The story of the lords of the southern March is littered with tales of ambition, rivalry, power, invasion and battles. But who were they?
After the Norman seizure of England, the first Norman kings allowed trusted supporters to take lands on the Welsh borders — amongst them were the early lords of the southern March. They had virtual independence over their new territories, building great castles and founding fine abbeys, many of which still survive.
Today these sites help to tell the story of the lords, the landscape in which they lived and their vital role in the history of Wales.
What? Medieval castle
Where? Pembroke, west Wales
Founded by Roger de Montgomery, earl of Shrewsbury, Pembroke Castle was at the heart of the Norman-controlled lands of south-west Wales. Situated on the estuary of the Cleddau River, it became home to William Marshal, who had risen to become earl of Pembroke through his faithful service to the Plantagenet kings. He was responsible for beginning the wholesale reconstruction of the castle in stone in the early 13th century.
Visitors today can explore the labyrinth of passageways and towers, take in the views from the 75ft-high Great Keep or descend into the Wogan, a cavern beneath the inner ward.
Did you know..? Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty, was born at Pembroke Castle in 1457.
What? Coastal stronghold built in the 12th century
Where? Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire
This picturesque castle was one of a number of Marcher strongholds built along the coast of south Wales. Established by Bishop Roger of Salisbury, one of the most influential figures in Henry I’s court, the castle endured many attacks over the centuries; regularly changing hands as the Welsh princes continued to fight against the Marcher lords.
The story of the struggle between the Welsh and the Marcher lords is interpreted on site. This includes the story of Princess Gwenllian who led a fighting force against Maurice de Londres, lord of the castle, in 1136. Their armies met in bloody battle about 2 km north-west of the castle. The Welsh were defeated, and the warrior princess was captured and beheaded.
Just outside the castle is a memorial to Princess Gwenllian. Make sure to look out for it during your visit.
Did you know..? – Princess Gwenllian’s young son would grow up to become the Lord Rhys, a powerful ruler of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. He held Kidwelly Castle during one of its periods as a Welsh stronghold.
Kidwelly SA17 5BQ
What? 13th-century fortification
Originally built by the Marcher lord, Gilbert de Clare, Caerphilly Castle remains the largest medieval fortress in Wales. Begun in 1268, it was one of the first completely consistent concentric castles (two sets of walls, one inside the other) in Britain.
With its formidable defences, Caerphilly Castle was a masterpiece of military planning and a forerunner for the Edwardian castles in north Wales. Many of its original features survive, including the impressive Great Hall. One of its most famous features is the ruinous south-east tower, which even out leans Pisa’s famous tower!
The castle was restored by the 3rd and 4th Marquesses of Bute, who made their money from the industrialisation of south Wales in the 19th and 20th centuries. The stories of de Clare, the Butes and other notable characters from the castle’s past can be explored on site.
Other Marcher castles nearby include Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.
Did you know..? Earl Gilbert de Clare, lord of Glamorgan and creator of Caerphilly Castle, was nicknamed ‘Red Gilbert’ after the fiery colour of his hair.
Caerphilly CF83 1JD
What? A Norman castle perched high above the banks of the river Wye
Where? Chepstow, Monmouthshire
The lands surrounding this fortress once belonged to Earl William fitz Osbern, one of William the Conqueror’s closest confidants. His time at Chepstow Castle in the late eleventh century marked the beginning of the conquest of south Wales by the Marcher lords.
The importance of the castle and the associated town increased as it became a trading centre between England and Wales. Perched on a cliff-top ridge above the river Wye, the castle secured an important crossing point between England and Wales.
The oldest building within the castle is the Norman Great Tower. Over time, the castle was added to and adapted to keep pace with changing fashions in architecture and developing methods of warfare.
Did you know..? At 800 years old, Chepstow Castle boasts the oldest castle doors in Europe. Until 1962 these impressive wooden doors hung in the main gateway, but they are now in safe keeping and exhibited in the castle.
Monmouthshire NP16 5EY