At the beginning of the 12th century, English king Henry I gave authority over the Gower Peninsula to Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, who erected a timber and earth stronghold in Swansea, probably in the form of motte and bailey. At the same time as its construction, the Normans built many other fortifications on the peninsula, including Loughor, Oystermouth, Penrice, Penmaen and Pennard. Already in 1116 Swansea was attacked, and the Welshmen managed to destroy the outer walls. After the reconstruction, the castle avoided further attacks for the next seventy years, despite ongoing fights in the region. In 1136, it was a safe haven for Normans fleeing from lost territories. After a brief period of peace during the reign of Henry II, who entered into an agreement with Lord Rhys, Welsh prince of Deheubarth, the battles resumed when Richard I ascend the throne. Swansea was again attacked in 1189 and 1192, although in both cases it resisted the attackers and it has not been captured. In the last invasion, the siege lasted for 10 weeks.
In 1203, king John granted Lordship of Gower to William de Braose, although quickly confiscated his property when began to suspect him of disloyalty. William fled abroad, but his wife and eldest son were captured and starved to death. In Wales, the survivors of the de Braose family have entered into an open conflict against the Crown in collaboration with the Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. In 1212, on behalf of William, Rhys Gryg, son of Lord Rhys, attacked the castle in Swansea without success. The death of king John in 1216 and the policy of reconciliation of his successor, Henry III, led to peace with the de Braose family. However, this change resulted in another attack by Rhys Gryg on Swansea in 1217 and the capture of the castle. The de Braose family regained control of Swansea in 1220, as part of an agreement between Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Henry III. During the period of the peace that followed, the castle was rebuilt into a stone, probably between 1221 and 1284.
After the Welsh Wars of Independence from 1276-1277 and 1282-1283, the political situation changed radically. Edward I defeated the last independent prince of Wales and conquered his lands. Due to the reduced threat, the rebuilt Swansea castle began to serve as a comfortable residence. Nevertheless, it retained the ability to defend itself and in 1287 successfully repulsed Rhys ap Maredudd’s attack, although the town itself and the nearby Oystermouth Castle were plundered. After capture, Rhys was detained in Swansea before his execution.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the town grew considerably and it was decided to secure it with stone fortifications. It were probably built before 1332, and the castle was quite unusual inside the fortified circuit. During this period, Alina de Braose performed formal rule over the Gower, from 1298 the wife of John de Mowbray, the second Baron of Mowbray, who joined the revolt of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and fought on his side with the forces of the king at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was captured after the battle and executed in the same year, his property was lost to the Crown. After joining the throne of King Edward III in 1327, Swansea was returned to the Mowbray family, although they rarely visited the castle. In 1331, Gower passed to John de Mowbray, the third Baron of Mowbray.
In 1400, a great Welsh uprising broke out under the leadership of Owain Glyndŵr. His forces occupied most of the Gower peninsula between 1403 and 1405, but the Swansea castle was most probably not attacked, and the rebellion was suppressed in 1410. The castle was then maintained than by the Herbert family. They made small improvements for artillery, during the War of the Roses, although the castle eventually did not take part in the battles.
In subsequent years, the owners were less and less at the castle, which was systematically losing its importance. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, it was in such bad condition, that none of the parties used it in battles. In the seventies of the seventeenth century, the square tower of the castle was used as a bottle factory, and in 1700 the town hall was established in the castle courtyard. Then, the castle was used by the army as a prison. In the 1840s, the course of the Tawe River was changed, which stopped running near the ruins of the castle.
The original timber – earth castle was erected on a rectangular plan with rounded corners and protected from the east by the Tate River. Inside the fortified circumference, about 52 meters in diameter, there was an earth mound (motte) on which a keep was probably erected.
At the end of the thirteenth century, began to rebuild the castle in stone, enlarging at the same time with a new, outer ring of defensive walls on a rectangular plan, with longer curtains on the north-south line. The circumference was reinforced with four corner towers, the gates were placed in the northern and southern curtains. The older ward then began to form the eastern, riverside part of the castle.
In the south-eastern corner of the circuit at the end of the 13th century or at the beginning of the 14th century, the so-called New Castle was erected. It consisted of a two-storey building of a great hall, the semi-cylindrical latrine tower located in its western part and the four-sided, irregular corner tower (Solar Tower) situated on the eastern side. Further on the north side, at the end of a short, slightly bent curtain, another four-sided corner tower was placed. No traces of less important economic buildings were found, which, being a wooden or half-timbered structure, could be attached to the perimeter walls. In the middle of the courtyard was a well with a depth of 12 meters.
The hallmark of the southern wing and the south – eastern tower was a row of arcades made of white Sutton Stone around 1330. Below there were ogival windows of the great hall, and high transverse slits illuminating the lowest floor. Similar arcades can still be found in the episcopal palaces in St Davids and in Lamphey, but there is no evidence that Bishop Henry de Gower was responsible for the work at Swansea.
The main entrance to the great hall was on the first floor and led through an external staircase from the courtyard. Next to it there was a late-medieval, half-cylindrical turret with a staircase. It connected the hall on the first floor with two vaulted rooms (pantries, warehouses) in the ground floor. The third extreme room in the west was connected to the western semicircular tower, and all three ground floor rooms were accessible through portals from the courtyard side. Until the late medieval turret was built, the lower rooms had no direct connection to each other. The upper great hall in the west was adjacent to a smaller utility room for the servants in which meals were probably prepared before being brought into the hall. Three portals served for communication between these rooms. Further to the west one could expect the existence of a kitchen, but no remains have survived. In the hall, the eastern part, because of the dais and the main table of the castle’s lord, had to be separated by a partition wall forming a triangular room at the corner tower.
The south – eastern tower (Solar Tower), due to its foundation on the land descending towards the river, has additionally received a basement level, located under the two upper floors. Probably due to the proximity of the river, it was used to store goods brought in through the postern gate. The ground floor of the tower was divided into two chambers: four-sided in the northern part, equipped with a fireplace and latrine, and irregular in the southern part, which was connected to the basement through a hatch in the floor, and through stairs in the thickness of the wall with the top floor. There was located one large private room, heated by a fireplace, equipped with large windows with side stone benches in niches and a discreetly hidden latrine. In addition, there was a vaulted gallery that could be used by musicians or poets during their performances in front of the castle owners, and a portal to the wall-walk in the crown of the defensive wall.
The north – east corner tower was in the form of a quadrangle with a slight projection for the stairs. Its ground floor was divided into three vaulted rooms of different sizes without connection to the first floor. Two were from the side of the courtyard from which the entrance portals led to them, and the third, narrow and longitudinal, was placed in the wall of the tower on the north side. The tower floor with chambers heated by fireplaces was significantly transformed in the early modern period, when it was converted into a prison.
Until today only the ruin of the so-called New Castle from the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries has been preserved. You can see the outer walls of the building of the great hall, the communication tower in the former ward, the four-sided Solar Tower, cylindrical latrine tower and four-sided, much rebuilt tower on the north-eastern side. Fortunately, the 14th-century arcades have survived on the outer wall of the castle and on the quadrilateral tower. In the tangle of modern buildings, you can still find relics of the outer ring of fortifications. Unfortunately, the castle was surrounded by modern skyscrapers, badly corresponding to the medieval buildings. Visiting the interiors is not possible, although some interesting vaulted rooms and portals have been preserved.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Williams D., Gower. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Monuments of the Gower Peninsula, Cardiff 1998.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Swansea Castle.