Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


30.6.08
  History of a Castle

It began with the Romans who built a fort on the site of what is now Cardiff Castle, most probably during the campaign 55 AD against Caratacus (Caradog), a Catuvellauni chief who fled to the Silures in South Wales and sicced them against the Romans. They lost the war and Caratacus escaped to the Brigantes whose queen Cartimandua promptly delivered him to the Romans. He managed to talk his head ouf of getting chopped off (no wonder, he filched the speech from Tacitus) and ended his life in the sunny south, wearing a toga. The sources don't tell us if he missed the rain and his oatmeal porridge.

Remains of the Roman wall
visible at the bottom, framed by the red stones

The place near the Bristol channel was a strategically important position between the legionary fort at Caerleon and the fortress at Carmarthen. Cardiff - its Roman name is unknown - fortress encompassed ten acres and was, like all Roman forts, a timber and earth structure at first. During the war against Caratacus it probably held a legionary vexillatio, not an auxiliary cohort.

The fortress was rebuilt in 75 AD and again around 250 AD. This version had 10 feet thick stone walls backed by an earth fortification, and was in use until the Romans left Britain. The fortress seems to have served as naval base during that time.

After Constantine III dragged the army over to Gaul to tell the Emperor Honorius who was boss (didn't work, btw), the fortress fell into decline until 1091 when the Norman Robert Fitzhamon Lord of Gloucester, after having defetated the Welsh prince Iestyn ap Gwrgan of Glamorgan and claiming his lands, saw the remains and thought, hey, that looks like a good place for a castle, and there's even some of the walls left. So he planted one of those Norman motte and bailey thingies right in the middle of it.

The Norman Keep

Reminds of Clifford Tower, doesn't it?

The first version of the keep was of timber with a palisade, but the 40 feet high motte was surrounded by a moat filled with water. After Robert Fitzhamon died of wounds recieved in battle (remember Rob, the Welsh are never defeated), Cardiff Castle went to his son-in-law, another Robert 'the Consul', natural son of King Henry I, and one of the dominating characters during the struggle between Maud and Stephen.

He erected a stone keep, perhaps using some of the stones of the Roman buildings still lying around in what was to become the outer bailey. The spiffy new stone keep was then used to imprison another Robert (those Normans really needed a nameyourbébé.com site), Robert Duke of Normandy, from 1126 until his death in 1134.

After Robert's death (the other Robert, 'the Consul'), the castle changed hands several times. Among others, Cardiff Castle passed to Prince John Lackland for some years, thus proving he had at least ten acres of land at some point, and in 1216 the castle and the lordship of Glamorgan fell to Gilbert de Clare, one of the barons of the Magna Charta.

The de Clares needed all the castles they could get in South Wales, because the Welsh still thought the Normans sucked. Unfortunately, every Welsh prince thought his neighbours and his brothers sucked even worse, and so they failed to unite and kick the Normans out. Until Llywelyn ap Gruffydd first eliminated his brothers, solidified his rule over Gwynedd and then marched south to collect the allegiance of the Welsh nobles. In 1267, King Henry III had to acknowledge Llywelyn as Prince of Wales. But Llywelyn made the mistake to really piss off King Edward I and that didn't end well. In 1277, Edward showed him what a big bad Anglonorman army looked like by displaying his troops in full splendour at Chester, probably not knowing that big bad Roman armies had mustered there about thousand years earlier. Llywelyn had to sue for peace and lost his title and most of his possessions. He died in a skirmish later that year.

Norman Keep, inside

The lands of Glamorgan and Cardiff as administrative seat lay in a sensitive spot during these quarrels, and so Gilbert de Clare's grandson, another Gilbert, remodeled the keep and further strengthened the castle by dividing the terrain of the ancient Roman fortress by a wall, thus creating an inner and outer bailey, and reinforcing the Roman fortifications as outer curtain walls. He also built Caerphilly Castle.

Gilbert's son, Gilbert the younger (you guessed that, didn't you?) died at Bannockburn in 1314. The lordship passed to his sister Eleanor who had married Hugh Despenser; that family would retain the lordship of Glamorgan for a hundred years. I will get back to our (in)famous Despensers in another post - Lady D and Alianore would hang, draw and quarter me if I reduced their darling Despensers to a footnote. :) Suffice to say that the lordship passed to the Beauchamp earls of Warwick in 1414 and finally into the hands of the Tudor kings.

In 1550 William Herbert, brother of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's last wife, obtained Cardiff Castle which fortunately wasn't destroyed during the Civil War and remained with the family until ...

