In the second half of the 11th century, when the Norman infiltration of South Wales began, the rights to the local lands belonged to the Welsh ruler Rhys ap Tewdwr. He made an alliance with William I the Conqueror, thanks to which his territory was protected from seizure. The agreement expired in 1093, when Rhys died in a frontier skirmish, and the Norman baron Roger de Montgomery took the opportunity and occupied South West Wales. To establish his dominion, he built the castles at Cardigan and Pembroke, and gave land to the knights who provided him with military assistance. Manorbier received Odo de Barri, which at the end of the eleventh century erected the first timber – earth fortifications. His son, William de Barri, strengthened this first stronghold by a stone, rectangular building in the keep style, in the thirties of the twelfth century. It served as both the main administrative and ceremonial facilities, as well as the place of final defense. It is also worth noting that in the 12th century, the famous scholar and chronicler Gerald de Barri, better known as Gerald of Wales, was born in Manorbier. He was the fourth and youngest son of William de Barri. He wrote about his birthplace like this: “In the whole wide area of Wales, Manorbier is definitely the nicest place.”
The defense of the castle was considerably strengthened in the thirties of the thirteenth century, due to the fighting between the Normans and the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Timber fortifications were replaced with a stone wall, reinforced with towers and a gatehouses. It is possible that thanks to this the castle avoided assault during numerous Welsh – English wars of the 13th century. The first attack on the castle took place only in 1327, when it was besieged by Richard de Barri, in a dispute that broke out with members of his own family. In 1359, the castle was sold to two separate buyers, and the disputes that followed resulted in decades. Eventually, Henry IV gave Manorbier to Countess Huntingdon, who was the lover of Edward III, but at that time the castle had splendor days behind it and probably fell partly into disrepair. Hurry renovations to fill Manrobier with an armed garrison were carried out in 1403 for fear of Owain Glyndŵr’s Welsh rebels, but eventually there were no fights for the castle then.
The sixteenth century passed peaceful for Manorbier, as well as for all of Wales, whose tense internal situation was calmed down during the reign of the Tudor dynasty, proud of its Welsh origin. During the 17th century civil war, the castle was quickly adapted for defense and garrisoned by the units loyal to the king. Efforts focused on digging ditches around the castle and piercing the shooting holes for muskets. Despite these modifications, in 1645 the castle surrendered without giving a shot, just after the appearance of Parliament’s forces. Like many other castles, it was later demolished to prevent further military use.
The destroyed castle was sold to Sir Erasmus Phillipps in 1670 and has remained in his family ever since. He did not use the castle for residential purposes, but only arranged a farm in it. The remote location of the castle and easy access to the sea and numerous storage rooms, made Manorbier an ideal place for smugglers, who used it throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first conservation work was carried out in 1880 by the then leaseholder of the castle, which stabilized the construction. The repairs enabled the re-use of the castle, which housed the staff and RAF personnel during World War II.
The castle was situated on an oblong hill limited from the longer sides, i.e. from the north and south by two streams. They flowed westwards, where in close proximity they opened up to Manorbier Bay. The slopes of the hill were milder only on the eastern side, and there the access road to the castle was secured with a transverse ditch.
The castle was erected on a plan of the polygon with a simple southern curtain of the wall and slightly bend north, east and west. The defensive wall was crowned with a parapet on corbels and a battlement with arrowslits in merlons. The entrance was on the eastern side in the four-sided gatehouse with a portcullis and a door, preceded by a bridge over the moat and the foregate’s neck. An additional side wicket gate called the Water Gate was located on the western side and led to the seaside harbor. The defensive wall was reinforced with a corner semicircular northern tower and a corner, cylindrical south-eastern tower. The middle part of the northern wall curtain, in the place of its refraction, was reinforced by a smaller overhanging bartizan. The last tower was a four-sided small tower on the south-western side.
The main residential and commercial range formed the west side of the castle. It was a rectangular building in which there was a great hall on the first floor and a private chamber of the castle’s constable, as well as pantry and buttery on the ground floor. In the southern part there was a passage leading to the water gate. The great hall was a place of meals, feasts and greetings of guests, it was the most representative place in the castle. Probably the building of the great hall also had defensive functions, which is why it is often described as a keep. It was crowned with battlement and had thick walls.
The chapel was added to north – eastern corner of the great hall. It was vaulted, plastered and covered with wall polychromy around 1260. To this day, in its walls there is a preserved piscina and stone sedilia. Below the chapel was a room with a fireplace, perhaps it was an auxiliary kitchen or a kind of secular calefactory. In the northern part of the inner ward, a kitchen building was attached to the defensive wall, and a rectangular utility building in the southern part.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Manorbier castle