Despite Tudor and Jacobean rebuilding the Raglan Castle we see today is largely the work of one hugely ambitious man – Sir William Herbert.
In less than 10 years this country squire turned himself into arguably the most powerful Welshman of the age. He began his dazzling career fighting in France, where he was captured and ransomed, and was knighted in 1452.
Having grown rich by importing Gascony wine, Herbert was made sheriff of Glamorgan and constable of Usk Castle. He played a crucial role in a decisive defeat of Lancastrian forces during the Wars of the Roses in 1461.
The grateful new king Edward IV rewarded Herbert by making him chief justice and chamberlain of south Wales – and grandly styling him Baron Herbert of Raglan. Underlining this meteoric rise young Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII, was sent to Sir William to be brought up at Raglan Castle.
Great men need great houses. So Herbert continued his father’s work at Raglan on an epic scale, creating a magnificent new gatehouse and two great courts of sumptuous apartments. Now he could dispense hospitality with the best.
Poet Dafydd Llwyd praised his incredible fortress-palace with its ‘hundred rooms filled with festive fare, its hundred chimneys for men of high degree’.
Herbert’s final accolade was the most remarkable of all. In 1468 he was created Earl of Pembroke as a reward for his capture of Harlech Castle, the last Lancastrian stronghold in England and Wales. It made him the first member of the Welsh gentry to enter the ranks of the English peerage.
He didn’t enjoy this prestige for long. Herbert was defeated and captured at the battle of Edgecote in 1469 – and brutally beheaded the very next day. The reported death of 5,000 men, mostly Welshmen, in his army makes it one of Wales’s greatest losses in battle.
The body of the ambitious earl was brought back to south east Wales and buried in the Cistercian abbey church at Tintern. It was left to the Somersets, earls of Worcester, to usher in the glories of the Tudor age at Raglan.