke forced Richard to abdicate, took the throne as Henry IV and murdered the former king in the castle of Pontefract. With the palace coup, Kidwelly became a royal castle.
In 1403, Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion broke out in Wales, which quickly gained strength and spread to considerable areas. In August this year, Kidwelly was attacked. The initial attack did not succeed, although the town was burned and the castle besieged. The beginning of winter saved the garrison, forcing Welsh forces to retreat in October. Another attack took place in 1404, but the castle remained unconquered until the uprising collapsed.
At the beginning of the 15th century Kidwelly lost its importance. Most of the later construction works focused on residential buildings, disregarding the military significance of the building. Already in the 17th century the castle was ruined to such an extent, that it was not used during the English Civil War, thanks to which it probably survived to this day.
The castle was originally erected as an earth-and-timber circuit of fortifications (ringwork) on a steep slope on the Gwendraeth Fach river. From the land side it was protected by an earth embankment with a timber palisade in the form of sickle. At that time, the castle did not have a keep, although probably at least one building, perhaps a great hall, was built of stone.
In the second half of the 13th century, Payn de Chaworth erected a concentric castle on a square plan whose defensive walls closed the upper (inner) ward. Each of the corners was reinforced with a powerful cylindrical tower projecting in front of the defensive circuit, with the difference that the eastern towers, due to riverside escarpment, were positioned more to the west of the corners of the defensive wall. The south-western tower was the only one with a stone staircase and vaults, the other towers had timber ceilings. All were topped with a parapets on slightly protruding corbels and crenellation, and also had smaller observation towers at the top. The north-eastern tower originally served as the residence of the castle’s lord, until the construction of the eastern range. Later, the lower storeys of all four towers served as storage rooms and rooms for servants. The upper castle (inner ward) probably imitated the concentric form of the Caerphilly stronghold and the royal fortifications at Flint and Rhuddlan. A little later, but still in the thirteenth century, an external defensive wall was built from the west. It ran from the riverside scarp in the north to the escarpment to the south of the upper castle. It was strengthened from the west by three horseshoe-shaped towers, opened from the inside, and one tower in the north-eastern corner. The entrance to the castle was placed from the north and south.
At the end of the XIII or at the beginning of the 14th century, additional buildings were erected in the inner ward of the upper castle: a kitchen and an eastern range housing a private apartment (solar) from the north, and a great hall from the south – a place of feasts and greeting of important guests. They were single-storey buildings, the entrance to the hall led along the stone steps, and its basement served as a pantry, among others wines. Additional living quarters for the service were located in corner towers. Another construction from this period was a tower with a chapel in the southern part of the eastern wall of the upper castle. It was placed towards the riverside embankment and for this reason it had prominent buttresses, protecting against slipping and collapsing. On the south side, the tower had a extension with a sacristy on the first floor and a latrine below. The chapel was located on the first floor, which is indicated by larger windows and a piscina or stone basin in the wall.
Around 1390, work began on the extension of the outer southern gate, interrupted for a few years due to the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr. As a result, a huge gate complex was created consisting of two half-round towers flanking the passage between them. Additional protection was a drawbridge and two portcullises. The rear of the gatehouse was occupied by residential rooms, probably intended for the castle’s constable. In the eastern part there was a kitchen with a stove, to the north there was a large hall. The highest floor was occupied by private chambers, warmed by fireplaces and with access to latrines. Eventually, more than 20 rooms were created, including warehouses and a prison in the basements, as well as small rooms for guards. From the north-west side there was a spiral staircase in the turret, providing communication between the floors of the gate, previously this function was performed by an internal staircase. From the gatehouse, there was also the possibility of moving to the defensive walkway of external fortifications.
Works from the late Middle Ages contributed to the creation of two large, rectangular buildings: on the northern part of outer ward and at the zwinger on the west side. The latter was either a stable or a court building. A bakery building with ovens was placed to the north curtain of the wall, and a new kitchen building was built on the upper castle (inner ward) in the south-west corner.
The castle in Kidwelly, although it is in the form of a ruin, is one of the most beautiful and best preserved castles in Wales, with such valuable elements as a powerful southern gate complex, tower with a chapel and a fortifications of the inner ward. These elements together with the outer defensive wall and its two towers survived in the best condition. The castle is open to visitors from March 1 to June 30, daily from 9.30 to 17.00, from July 1 to August 31 daily from 09:30 to 18:00, from September 1 to October 31 daily from 9.30 to 17.00, and from 1 November to February 28 from Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 16:00, Sunday from 11:00 to 16:00.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Kidwelly castle.