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Magna Carta and William Marshal in Wales

In 2015, Magna Carta was commemorated throughout the world as it marked 800 years since that infamous meeting in Runnymede between King John and his Barons to seal ‘Magna Carta’ or the Great Charter. This was one of several charters issued with the aim to bring an end to the unrest between the monarchy and the nobles of the country. It is now considered to be one of the cornerstones of democracy and was used for the basis for the constitution of the United States of America and South Africa.

One of the chief negotiators in bringing the parties together that day was William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, later dubbed the ‘greatest knight who ever lived’ by the archbishop Stephen Langton. It was the same William Marshal who was appointed Regent of England the following year when John died and who immediately re-issued it after John had refused to adhere to the terms in the 1215 charter almost before the ink was dry following the intervention of Pope Innocent III who declared it had been sealed under duress.

William Marshal’s rise to prominence as one of the most powerful men of his time can be seen across Wales as he made his mark on the landscape through the fortification and development of castles and towns. This can be followed through these web pages and as a trail across the country linking important historic sites connected with the Marshal and his family.

Born in 1147, William rose from obscurity as the fourth son of the King’s marshal John fitzGilbert, (the name Marshal is a job title which became a surname), to become a tournament celebrity in his own lifetime. Marshal was held hostage as a young boy of five by King Stephen,  but went on to serve four anointed kings – Henry the Younger (eldest son of Henry II who died before taking the throne in his own right), Richard I, John and Henry III, for whom he acted as Regent.

It is necessary to acknowledge that most of his power and wealth came about through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, heir to the lands in Pembroke and Striguil (now Chepstow). The marriage also brought about the acquisition of land in Ireland through Isobel’s mother Aoife MacMurchada, daughter of Dermot, King of Leinster.

Little was known about Marshal’s life until the discovery of a manuscript at an auction in 1861 entitled, ‘L'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal’ - the History of William Marshal - which was written, by the request of his son William the Younger, shortly after his death. It documents William’s life in great detail and has formed the basis of many historical books, both fact and fiction about this man who epitomised the chivalrous knight.

His character has appeared in numerous films including ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968) and more recently in ‘Robin Hood’ (2010) where his character was played by William Hurt.

He is buried in the Temple Church in London together with two of his sons, William the Younger and Gilbert where their effigies can be seen to this day.

Following the trail

Plan your visit to the Welsh castles and abbeys that have a connection to William Marshal using our PDF download.


As a result of the sale of Cardigan Castle to King John in 1200, Cardigan Castle was regarded as a Royal Castle from that time onwards. In 1202 William Marshal was granted custody of Cardigan. Marshal had a falling out with King John in 1204 so he came to west Wales to strengthen his hold in Pembrokeshire. He may have lost Cardigan soon afterwards as in 1205 King John paid the sum of twenty marks for repairs to the castle. By 1208 King John had granted the castle to Robert fitz Richard, one of the Tancred family. In 1214 King John ordered Falkes of Breaute to hand Cardigan Castle over once more to William Marshal. In 1215 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (1172-1240), alias ‘Llywelyn the Great’, and his followers captured Cardigan Castle, along with others in the area, during a general uprising.

In 1223, with the aid of an army, William Marshal's son, William the Younger captured the Castle on Easter Monday, possibly without resistance and held it until August 1226. In April 1231 Richard Marshal became Earl of Pembroke upon the death of his brother and, once again  took control of Cardigan. In 1231 Maelgwn ap Maelgwn ap Rhys attacked and captured Cardigan. In December 1234 King Henry III granted custody of Cardigan to the Marshal family, provided they could capture it. This they did after Llywelyn died in 1240, when Walter Marshal, a younger brother of the Earl, captured it in May 1240 and re-fortified it. In June 1241 Gilbert Marshal, the successor to Walter as Earl of Pembroke, was killed in a tournament and King Henry III took direct control of Cardigan.

Cardigan Castle is owned by Ceredigion County Council and managed and maintained through trustees.