The Neo Gothic part of the castle

... 1766 when Cardiff Castle and the Glamorgan lands came into the hands of John Stuart Earl of Bute by marriage to Charlotte Herbert. The Bute family fully embraced industrialization and could have given Bill Gates and that Trump guy a run for their money; they were among the richest families in the word, and Cardiff became a major export port.

They also took interest in the Roman past of Cardiff Castle (which was a good thing) and transformed the castle into a Neo Gothic dream palace (which at least makes for a grin these days). In 1865, Lord Bute began a partnership with the architect William Burges with the result that we now have a really fancy thing with lots of turrets, spires, oriels, fake merlons, and rooms with the most splendid, but un-Mediaeval furniture, tapestries and whatever. Fortunately, the Butes decided not to alter the Norman Keep, and the reconstructions of the Roman walls and the North Gate are a commendable effort to preserve and reconstruct the past. The German Emperor Wilhelm did the same with the Saalburg Roman fortress.

Reconstructed Roman North Gate
As with the Saalburg, the walls are not whitewashed

Reconstruction and reimagination work on all parts of the castle was going on basically from 1770 to 1927. Thus the castle is a mix of Norman, reinvented Norman (oh yes, we have a Bute Tower, a Herbert Tower, a Guest Tower ...) Mediaeval, reinvented Mediaeval (there's a Mediaeval Great Hall? fun, let's have our own Banqueting Hall besides), Tudor, reinvented Tudor (the roof of the Octagon Tower looks prettier with a fancy spire), and reconstructed Roman architecture.

Cardiff Castle escaped enemy action during WW2, but Labour governments don't like people getting too rich and invented heritage taxes. In 1947, the 5th Marquess of Bute gave Cardiff Castle to the people because the upkeep was too expensive.
 


24.6.08
  Dungeons (No Dragons)

A typical Mediaeval castle needs a typical dungeon, dark, wet, full of rats, shackles dangling from the walls, and maybe even equipped with a rack. All the medieaval-based Fantasy novels have them, after all. *grin*

There are indeed dungeons in some Welsh castles, or rooms that could be used as such. Though noble prisoners kept for ransom were not held under such unfavourable conditions. But when captivity was intended as punishment, even a title may not have saved you from moldy straw and rats.


Pembroke Castle has a very fine example of a gaol built into a tower, with only one small slit in the eastern wall to let a glimpse of light in. The oubliette can only be reached through a trap door in the floor of the upper room, and it's the only angle to get a pic as well.

If you look closely, you can see a little rat. It's dinner time. :)


Somewhat larger but no more comfortable is the dungeon in Manorbier Castle. If you end up with your legs in the stocks and hands tied behind your back, you'll be in for all sort of aches and your back will not love you. Don't think it was so well lit; I had to use a flash or you'd not have seen anything.

German castles have dungeons, too, and some are catered to the tourists by suitable decorations as well. No wax figures this time, but a nice rack - albeit someone should do something about the un-scary dust layer - and some shackles.


This fun display is in the Hanstein Castle, mentioned several times on my blog. Though we don't know if there was indeed not only a dungeon but a torture chamber as well. The sources don't mention one, as far as I know. Not that one needs a lot of sophisticated equipment to torture a prisoner.
 


22.6.08
  Lost Kingdoms and Sunken Realms

I found some Welsh legends of sunken kingdoms. Considering the fact the country has a long stretch of coast with heavy tides, it should not come as suprise that such legends arose as result of floods. Moreover, the Welsh share a Celtic culture with the Bretons where such a legend is famous as well, that of Kêr Ys (Kêr/Caer, meaning fortress or stronghold). While not exactly a sunken city, I'd connect the Avalon legend with the lost kingdoms as well - after all, it has disappeared in the mists for good.

Cantre'r Gwaelod is a legendary kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land northwest of Aberystwyth, todays Cardigan Bay. Its capital was Caer Wyddno, seat of the ruler Gwyddno Garanhir, who in some legends is connected with Taliesin as grandfather or foster father.
Like Kêr Ys, the kingdom was protected from the sea by floodgates. One day the keeper of the sluice gates was drunk and failed to close them, with the result that the sea flooded the land. Some versions name the keeper as Seithenyn, and there is a story about him having been distracted by a woman, Mererid, who kept the keys to the sluices. Or maybe it was a fae responsible for the mess.
Gwyddno also held a landlocked portion of his kingdom to which he was able to flee, like King Gradlon of Kêr Ys. He was later called King of Ceredigion. The church bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod are said to ring out in times of danger, a legend shared with Vineta, a sunken city in the Baltic Sea.

