Category Archives: Castles

A trip to Painscastle with Sir Gawain


Image of sheep at Painscastle in Radnorshire/Powys

Sheep stand guard on the mounds of Painscastle in Radnorshire/Powys

 

To Radnorshire now as once was known we ride

And up beyond Clyro’s motte to mounds magnificent in the hills:

Painscastle now we see, peeping proudly from its fields

Surveying every scene of hereabouts, a silent bearer of old news.

What a place this was when I well knew its prime!

Built on Roman roots, we think, but rounded now by Norman spades

And cast in scarps scoured from the hill by sweat of men long dead.

Pain Fitz John its founder piled these heaps of earth

Upon this hill to stake his claim in marcher hinterlands;

Then lord Rhys did wrestle it in war from Maud whose name it also bears

In memory of her proud defence, defiant in the land against the Welsh.

Yet where are the walls that well I knew and halls and houses here?

All gone? All gone! Like barley blown away by autumn winds

And now not one stone stands upon another which once with king I saw!

Yet Henry did this place shore up when Welshmen rose again

And so Pain’s castle proud it stood against the warring spears

Built on the labour of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and loyal shires!

But now up here silence only sings Paincastle’s siren call to tourists in

its sleep:

Pain and Maud have gone save for their name

With what’s left just ditches deep.

Is this what becomes of Norman fame;

Great mounds slow munched by sheep?

 

Painscastle in Radnorshire (Powys) is one of the finest motte and bailey castles in the Welsh marches and well repays a visit.  Founded in the early 12th Century by Pain Fitz John, Lord of Ewyas, it was re-fortified during the reign of Richard I by William de Braose III whose wife, Maud, defended it against the Welsh (and by whose name the castle is also known). Simple in plan, Painscastle comprises a large bailey, a small hornwork/barbican earthwork and an enormous motte.  The earthworks themselves are of great proportion; the site itself may once have had Roman origins.

Under threat from a new Welsh uprising, the castle was considerably rebuilt by Henry III and, between July and September 1230, his army remained there while the castle was “splendidly rebuilt in stone and lime”. It appears that much, if not all, of this work was robbed out in later centuries; the Inventory of Ancient Monuments in Radnorshire laconically laments this fact, stating accurately that the surface of the earthworks is “broken here and there by mounds, as though masses of overturned masonry were buried beneath the soil”. And thus it seems, even today.

Note to the visitor: located in a remote hamlet, the castle hides behind a farmhouse and it is only correct that permission must be sought from the farmer to see the remains.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of Wales, English History, Historic places to visit in Britain, Welsh History

Into Laugharne in search of whispers


Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Sshh! it is quiet now after the blowing winds as qualmed Myfanwy waits

in the cobbled lane round the back for Mr Jones jolly to return from jaunts with jugging jars of ale alternative.

Silent, too, I have levelled at this old town of Llanffopohuoy on Gringalet by Pendine

where men now ride faster on destrier unimaginable in my mounting days.

It is day but day dawned delightful as a still, clear night;

out on the light, limpid water, seabirds in the sunshine linger.

The odd mew of gull, gullible tourist chit-chat and the chinking of china

in the tea shop by the shore can hardly shatter this silence now

but dark above us, standing stout, to shout stentorian

is the grey-stoned home of the Courtemains growling

through stilled lips at a land long lost when here

Lord Rhys met Henry to settle in much accord and who

in later years took this place from English hand

as through this part of Wales his lordship washed anew

before Llewelyn by destruction laid it low in later years.

Cast as Tudor palace this pile lived again

till fortune fair her back upon it turned and

where once was welcome then came weather

and homely husbandry fell sway to the humbling of the decades:

roofs fell in, ivy crept round and mortar to sand its destiny prescribed

until in recent years its stones afresh were stirred,

its pebbles polished for a poignant day

when poets proud would write their way

to fame and fortune and fate unkind

but whose fame immortal still blessed this inlet isle

held calm in deep Carmarthenshire long after they were gone.

I walk thus warily towards that place and now

where once was guard and garrison is but a shed

with gewgaws game to gently prise the silver

from the tourist’s tipping hand.

There sits Myfanwy, musically holding forth

by mouth with  friends and family at the  till,

happily diverting mind from home, home from men.

I approach for entrance and proffer pence appropriate;

her eyes swivel towards me as if a sudden

apparition apparent had chanced before her orbs

and then the words which all in Britain know so well

as a token of warm welcome – words thus spoke which

waft them home from worldly winds:

“We’re closed”, she crabs with apology none and in a moment

I was gone.