Today, the remains of Carmarthen Castle are tucked away between the council offices and retail shops. During its peak, however, the site would have dominated the medieval town which sprang up inside the remains of the Roman wall. Giraldus Cambrensis reported that the Roman wall was still surviving into the 12th century so it is likely that when William Marshal took control of the site, sometime in the late 12th century, he would have used these Roman fortifications to his advantage.

An earlier castle was thought to have been built further downstream but it is the medieval Norman castle remains, originally built in 1104 and strengthened by the Marshal, which would have formed the heart of the administrative centre of, not just the town, but the surrounding county.

The castle underwent a series of attacks and rebuilding episodes during the various campaigns between the Welsh and English in the 12th and 13th centuries. Among these episodes was the capture and destruction of the castle by Llewellyn the Great in 1215, after which extensive rebuilding work was undertaken by William Marshal the younger, earl of Pembroke, who had re-captured this and other west Wales castles in 1223. A licence was granted in that year to crenellate the castle which demonstrates that the occupant was in royal favour at this time.

Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII died here in prison in 1456.

The site is currently owned and managed by Carmarthenshire County Council.

Cilgerran Castle was the Earl of Pembroke’s most northerly castle overlooking the River Teifi and only a few miles upstream from Cardigan Castle. Like much of his lands, Marshal took possession of the castle when he added Earl of Pembroke to his titles in 1199. It wasn’t until 1204 following a falling out with King John, however, that he was able to attend to his lands in west Wales including Cilgerran.  It is said that the Marshal’s fearsome reputation preceded him and when he arrived outside the gates of Cilgerran’s then wooden construction, the handful of Lord Rhys’ men inside surrendered without a fight. Marshal allowed the men to go free after leaving their weapons behind.

Marshal then set about fortifying the site although work was disrupted in 1215 when Llewellyn re-captured the castle. It wasn’t until 1223 when Marshal’s son, William the Younger really began work on the castle building an ‘ornate castle of mortar and stone’ (Brut y Tywysogion) based, in part, on his father’s magnificent designs at Pembroke.  Two magnificent drum towers dominate the site leaving modern day visitors of no doubt of the strategic importance of Cilgerran’s position over the neighbouring countryside and river. After William’s death in 1231, the work was continued by his brothers – Richard, Gilbert, Walter and Anselm until 1245 when the line died out. Although it passed to Marshal’s daughter Eva, when her son George died in 1272, Cilgerran’s ownership reverted to the crown.

Reported to be the oldest secular stone building in Wales, Chepstow – or Striguil as it was once known – lies on a cliff face high above the magnificent Wye river. It is a deceptively large, long and narrow castle that uses the geography of the landscape to its advantage.

In 1189, Chepstow Castle was inherited by William Marshal through his marriage to Isabel de Clare, daughter of Richard (Strongbow) de Clare. With his considerable experience in military architecture learned from his many years in France, Marshal set about modernising and strengthening the castle. He rebuilt the east curtain wall, with two round towers projecting outwards, in order to protect this vulnerable side. The arrow-slits were designed to give covering fire to the ground in front of the towers and was one of the earliest examples of the new defensive mode which was to become characteristic of the medieval castle. He also improved the defences of the lower bailey, having an impressive and cutting edge twin towered gatehouse built. This gatehouse had a small barbican, double portcullis, murder hole, arrow slit and heavy iron plated, oak doors.

The original castle doors are still on display at Chepstow Castle and are the oldest castle doors in Europe, dating from no later than 1190. After Marshal had inherited Chepstow Castle, the significant and extensive alterations he made were revolutionary and marked the transition from square towers to the form that was adopted by castle builders in the 13th century. He transformed it from a Norman great hall into the impenetrable fortress it remains to this day.

After William’s death in 1219, his sons continued to enlarge Chepstow's defences and improved the internal accommodation. They added a heavily defended barbican at the rear of the castle. They were given assistance by Henry III who had visited the castle prior to William's death and his donation helped with the remodelling of the Great Tower which had remained largely unchanged since it was originally constructed in the late 11th century.