Llys Helig was the palace of Prince Helig ap Glannawg who is said to have lived in the 6th century, and whose sons are connected with the establishment of several churches in the area. Helig owned an area of land between Llandudno and Conwy which was later inundated by the sea. Like Vineta's shadows in clear water, it is said that the remains of Llys Helig can be seen at low tides,
Some versions of the legend tell that the flood was the result of revenge because Helig's daughter Gwendud was unfaithful in love. In another version her lover Tathal treacherously murdered a Scottish chieftain to gain a gold torque and her hand, and the victim swore vengeance.

The coast of Aberystwyth

I'v mentioned before that I connect the stones in Kings and Rebels with the Lost Kingdoms of Avalon, Kêr Ys and Vineta and their rulers, and ultimately tie my own legend with Atlantis. With those sunken kingdoms and the Taliesin/Merlin connection, I can have some evil fun with another stone and another Keeper that will upset the balance of the three known stones. And the Keeper will be a woman, to further complicate matters. Mwuahaha.
 


15.6.08
  Views from the Battlements

Some more picspam from Wales. This time I got some views through windows or from half tumbled battlements to show how the castles are part of the landscape. Views their inhabitants enjoyed some hundred years ago (and damn those modern houses that keep getting in the way).

Chepstow, view from the battlements above the sea gate to the Wye river

Wales is very green - where it isn't yellow and brown. The Wye is a tidal river like most in Wales but I have no idea why it has such a muddy colour; other rivers looked more like water. Maybe there had been some heavy rains the days before that washed earth into the waters.

Dolwyddelan, view from Llywelyn's Keep

See what I said about yellow and brown? But our dear Llywelyn ap Iorweth had a great view, didn't he? It may have been strategic reasons to build a castle there, but I'm sure people back then did enjoy such views in those few calm moments where they didn't need to watch out for rival clans or those bloody English sneaking up on them in the mists.

Conwy Castle, view towards the strait between Conwy and Llandudno

A grey day, a grey sea. The beauty of melancholy. The boats, of course, are out of time.

I took this one from a tower and zoomed in on the battlements in the foreground and the sea. I didn't climb as many towers as I'd had the chance to, but I don't stand heights well. Though afterwards I regretted to have been such a coward; I could have taken some fine pics from those vantage points.

View from the inner curtain wall of Criccieth Castle

A sunny evening with lots of wind, but so beautiful. Sparkling blue water and mist-veiled mountains in the distance. Though the hazy atmosphere was the reason I decided to go to Criccieth instead of Mount Snowdon since I don't think I'd have gotten good pictures there. Nor did I regret the decision, Criccieth was less spectacular in size than the Norman castles, but its situation on top of a mountain outcrop surrounded by the sea is one of the finest in Wales.
 


14.6.08
  That Ever Growing TBR Pile

I should get banned from Amazon.de for a few months, really. I buy way too many books which isn't good for my bank account (even with the excuse that the dollar is so weak I can get mass market paperbacks for 5 Euro, after all, they're not all mass market) and which makes me neglect my blog because I read too much. And authors should not be allowed to write anything longer than trilogies, lol.

So here I am with the first seven 800+page books of a ten book series, Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. If you want your Fantasy epic, gritty, filled with dark magic and wonder, a wild romp that puts tropes on their head and has more unexpected turns than a single track road in Wales, that one's for you. George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) has grounded Fantasy in the harsh reality of a genuine Medieaval setting without the epic colours of Tolkien that overshine the blood and gore, and he has introduced characters that are decidedly grey and not black and white (Jaime Lannister is no Faramir, but he grows on me nevertheless, lol). Erikson goes a step further in darkening the characters, and in his world magic plays a more important role than with Tolkien (at least Lord of the Rings where Gandalf seldom uses his abilites; Silmarillion is another matter) or Martin. But magic doesn't solve problems, it causes them. As do a bunch of meddlesome gods.

I got me the first two books, Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates as travel reading, read the first and enjoyed it so much I bought the rest of the stock (Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper's Gale). I'm halfway through the second now and still like the ride. And no 8, Toll the Hounds, will be out next month. The only disadvantage is that Erikson's books are among those that make me doubt my own abilities as writer. Martin does it as well, to some extent, but he often makes me go back and edit a scene, "damn, I can do better than that".