Mefanwy though your life be broke

don’t let it be to dark the sun:

’tis better you are softly spoke

so men can dream that you’re the one.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth and which, upon Henry’s death, was seized by Rhys in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

This view of Laugharne is the one which most who visit take back as their abiding memory of the place. It is certainly dramatic.

This view of Laugharne is the one which most who visit take back as their abiding memory of the place. It is certainly dramatic.

The entrance to Laugharne Castle today; until fairly recently, the castle was in a much worse condition and covered in ivy. Thankfully, the ivy has been removed and the ruins consolidated.

The entrance to Laugharne Castle today; until fairly recently, the castle was in a much worse condition and covered in ivy. Thankfully, the ivy has been removed and the ruins consolidated.

Laugharne today is more famous for the man who lived here than the Lord Rhys who seized Laugharne Castle in 1189. Dylan Thomas, creator of Under Milk Wood and other magnificent poetry lived in this beautiful spot at the end of his career.

Laugharne today is more famous for the man who lived here than the Lord Rhys who seized Laugharne Castle in 1189. Dylan Thomas, creator of Under Milk Wood and other magnificent poetry lived in this beautiful spot at the end of his career.

The banality of life, so much of which was celebrated by Dylan Thomas, is summarised in these garments, hanging in the breeze at the Boat House, Laugharne.

The banality of life, so much of which was celebrated by Dylan Thomas, is summarised in these garments, hanging in the breeze at the Boat House, Laugharne.

The Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd certainly had a great reason to capture Laugharne other than taking the castle itself; the view is quite wonderful.

The Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd certainly had a great reason to capture Laugharne other than taking the castle itself; the view is quite wonderful.

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Filed under Carmarthenshire, Castles, Castles of Wales, Poetry, South Wales, Welsh History

Fulk Nerra – the Butcher of Anjou


This knight, part of a frieze at the collegiate church of St Ours, Loches, shows an early mediaeval knight. The church was built by Fulk's son; could this be an image of the man himself?

This knight, part of a frieze at the collegiate church of St Ours, Loches, shows an early mediaeval knight. The church was built by Fulk’s son; could this be an image of the man himself?

Lithes and listen you ladies and young gentlemen
To my jolly journey now as I on le Gringalet jaunts
South  to Loches in the Loire, lively once to the sounds
Of clinking iron clattering in the clamour for blood
and now silent in the sunshine.
Enter here Fulk Nerra, the Black – and blackest of the black;
Blacker here than the blue-black crack of Beeston’s fractured well.
Fulk the Black, founder of the fight to form
A future in a land of chaos, chancing to chafe
His enemies by brutal power pressing with a pounce.

I knew him well, that man who men mention that
Even God and the Devil in equal measure paled from his presence.
I saw him when fresh-wed in the fruiting of his lust he
Clasped young breast and pink beauty to his bosom
And planted seed a plenty with the pleasantry of seduction.
But then I saw him have fair wife whipped in flames
For adultery unsupported by actions or actuary.
I saw his enemies bludgeoned, burned and bastard sons
Blossom in the aftermath of his cruelty.
No man, count, courtier or king could withstand
His blood red eyes and bleeding passion for bloodshed.
Even the king, it is said, was made with eyes a-wet
To watch on old friend executed on Fulk’s command!

Yet here was a man of contrasts contrary:
His ferocity was fewtered by a fear fecund;
On four crusades he crossed to be crossed
And his flesh bore witness to a whipping
Bare naked in the streets of Jerusalem –
Penitence indeed for the power he pricked
With spurs of spurting contempt for his fellow man.
Yet he held with fear and favour his fideles and in
So doing he built donjons dramatic to dab
The skies of the low and looming Loire and Indre.

Which brings me now to Loches, the light of lovelies:
The finest of all fine keeps and fair in faint colour,
Its tuffeau tower twinkling on horizons
For mile after mile as a monument of power
And suppression silent to all who see it far and wide.
This columned keep captures the eye from where man roams
In this part of Anjou; no angel from any angle
And but a blunt stub to bludgeon the blind.
It towers on its hill high, the highest of all keeps
And in its day dwarfing even Rochester in our own isles.
But this was one of the first – and what a first fastness!
It is peerless , matchless and unmatched;
It housed in later years the Lionheart himself
And still today stands almost to its full height,
Diminished but a little by the passing of the years.

What this has watched we wouldn’t wish to know:
Torture, touching tender its secrets to will out;
De Commynes confined in cruel uncertainty;
Sforza in centuries later secured in solemn dark;
Untold horrors hidden in these holes.
But time treats all the same
As the seasons wend and waft their way
And Fulk himself did to dust dimly pass
As so we all must in the drifting of our days.
Now at Beaulieu, Fulk be-fears no more his folk
But sleeps soundly in a solemn grave
Among the stones that once astounded one and all.