The castle was first established by Gilbert de Clare, earl of Pembroke prior to William Marshal gaining the title through marriage to Gilbert’s daughter Isabel. It was considered, at the time, to be one of the strongest castles in Wales and it remained an Norman stronghold throughout its history. It is first mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis as one of the places he visited in 1188, eleven years prior to Marshal’s involvement in the county.

King John visited the castle in 1210 on his return from Ireland. It received its first marcher charter from William Marshal some time between 1213 and 1219, and obtained the lucrative trading privileges of an English borough. It traded both by land and sea, and had a busy tidal quay on the river below the ‘New’ bridge. At least ten guilds operated, and there was significant woollen cloth manufacture.

The present form of the castle is divided into two wards, and probably reflects that of the original 12th-century castle which would have started life as a wooden ringwork defence.

Haverfordwest was fortified throughout the time of William Marshal and his successor William the Younger and by 1220, when it withstood an attack by Llywelyn the Great, it was a substantial stone castle.  After the Marshal line died out, it passed to the crown where it was acquired by Queen Eleanor (wife of Edward I) in 1289, who immediately began building there on a large scale, to judge from the considerable sums of money recorded as being spent on ‘the Queen's castle at Haverford’. Much of the existing masonry is late 13th-century in style and may well have been undertaken during the one year before her death in 1290.

Medieval Haverfordwest was defended by town walls around the high ground near the castle, which were later extended as the town rapidly became an important market and trading place. Nothing remains of these town walls, although three medieval churches of Haverfordwest do survive.

On 30 April 1479, the town was designated a county corporate by a charter of Edward, Prince of Wales, with the aim of supporting a campaign against piracy in local waters. It shared this distinction only with Carmarthen and a few towns in England, and remained officially ‘The Town and County of Haverfordwest’ until the abolition of the borough in 1974.

Haverfordwest Castle is currently owned and maintained by Pembrokeshire County Council.

A ruined fortress first mentioned in 1116, Narberth owes much of its continued popularity by its inclusion in the Mabinogion Welsh folk tales. It is the original motte and bailey castle which would have been known to the Marshal family which was thought to have been built by Sir Andrew Perrot (b1130) although this theory has been ‘debunked’ by historian Roger Turvey.

The castle passed into the control of the Marshals from 1199 although there is no record of any improvements during this time. In 1220, Henry III exhorted knights and free men throughout the lordship to give every assistance to William the Younger to repair both Narberth and Wiston. However, it wasn’t until 1246, at which time the castle had passed to William’s eldest daughter Eva as the male line had died out the previous year, when building work began in earnest. Eva had married William de Braose, Lord of Abergavenny, and their daughter Maud, in turn, married into the Mortimer family, bringing Narberth to the marriage as part of her dowry. The keep is said to have been started in 1246 with the remaining towers being added toward the latter half of the 1200s.

Narberth Castle is currently owned and maintained by Pembrokeshire County Council

Emlyn was originally one of the ancient districts of Wales becoming part of Deheubarth in 950ad. However, during the 12thcentury, it was made part of the Marcher lands controlled by the Normans. In Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes), it is recorded that Llewelyn captured the Norman ‘new castle’ at Emlyn in 1215 as well as nearby Cilgerran. It is most likely that this castle was in the process of being built by William Marshal when he regained the lordships of Emlyn and Cilgerran in 1204. There doesn’t appear to be any earlier mentions of a castle on this site prior to the Marshal period of control. It was probably rebuilt by Maredudd ap Rhys in 1240 and continued by his son Rhys in 1287.

The site is currently managed by the community council on behalf of Carmarthenshire County Council.

Pembroke Castle has a long and fascinating history, for it was around 1093 that Arnulf de Montgomery built the small inner bailey standing at the end of the promontory.

