Last edited 17 Apr 2022

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Powis Castle

Powis Castle has stood for 800 years as a physical connection between the historic landscape of the Severn valley in mid-Wales and the people who lived there.

Powis castle.png
Powis Castle from the south (Photo: National Trust).

Powis Castle sits on a rocky outcrop a mile outside Welshpool (Y Trallwng in Welsh, meaning ‘the marshy land’ or ‘the muddy pool’); the castle sits 230 metres above sea level on the western (Welsh) side of the Severn valley. From Welshpool the modern road runs north to Wrexham and Chester and south to Newtown. Three miles from the castle, a valley between the northern end of Long Mountain and Breidden Hill, Moel y Golfa and Middle Hill provides easy access east to Shrewsbury and the Shropshire plain. A mile or so to the south-east of the castle lies the valley of the River Camlad, a tributary of the Severn, which gives similar flat and unobstructed access to Montgomery and on through the Shropshire Hills to Bishop’s Castle, Craven Arms and eventually Ludlow.

The landscape within which Powis Castle sits has a long history of settlement and conflict as a borderland area, which became more significant in the medieval period with the development of territorial ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ polities. Iron-age hillforts abound on the heights around the castle – from Beacon Ring on the opposite side of the Severn Valley to Pen Y Foel to the west and south, and the Breidden and Llanymynech to the north. The Romans had a significant presence in the area. The roads they built crisscross the region and settlements have been uncovered near Montgomery and Newtown. Welshpool almost certainly had a Roman settlement: it is the site of one of Wales’ most spectacular Roman burials.

With the end of the Roman occupation and the development of Saxon and Brythonic kingdoms, the status of the Severn valley as a border solidified; something never more clearly demonstrated than when King Offa of Mercia constructed his impressive Dyke in around 785 AD. This immense bank and ditch ran from the Dee estuary to the Bristol Channel, separating the kingdom of Mercia from Wales. It is still broadly on the line of the modern border. The earthwork runs within four miles of Powis Castle, along the lower slopes of Long Mountain on the ‘English’ side of the River Severn – an impressive statement of power and authority. Relations between the Welsh and Saxons evidently continued. In 893 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Saxon and Welsh forces defeated a Viking army that had raided from East Sussex up the courses of the Thames and Severn to Buttington, three miles from Powis Castle.

The Severn valley became an important region in the 11th and 12th centuries for the Norman lords who had conquered England in 1066. The borderland became the March of Wales, controlled predominately by the Norman lords of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. These Marcher lords developed important Norman settlements along the border, including motte-and-bailey constructions at Oswestry, Chirk, Montgomery and Ludlow, which would soon develop into large castles made up of complex structures.

The Welsh princes, particularly those who had links to or dealings with the Anglo-Normans, quickly adopted the new castle-building technology. This is clearly demonstrated not only in Powis Castle itself but in the existence of three examples of 12th-century motte-and-bailey castles within the vicinity of Welshpool.

Overlooking Long Mountain and the Severn valley, Powis Castle dominates the landscape. Constructed from the region’s distinctive red stone, the castle has stood for 800 years as a physical connection between the historic landscape of the Severn valley in mid-Wales and the people who lived there. The castle is named after the lordship of Powis, a latinised version of the Welsh name Powys, which developed as a kingdom as early as the 7th century.

Medieval Welsh literature suggests an early court, or llys in Welsh, of the Princes of Powys in the region of Welshpool as early as the 12th century. The Welsh language chronicle Brut y Tywysogion notes how in 1111 the ruler Cadwgan ap Bleddyn ‘came to Welshpool and there he thought to stay and to make a castle’. [1] Presumably Cadwgan was never able to finish his castle as the chronicle records his death the same year, and there is no further mention of a built structure until the end of the century.

By the mid-12th century, the kingdom of Powys had splintered politically. As a result of this dynastic conflict, it separated into two major polities, Powys Fadog in the north, centred around Llangollen under the rulership of Gruffudd Maelor, and Powys Wenwynwyn in the south, under the rulership of Owain Cyfeiliog, which became centred around Welshpool.

The earliest written reference to a completed castle in the Welshpool area again comes in the Brut y Tywysogion. The various Welsh chronicles note under the date 1196 how ‘Hubert (Walter), archbishop of Canterbury, and the princes of Gwynedd along with him, went against the castle of Gwenwynwyn (son of Owain Cyfeiliog) at Welshpool’. [2] The chronicles continue to describe the use of siege engines and undermining the castle. According to the Brut the castle surrendered, but was recaptured by Gwenwynwyn within the same year.