If we slay others in the vanity of our aims
On pursuit of glories only we can see
Then little wonder the payment for our gains
Is contempt of others – on our death their glee.

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Castell Dinas Emrys – Ambrosius reborn


 

View of Dinas Emrys

Through Logres and across the crowing hills from Camelot, le Gringalet takes me deep into Gwynedd. Here, paths peter out in passes steep and the roads which you rely on rise up into the mountains to disappear in the mists, mounds and moss. And it is just here, when the world seems but a whisper that the warriors of Wales still live on in the crumbling castles and commotes of Hywel Dda, “the Good“.

 In the centuries which have slowly passed since I was sealed in this world, there are few sights which cheer me more than the soaring mountains of northern Wales. Turn your eyes to the eagles’ eyries and there, stone circles, walls and castles catch your straining glimpse. For in Wales it is not town life which predisposes the populace but places picked from the hillsides, remote and unforgiving.Those names conjure times I recall even more freshly than the few stones which now feature there: Castell-y-Bere, Cricieth, Carndochan – halls of the princes whose lands these once were. But one above all rises in emotion high and legend long, loyally keeping guard over the hearts of the people: Dinas Emrys, the hill of Ambrosius. The Mound of the Magician, Merlin – Myrddin Emrys.

I can tell you of magic marvels here at this mountain place, biding its time as the burgh of Beddgelert, for I saw these things happen. Where now a tumbled tower tottering, once a fine keep – the finest in the mountains – fit for the Sycharth-singing salutation of our fellow Iolo Goch, had he lived in those times. But friends I burrow further back and bide with Vortigern who did a city buildeth here when from the Saxons he retreated.

Vortigern the valiant was so advised as to build a citadel so strong that none so serving would with soldiers take it. But boulders built blew down and the maths of masons could not that castle master. Each time they built it, each time that hill would eke out its substance and tumbling it fell down.

Anguished, Vortigern sought solace from advisers and action demanded. And so they said that strength would come only from the spilled blood of a small boy, sacrificed on this sparse hill. I recall well how that boy stood up to our sire strong and would not his blood-spill let. “For I am Ambrosius, artful and astute – and I alone can assist you at this hour”.

Vortigern, as I recall, with volition vented thus: “tell me Ambrosius, answer me now and advise me of my path”. And Ambrosius said with solemnity stateful: “the cause of the crumbling lies in the clods. Below these boulders is a pool of brown waters where deep down two dragons bout in battle eternal as placed there by Lord Lludd Llaw Erient. And the red dragon shall defeat the white as Vortigern shall vanquish the Saxons.”

And so it is that in Wales the dragon red is in heraldry hailed as the high standard of those who Cwmraeg speak. But history tells us that Vortigern well vanquished was and in the valleys the Britons by reduced circumstance fell amongst themselves in petty squabbles and fighting.

The Welsh, the true people of Britain, languished warring for centuries as brothers wielded sword against brother and many thus were killed. In their ceaseless combat, the cold knights of Wales may in themselves be those dragons compelled for ever to fight each other as Britain round them falls.

So now at Dinas Emrys only eerie silence assaults the ears and the pool in which those dragons fought is but a miry marsh muzzling in the moss of that Welsh hill.

In stones it stands there still

By Merlin’s magic blessed

In the cold and dampening chill

A nation’s legend nests

Image of keep at Dinas Emrys

Another view of the keep at Dinas Emrys, the hill of Ambrosius

Image of enclosure at Dinas Emrys

This stone enclosure is of uncertain age. Built near the pool, some have suggested it was the original enclosure which held the dragons – but it may be a small dwelling or sheep pen.

Image of moss at Dinas Emrys

The clear, clean air of North Wales encourages moss of all kinds in the damp air.

Image of keep at Dinas Emrys

These footings, perhaps 6 feet high from the inside are all that remains of the mediaeval keep at Dinas Emrys.

A typical Welsh day, encapsualting the myth and mystery of the ancient Welsh people.

A typical Welsh day, encapsualting the myth and mystery of the ancient Welsh people.

Image of view down from Dinas Emrys

Dinas Emrys is protected on all sides by the hills. Here we look down on the area in which the pool resides which held the red dragon and the white.

Image of the keep at Dinas Emrys

The footings of the keep at Dinas Emrys – all that now remains of the mediaeval fort here.

Image of the pool at Dinas Emrys

The pool at Dinas Emrys in which the dragons fought

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