With only four books and a more recognisable part Medieaval-ish, part Rennaissance-ish world, Greg Keyes' Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone comes in a smaller scale, but after I read the blurbs and sample chapters on his website, I could not resist buying the books (The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight, The Born Queen). Some reviews call the books Martin Lite, others say that doesn't do them justice. Well, I'll see for myself, and I'm sure they will be a better read than the Fantasy I abandoned or never got into (Eddings post-Elenium, the later Feist novels, Shannara, Wheel of Time, or Goodkind). The genre really has changed during the last years, albeit I think it's a pity that an increasing number of younger readers can't get into Tolkien; he's still one of the great masters of Fantasy.

Then there's Bloodheir, the second book of Brian Ruckley's Godless World trilgoy - I mentioned the first, Winterbirth, in this post. Another realistic Fantasy if that contradictio in adiecto is allowed. I liked the first well enough to buy the second in hardcover, and that doesn't happen too often. Get a warm blanket and a hot tea when you read it, there's a lot of ice and snow in his world.

Still sitting on my pile are Downie's Ruso mysteries (I didn't bring them along to Wales because I don't like to carry around more expensive books, they tend to get donkey ears despite me being careful), Rebecca Gablé's latest and two other German books, some of S. L. Viehl's Stardoc novels plus one of McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan omnibus editions, and Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset - yay for that re-release; I was hunting down the book for ages without success.

And there will be more interesting books in autumn: Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt novel, Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand, a heroic Fantasy in the style of David Gemmell based on the Anabasis, plus a two volume omnibus of his Monarchies of God (think Normans with an additional layer of badassness), another welcome re-relase since I couldn't get a complete set of the books anywhere. Now if only someone would reprint a bunch of Katherine Kurtz' Deryni novels in omnibus form. And Edith Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynedd tetralogy, since we're at it. ;-)

Edited to add because Jericho, PBW's cat, asked. Malazan Book of the Fallen has hounds. Boy has it ever.
 


9.6.08
  Master James of St.George

No, Gabriele didn't make me up like she did with that Aelius Rufus guy, I'm a real person who lived from 1235-1308. And sometimes I return to my old places like Caernarfon Castle and talk to people.

Here I'm deep in conversation with Gabriele about the payment of masons*. I know a lot about that matter because I've been a master mason and military engineer all my life, following the footsteps of my father.

First I worked for the Counts of Savoy, and I took my name after the palace of St. Georges d'Esperanche which I built for Philip of Savoy. In 1278, Count Philip was visited by King Edward I of England who had a problem. He had conquered a people called the Welsh, but they took ill having a king not of their own blood and made several attempts to oust Edward. Thus he planned to build a ring of castles around the land to strengthen the position of the English. I wasn't sure at first if I really wanted to work in a land full of mountains, wind, rain and savage people who spoke an incomprehensible language with far too many ll and dd, but the payment was excellent and Edward ensured me he wanted the biggest fortresses he could get. It should prove an interesting challenge and so I packed my belongings, picked the best masons and engineers from my staff, received the farewell of Count Philip and set off to Wales.

It was a challenge, even with sixteen years of experience in building castles. Over the years I oversaw the construction of the castles of Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris, Flint, Rhuddlan, Builth and Aberystwyth, and I was involved in the repair and refortification of Dolwyddelan and Criccieth, Welsh castles which Edward had conquered.

Caernarfon Castle, view towards Eagle Tower

But my favourite place is Caernarfon which I modeled after the walls of Constantinople. For some reason, the Romans still hold a popular place in Welsh myths despite the fact they came as conquerors as well, and so Edward got the idea to connect his reign to the Roman Emperor Maximus, whom the Welsh call Macsen Wledig, and he wanted to demonstrate this by building a Roman-style castle. The Romans had been in Caernarfon which they called Segontium; you can visit the remains of their fortress on yonder hill. They produced some fine stone work, those Romans.

As you can see, Caernarfon has octagonal towers instead of round ones, and we used two different sorts of stone to create the red stripes. I'll tell you more about constructing a castle next time, it's a long and complicated process, and the walls and towers you see today only the final result. There are also some features I would have liked to add but never got the chance. Edward wanted too many castles at once, and in the end there was not enough money left.

View towards Queen's Gate

It was not my fault. Yes, I did receive the handsome pay of two shilling a day which was later raised to three shilling a day for the rest of my life, but that doesn't account for the 12,000 pound the building of Caernarfon cost from 1283-1292. You wonder what three shilling were actually worth? Well, I made in one day what a skilled mason who was not a chief engineer and Master would make in a week. A simple labourer digging trenches and such made two pennies a day, and one penny would buy him food and wine and a bed at an inn. If he spent the other penny on a whore, he'd be in for some trouble with his wife, though.

