Welsh History: A brief look at castles in West Wales

Jan 8, 2019 3:00:00 PM

Being American, I never had the opportunity to see castles as a kid and was so intrigued by their old world mystique. I grew up surrounded by Native American structures, but being a major studier of western history, it has been nearly surreal to be standing in something that looks like it’s right out of Lord of the Rings. The castles that dot the Welsh coast of Wales are a spectacle of design and the history of Britain’s past. These castles document all the way from William the Conquers’ invasion of 1066, covering the Welsh warlords era, and to the English conquest of Wales and their fortification of the land.


Oystermouth Castle, Mumbles Wales, UK

In Swansea, a small Welsh city of roughly over 400,000 people, there are two castles that stand as a testament of the long history that the surrounding land has witnessed. Both of older Norman design, one castle, the aptly named Swansea Castle, stands in the middle of downtown Swansea, having been in its current spot since 1107. Replacing the former timber constructed castle that the Norman invaders had constructed over the region which would become Swansea, the castle was built by the 1st Earl of Warwick, the Norman nobleman Henry de Beaumont, as the main center of control for the surrounding Lordship of the Gower. Swansea Castle over the years would see the structure switch hands and endure raids from Welsh warlords in 1116, survive a 10 week siege in 1192, and be overran in 1217. In 1220 King Henry III of England would restore the castle as part of an agreement with the local Welsh rulers. Over time the castle would become dilapidated and was considered a non strategic ruined structure the mid 1600s. Since then, the castle has been used for various roles, including the old town hall of Swansea, a bottling factory in the square tower, and a newspaper office in the 1900’s with Swansea local Swansea celebrity, the poet Dylan Thomas, working on the castle grounds in his youth for the newspaper. Today, Swansea Castle stand overlooking the busy center of the city, with large modern fountains and an atrium flanking the western side of the castle, and the infamous Wind Street parting off from the castle to the south. On busy nights in Swansea, one can see the castle cascaded by light looming over all the youth returning from the clubs and pubs, a somewhat symbolic testament to era’s long bygone linked now to the rapid and diverse scenes of the modern era.


Swansea Castle, Swansea Wales, UK

A mile to the west of Swansea lies the little seaside town of The Mumbles. Situated on a hill overlooking the town and surrounding Swansea Bay lies Oystermouth Castle, another castle built by the Normans that settled in Wales. The original castle built in 1106 was destroyed by Welsh warlords in 1116, rebuilt, then burned again by the warlords in 1215. The de Braoses, Lords of the Gower in the 13th century, rebuilt the castle into the current stone structure standing today, and the structure was visited by King Edward I in 1284. Though the castle had fell out of use and was considered a ruin by the 16th century, the castle remains a cultural icon for the region. Many art pieces of the region through the century feature the castle, and once given to the local people, the townsfolk of The Mumbles have spent countless hours conserving and restoring the structure. Today, the castle is open to explore for a small fee during the spring and summer seasons, and one can see locals spending leisure time on the surrounding grounds with their family or playing with their dogs along the castle walls. The castle’s cathedral contains remnants of a large mural that though degraded by the elements, remains of significance due insight it gives to 14th century art in the region.


Oystermouth Castle providing a powerful backdrop over Mumbles

Whether visiting briefly or staying long term, the local castles in Swansea provide a glimpse for tourists and locals of the rich history encountered in southern Wales. Outside of the cities, numerous ruins and castles adorn the countryside, but for a Swansea resident looking for a nearby spot that always reveals more secrets or provides a scenic view for a picnic or meal in town, Swansea Castle and Oystermouth Castle provide the perfect location for the thousands of folks who call this city home. Next time you visit Swansea, take a minute to explore and appreciate the ornate architecture of the city’s castles, and reflect on the centuries worth of stories both structures hold and represent.

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