The Normans arrived in southwestern Wales at the end of the 11th century. It was then that Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury took over Pembrokeshire, and Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick conquered the Gower peninsula. Over the following decades, the Normans expanded their territory and secured new acquisitions by building strongholds at importent points. Built around 1112, the Llansteffan Castle was one of those new strongholds, erected to secure the mouth of the Towy River.
It is not known who exactly built the first castle in Llansteffan, but in 1136 the building was owned by the Camville family. The first preserved reference to the castle comes from 1146, when it was taken by Maredudd ap Gruffydd. An attempt to regain it in the same year was unsuccessful. It was recaptured by the Normans in 1158 and returned to the Camville family. After 1192, they began rebuilding the castle to the stone one, but the defense was not yet too strong in 1215, because Llansteffan was captured by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. It remained in Welsh hands until 1223, when the Camville family regained the stronghold and continued further expansion.
In 1338 the male line of the Camville family ended and Llansteffan passed into the hands of Robert Penrees, a powerful magnate with extensive lands in Gower, centered around Penrice Castle. His family owned the castle in 1405, when it was attacked and taken over during the Welsh rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr. It returned to English hands the following year, and later in the fifteenth century it was taken over by the Crown. King Henry VII gave it to his uncle, Jasper Tudor, in 1495, who made some modifications at the outer gate, but in the 16th century the castle was neglected and fell into disrepair.
The castle occupied the eastern end of the hill with a steep eastern, and especially southern slope, sloping towards the mouth of the Tywi River flowing into the Carmarthen Bay. From the other sides, the approach was slightly gentler, therefore from the north, west and partly east, a ditch and an earth rampart were created. Llansteffan original structure took the form of a timber – earth ring of fortifications. Construction of stone fortifications began at the end of the 12th century. At that time, a defensive wall was erected on a plan in the form of a polygon with gently curving corners, which separated the inner ward. At the beginning of the 13th century, the wall was reinforced with a cylindrical defensive tower and a four-sided gatehouse. The gate had a portcullis and two rooms upstairs.
In the second half of the 13th century, the outer ward was also rebuilt, which stone defensive wall marked the large courtyard on the eastern side. It was strengthened by two semi-circular towers on the north side, between which a Great Gatehouse was erected in the form of two towers flanking the passage between them. It had two communication towers from the inside (one led to the latrines and the other to the second floor and battlements), two rooms for the guards in the ground floor, on both sides of the passage, two portcullises and upper murder holes. The first and second floor had two rooms warmed by fireplaces. The gatehouse was very similar to the gate in the Caerphilly Castle. In the fifteenth century, Llansteffan outer gateway was walled up to obtain more housing, and the new gate was pierced right next to the eastern side.
The north-eastern half-round tower had a basement. The entrance to the tower was on the level of the first floor, where there was a room with stairs leading to the second floor. Because both rooms had fireplaces and a latrine, this tower had to provide additional living rooms for the constable of the castle.
Between the north-eastern tower and the eastern corner of the outer ward, in the fifteenth century there was an elongated barn. Perhaps it was created on the site of the former great hall. In this case, the eastern, reinforced corner equipped with latrines, would be part of a larger representative complex.
The smaller semi-circular north-west tower had arrowslits in the ground floor, but the floor with the fireplace and latrine probably also served residential purposes.
The castle has survived to modern times in the form of a ruin. The circumference of the defensive walls has been preserved for a longer length, especially from the north, east and west. From the inner ward a gatehouse is visible, only the foundations remain from the cylindrical tower. The lower ward with the outer gate (Great Gatehouse), the north-eastern tower, the ruins of the north-western tower, the barn and the east corner have been very well preserved.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Llansteffan castle.