The comparably low payment for digging trenches should explain some of Edward I's annoyance with his son's hobbies, Ed II could never have made a living off those. *grin*

* The above picture was taken by Adrienne Goodenough from Cadw. She organises educational events in historical sites managed by Cadw and was so kind to send me the pictures she took of me and Master James. I hope the actor who played him - I never learned his real name - won't mind that I use James as narrator for some of my blogposts, but he was fun and an inspiration. The information about payment I got from him, but the rest is based on the info in the guidebook.
 


3.6.08
  Shadows and Strongholds

I stole that title from an Elizabeth Chadwick novel, but it fits just too well.

I sometimes get a bit experimental with my photography. Besides a number of delete-worthy shots, some usually turn out interesting. Here's what you can get when taking a photo against the setting sun.

Pembroke Castle

I wonder if William Marshal ever walked around his castle on an sunny evening, simply enjoying the place and not thinking about adding more defenses.

Photos like this show less detail than the human eye can still distinguish, but the stark black lines against the sky and glimmering water make for a stunning effect.

This one is along the same lines, only a bit softer in its shades.

The part Welsh, part Norman Criccieth Castle

The following picture shows some of the details the eye can see since the backlit was a slightly overcast sky, but still the strong contrast lends a menacing air to the walls and towers.

Conwy Castle

Those little dots are not dirt on the lens, but sea gulls.

Softer and more romantic is this shot against a sea and sky of muted blue. The sun was still too high to give those dramatic contrasts.

A half tumbled tower of Aberystwyth Castle

This one is very experimental. I held the camera angled against the sky to get the strongest possible black and blue-grey contrast. I'm actually quite pleased with the result, it gives the photo a Fantasy-ish air.

Dolwyddelan Castle

The arch in the foreground is the gate of the new tower built by Edward I after he conquered the castle, the building behind it is Llywelyn's Keep.
 


1.6.08
  The Pleasantest Spot in Wales

Thus described Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) his birthplace Manorbier Castle at the coast of south Wales. I won't give it this title alone of all places I've seen, but it is surely among the prettiest sites. And since I caught a sunny day for my visit, Manorbier showed itself to advantage.

Manorbier Castle

12th century Giraldus Cambrensis must have been quite a character, churchman, writer, traveler, diplomat, and a spy and outlaw at a time. But we can thank him for a fine description of Medieaval Wales. His grandfather, a Norman lord of the de Barri family, was granted the lands of Manorbier some time after 1003 and built a timber castle that was expanded in stone by his son William, Gerald's father. The castle remained in possession of the family until 1359 when it fell back to the crown.

William married a daughter of the famous Nest of Deheubarth daughter of Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr, which made Gerald a descendant of two noble houses, Norman and Welsh.

Manorbier Castle, inner ward

Manorbier, though well fortified, presents a less grand impression than fe. Pembroke or Caernarfon. It reminded me more of the German castles around my hometown albeit it keeps its specific Norman features that distinguish it from our hill castles. It is more the size and the fact it has become some sort of park. The other Norman castles only have lawns in the wards but no trees and flowers which of course, adds to the enormous scale of the places, while the German castles display trees in the yards and bushes in the bailey. You may remember the foliage on my photos from the Hanstein and Plesse. The inner ward of Manorbier tops them with its abundance of flowers and greens growing in beds along the walls.

Manorbier Castle, inner ward

Another feature Manorbier has in common with 'my' castles is the hall-keep that is built directly into the inner curtain wall, like this example (second photo) from the Hanstein shows, instead of a freestanding structure typical for Norman castles. In the 1260ies a chapel was added to the inner buildings which is preserved until today, as well as the vaulted basement under the entire hall block.

In former times, Manorbier was closer to the sea that still can be seen from the windows, and had a sea gate. But the changes in geography have added a fine beach today.

Beach near Manorbier Castle

I spent some time down there, walked through the breakers playing on the sand and enveloping the rocks with foam, sat in the warm sand and felt like during my childhood holidays at the Baltic Sea. Including the sand I kept finding in my clothes the rest of the day. Memories indeed, lol. I could not resist to bring some pretty stones and mussles, either.

A pleasant spot indeed, and a fine day to remember.
 


Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction and Fantasy living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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