The late 12th century keep is both an outstanding feature and architectural novelty, for it has a massive cylindrical tower with an unusual stone dome. All the rooms are circular and the keep is nearly 80 ft high. This was the work of William Marshal, the man responsible for the wholesale reconstruction of the castle in stone in the late 12th/early 13th centuries. Another absorbing feature of the castle is the gatehouse, which had a complex barbican and no fewer than three portcullises. Views from the top are tremendous and the castle's natural defensive position on a rocky promontory overlooking Milford Haven is immediately apparent. The main room on the second floor of the Keep has two windows embellished externally by dog tooth moulding and a carved head.

A battlemented flying arch inside the gatehouse is something of a puzzle, for it would appear to be of little use in repelling invaders who had actually forced entry into the castle. Still, the gatehouse is, overall, a mighty defence which proves the skill and the sophistication of military architects in medieval times.

Pembroke Castle is owned and managed by a private charitable trust.

The remains of Tenby Castle can be found perched high on the headland looking out to sea. It was originally an earthwork castle but had been rebuilt in stone during the 13th century. It is recorded that Tenby was one of several castles held by William Marshal as the Earl of Pembroke and it is believed to have been the Marshal who began the refortifications of the site in stone.

The castle fell into disrepair by the 14th century although in 1457, the surrounding walls were strengthened through the unusual collaboration of Jasper Tewder and the townspeople who split the costs of defending their town.

Tenby Castle is currently owned and maintained by Pembrokeshire County Council.

Tintern Abbey was always closely associated with the lords of Chepstow, who were often generous benefactors to the Cistercian order who lived here. William Marshal was no exception and his wife, Isabel de Clare was buried here, together with her mother, Aoife Countess of Leinster, and two of her sons, Walter and Anselm.

It was his great grandson Roger Bigod III, grandson of Marshal's daughter Maud, who was the most generous benefactor, rebuilding the church in the late 13th century. It is the ruins of Roger's church, which dominate the site today. His coat of arms could be seen in the glass of the east window.

Standing on a hill overlooking the town of Usk, on a site probably already used for many centuries to guard the river crossing, the castle was first mentioned in 1138, and the Norman gatehouse was probably built in the 12th century by the de Clare family.

The castle was fortified by William Marshal between 1212 and 1213 by the removal of the wooden palisade which was replaced by a stone wall as well as other fortifications to the site. 

He was famous for his skill in castle building learnt during his time spent in the Holy land on Crusade and in Normandy. The design for the Garrison Tower at Usk, where the wall-walk was likely to be his work.

The castle passed into the hands of his sons, although it was Richard Marshal who had to re-capture the castle from Henry III in 1233. When the Marshal line died out, it eventually fell into the hands of Edward II’s friend and ally, Hugh Despenser.

The site is owned privately and more information can be found on the website.

Wiston must rank as one of the best-preserved motte and bailey castles in Wales. It was named after an early Flemish settler named Wizo, many of whom were brought to the area by Henry II. Although Wizo died by 1130, the castle is mentioned in 1147 when it was taken by the Welsh. It changed hands many times and whilst William Marshal the Elder does not seem to have taken much interest in the site, his son, William the Younger was ordered by Henry III to rebuild the castle during his time as Earl of Pembroke with the assistance of his knights and local free men.

However, the castle seems to have been abandoned abruptly in late 1220 with no additional building work being carried out at the site. However, the polygonal shell keep probably dates from the early 13th century, and could be the work of William the younger. Archaeological excavations have shown that there were two phases of rebuilding in the interior of the keep, and the finds made during the work suggest it was occupied into the 14th century.

In the 18th century, the motte was included into the parkland as a picturesque feature ringed by a group of sweet chestnut trees, of which a few ancient examples survive.

Other sites in Wales which have a link to the Marshals are:

Pill Priory, Pembrokeshire where William Marshal was a great benefactor. 

Caerleon Castle - taken into custody by William Marshal's bailiff in 1217. (Custody is defined as holding the castle or land at the King’s pleasure and was not actual ownership)

Across the Welsh border, visitors may be interested in visiting Goodrich Castle (in the care of English Heritage)