The first timber – earth castle in St Donats was erected in the 11th century during the Norman penetration of the lands of South Wales. The oldest stone building (keep) began to be built at the end of the 12th century on the initiative of the de Hawey family. At the end of the 13th century, the castle became the property of a Stradling family from Switzerland, through the marriage of Sir Peter Stradling and Joan de Hawey. Sir Peter, his wife, and later her second husband John de Pembridge, enlarged the castle at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, fortifying the outer ward and expanding the keep and the gatehouse of the upper castle.
At the end of the fourteenth century, Edward Stradling was twice the sheriff in Glamorgan, and his wife Gwenllian Berkerolles inherited the Coity Castle. Their grandson, Edward, married the daughter of Henry VI’s uncle, cardinal Beaufort, and became chamberlain of South Wales in 1423. He died in 1453 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in 1449 his son Henry was captured by the pirate Colyn Dolphyn during a voyage from Somerset to Wales and had to be bought out. Later, Henry rebuilt part of the castle (Gibbet’s Tower and hall), and in the first half of the 16th century, his grandson, another Edward Stradling, established a library in St Donats, reportedly considered the best in Wales. He also rebuilt the northern and western wings of the castle.
During the English Civil War, the Stradlings supported Charles I and for this reason, the family lost their importance after it ended. However, they kept the castle in St Donats until the death of Sir Thomas Stradling, who died in a duel in France in 1738. The property was inherited by his friend Sir John Tyrwhitt, with whom he supposedly made a pact, in which everyone promised his legacy in the event of death.
Under the Tyrwhitt family, the castle entered a period of long fall and gradually fell into disrepair. Partial renovation began only after a hundred years John Whitlock Nicholl Carne, who bought the castle in 1862. Unfortunately, these repairs had little to do with the historical appearance of the castle. The next stage of the reconstruction took place in the years 1901 – 1909, when the new owner, Morgan Williams, made extensive and more thorough renovation, employing well-known architects George Frederick Bodley and Thomas Garner. In 1925, the castle was bought by millionaire William Randolph Hearst, who carried out his next reconstruction, making the stronghold similar to a residential mansion. He made many changes, transforming the original fragments of the castle. Among other bought medieval architectural elements in Great Britain and France and installed them in St. Donats. For example, a painted timber ceiling from the church in Boston, or moved ceiling from the refectory of the Bradenstoke monastery from the early fourteenth century.
The castle was erected on a promontory of a hill with steep rocks on the west and north-west sides. There, too, the small river Llys Weirydd flowed around the castle, flowing a short distance to the south into the waters of the Bristol Channel. The most accessible eastern side of the castle was protected with a dry moat.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, a defensive wall about 1.2 meters thick and 4.5 meters high surrounded a polygonal courtyard with a diameter of about 40 meters. The gate was situated in the eastern part of the perimeter. It was adjacent to a massive tower – keep (today called the Mansell Tower), built on a rectangular plan with dimensions of 10 x 6.5 meters, entirely placed inside the perimeter of the wall, in the courtyard.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, a defensive wall of the outer bailey was erected with a gatehouse on the eastern side and a corner northern tower. The outer ward was unusual in that, instead of creating a separate courtyard in front of the main part of the castle, it surrounded with its wall the entire older core of the castle, creating a 10-12 meter wide zwinger. The new, external wall was equipped with a battlement and parapet, mounted on corbels protruding from the face of the walls. The gatehouse was similarly crowned. It had a passage closed with a portcullis in the ground floor and the upper room accessible by a spiral staircase. From the field side this room was lit by two lancet windows topped with trefoils. Probably, in the fourteenth century, the fragments of the upper ward were also expanded. The keep was extended towards the eastern side, to the area of the outer bailey. In addition, the south-west corner was strengthened by a cylindrical tower with a diameter of about 8 meters.
In the 15th century, the residential and representative area of the castle was enlarged, as a result of the erection of the building of the hall at the upper ward. It was located in the southern part of the courtyard, on a rectangular plan with dimensions of about 12 x 8 meters, with the entrance located in the vestibule on the north-eastern side. A four-sided Gibbett Tower was also built in the north-west corner. It received four storeys connected by a spiral staircase embedded in the communication turret adjacent to the south. Subsequently, in the fifteenth century, the north-east and south-east ranges were built, and at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the west range and the chambers of the northern wing were erected.
The castle has survived to modern times, but its appearance is the result of numerous transformations, unfortunately also modern. As its result most of the outer ward was built over with new rooms, such as the dining hall on the north-west side, or the Bradenstoke Hall in the south, erected to house a medieval roof truss, moved at the beginning of the 20th century from Bradenstoke Abbey. The changes are also manifested in the new, large window openings of older buildings. Currently, the castle is owned by the private Atlantic College, but its sightseeing is possible on certain days and times.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Salter M., The castles of Gwent, Glamorgan & Gower, Malvern 2002.
Website castlewales.com, St Donat’s Castle.
Website wikipedia.org, St Donat’s Castle.