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. In front of it there was an oblong outer bailey measuring about 90 x 60 meters. Since the 13th century it was fortified with a stone wall and towers.
Manorbier was built on a polygonal plan with a large courtyard measuring approximately 67 x 44 meters, surrounded by a straight southern curtain of the wall and a slightly broken north, east and west one (filled mostly with a great hall building). The defensive wall was originally only 3-4.5 meters high to the level of the wall-walk, later it was raised (on the north side by about 1.8 meters), crowned with a parapet mounted on corels and a battlement with loop holes in merlons. The entrance was on the eastern side of the castle, facing the outer ward. Originally it was an ordinary portal pierced in the perimeter wall, flanked by an older, four-sided tower measuring about 7.5 x 6.2 meters, with walls only about 1 meter thick. Probably at the end of the thirteenth century, this tower partially collapsed, and to the south of it a new four-sided gatehouse was erected with a passage in the ground floor closed with a portcullis and a door, preceded by a bridge over the ditch. There were two more storeys above the passage. The room on the first floor housed the mechanisms operating the portcullis, while the room on the second floor was residential, equipped with a fireplace and a latrine. An additional postern called the Water Gate was located on the west side of the castle and led to the seaside harbor.
The defensive wall was reinforced with a corner, semicircular northern tower and a corner, cylindrical south-east tower, both with a diameter of about 7 meters. The northern tower may have been originally closed from the courtyard side with a wooden partition wall. The south-eastern one had four floors, connected by a staircase. The central part of the northern curtain of the wall, at the point of its bent, was reinforced by a smaller overhanging bartizan with a latrine, while on the southern side, the curtain of the wall was extended in front of the perimeter to a slender quadrilateral latrine tower.
The main, and at the same time the oldest, residential and utility building formed the west side of the castle. It was a rectangular building with dimensions of 20 x 10 meters, in which there was a representative great hall on the first floor and a storage space on the ground floor. The ground floor was separated by a wall to a smaller chamber on the west side and a larger eastern room. Both were completely dark, without window openings and covered, like the upper storeys, with flat timber ceilings. Initially, the first floor was lit by very small windows, enlarged only in the 13th century. The great hall was a place for eating, holding feasts, conducting judgments and hosting guests, it was the most representative place in the castle. It was heated by a fireplace, and a large part was probably occupied by a lord’s table, situated closer to the east side. From the west, the hall adjoined the buttery, lit only by a single slit opening. On the second floor, in the western part of the building (above the buttery), there was additionally a private chamber of the castle lord. It was also heated by a fireplace, illuminated by one window, and provided with a narrow passage leading to the corbelled latrine and the upper defensive gallery, because the hall building also had military functions (which is why it is often described as a keep). It was topped with battlement and had thick walls.
A chapel building was added to the north-eastern corner of the great hall around 1260, situated at a slightly unusual angle. The sacral part was located on its upper floor. It was vaulted, plastered and covered with wall polychromes. Piscina and stone sedilia are placed in its walls. Below the chapel there was a room heated by a fireplace, perhaps it was an auxiliary kitchen or a kind of secular calefactory. Soon after the erection of the chapel building, a small wing was inserted into the space between it and the hall, housing the chamber and the vaulted passage leading to the Water Gate. The top floor was occupied by a comfortable living room connected to the western end of the chapel, where the gallery was located. It was also connected by a passage in the wall with a slender latrine tower protruding beyond the perimeter. In the northern part of the courtyard, a kitchen building was attached to the defensive wall, and in the southern part, a rectangular economic building from the beginning of the 16th century.
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Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Salter M., The castles of South-West Wales, Malvern 1996.