Given the emphasis on undermining into the earth, the presence of a ‘water-filled ditch’ and the use of the Severn for the movement of siege equipment outlined in the various chronicles, it is more widely accepted that the castle discussed in 1196 was the motte-and-bailey Domen Castell, in the township of Welshpool, rather than Powis Castle, which is situated outside the township on a rocky outcrop. It is possible that the English occupation of Domen Castell triggered the building of a motte-and-bailey known as ‘lady’s mount’ in the Powis park or the building of an unnamed fortification within Powis park, a mile west of Domen Castell, by Welsh forces as an outpost from which to monitor English activity.

In around 1240 Gwenwynwyn’s son Gruffudd granted a free borough to the burgesses of Welshpool, allowing the town to hold a market free from taxation owed to the lord. By the mid-1200s Powys was in a politically and economically stable position, providing the opportunity to develop an impressive stone castle that supported the authority of the rulers of Powys. It appears that this was the period in which the stone castle of Powis was first developed. Remains attributed to this period consist largely of the lower sections of the curved south wall of the castle keep. Current interpretation suggests that this wall was part of a free-standing shell keep or ringwork, which would suggest that the first stone version of Powis Castle was a reasonably modest affair of around 18 metres diameter. Much more work needs to be done however, before the earliest phases of Powis Castle can be mapped with any real confidence.

The importance of a developed castle in the area is attested by Welsh chronicles and charters from the period. These reflect the conflict between Powys and Gwynedd (the kingdom of north-west Wales), which continued throughout the 13th century. In 1257 the Brut y Tywysogion records how Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd gained possession of all of Gruffudd’s territory, ‘apart from the castle of Welshpool’ [3], and in an agreement between Gruffudd and Llywelyn in 1263 that ‘if Gruffudd should lose his castle of Pool in war Llywelyn will assign to him another castle’ [4]. These accounts suggest a prominent castle, beyond a simple earthwork-and-timber structure. The significance of the castle as a political and administrative centre is also highlighted in the 1270s.

By 1271 Gruffudd was issuing charters from the ‘castle of Pool’ with witnesses to the charter including Robert de Say, bailiff of Pool, and William of Ekun ‘castle clerk’ [5]. The political significance of Pool Castle would be its downfall. When Llywelyn sent envoys to Gruffudd in 1274, Gruffudd entertained them at the castle, before imprisoning Llywelyn’s envoys and fleeing over the border to Shrewsbury. According to the chronicles, in response Llywelyn ‘took the castle and released his messengers from the prison’ and ‘burned the castle and destroyed it to the ground’ [6] Archaeologists and historians have debated if this account refers to a stone or timber structure. Given the emphasis on a two-stage operation of burning and dismantling, the account would imply the burning of auxiliary timber buildings before the dismantling of a stone structure.

Following Edward I’s conquest of Gwynedd in 1282, Gruffudd regained possession of his territory in Powys. Subsequently the Marcher lordship of Powys was created and Gruffudd was granted licence to rebuild his castle. The lordship continued to be held by his son Owain, who took the name de la Pole, and to the Charleton family through the marriage of Gruffudd’s daughter Hawise to Sir John Charleton in the early 1300s. Hawise and John were responsible for the building of the large drum towers on the west entrance of the castle, which still dominate the west courtyard of Powis today. The building of these towers changed the orientation of the castle from primarily facing east to a double-bailey structure with a courtyard on both the east and west sides of the castle.

Powis Castle’s role as the symbol of institutional continuity of the lordship of Powys, a lordship which continues today, is remarkable. The castle stands in the landscape as a physical representation of the survival of the lords of Powis and their ability, since the middle-ages, to survive against internal and external conflict.

References:

  • [1] Thomas Jones (ed), Brut y Tywysogyon or the Chronicle of the Princes Peniarth MS.20 version (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1952), 1111
  • [2] Jones (ed), Brut y Tywysogion, 1196 The west front of castle. The drum towers were added in the 14th century (Photo: National Trust)
  • [3] Jones (ed), Brut y Tywysogion, 1257
  • [4] Huw Pryce, The Acts of Welsh Rulers: 1120–1283 (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2005)
  • [5] Pryce, The Acts of Welsh Rulers 6 Thomas Jones (ed), Brut y Tywysogion: Red Book of Hergest Version (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1955), 1274

This article originally appeared as ‘Powis Castle: a great survivor’ in Context 170, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in December 2021. It was written by Amy Reynolds and Alexander Turrell. Amy Reynolds is a collection assistant for the National Trust at Powis Castle and a PhD researcher in medieval Wales at Bangor University. Alexander Turrell is senior collections and house officer for the National Trust at Powis Castle.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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