Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pennard Castle

I have often mentioned Swansea Castle and Oystermouth Castle, but there are several other castles in Gower. The stone ruins seen today were all built by the Normans in the 13th and 14th centuries, mostly to replace earlier wooden structures.

Pennard Castle (Wikimedia) Pennard Castle (Wikimedia)

The story of Pennard Castle is a sad one. Here it is in legend form:

Here, in the days of old, lived a hardy chieftain. In houses round lived his warriors. A prince of Northern Wales had a quarrel with his neighbours, and sought the aid of Pennard's lord. After the battle the prince asked what was the reward that the chieftain desired, and he replied his daughter's hand in marriage. That night the walls of the castle sounded with mirth, but suddenly a strange sound came to their ears. A dark cloud came driving up the channel, then another and another. Faster and faster they came, till the air was thick with choking sand. Soon the whole place was devastated.

The legend goes on to relate that 'from a spot in Ireland a huge mountain of sand suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.'

The legend could have a basis in fact, since John de Breos, the Lord of Gower, married Margaret, the daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, prince of Wales. His grandson William married the daughter of Nicholas of Castell Moel, Carmarthen, in 1306. A great sandstorm evidently took place at the beginning of that century, as this William de Breos grants the sandy waste of Pennard to William, his huntsman, showing it was of no further use to him. 

pennard4 (castlewales com) (

The castle is perched on the edge of the valley of Pennard Pill, with a sheer drop below to the north and west. It is a beautiful situation with sweeping views out to sea and across the valley. The encroachment of the sand was totally unforseen. The castle and the surrounding village were abandoned by the end of the 14th century. 

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A search of the ruins has revealed no roofing material, no timber, no slate or tile, leading to the possibility that the castle was never actually finished.

In addition to the sand, the repeated incidents of the plague decimated the population and left many farms tenantless. A great extent of land in Pennard was given towards the foundation of St David's Hospital, Swansea in the 14th century.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

What's in a Name?

How did Swansea and Gower get their names?

The Lordship of Gower (Wikimedia)
The Lordship of Gower (Wikimedia)
The area has been settled for over four thousand years. Important prehistoric remains have been found in Gower dating to 2000BC. When the Romans invaded Britain, they built a fort at the mouth of the River Loughor, which is the western boundary of Gower. The fort was called Leucarum, and the Welsh call it Llwchwr

Sweyn Forkbeard  in Swansea Guildhall
Sweyn Forkbeard
in Swansea Guildhall
After the Romans, the Vikings came. Sweyne Forkbeard was a 10th century Viking King who ruled Denmark from 986-1014AD. The River Tawe, the eastern border of Gower, provided a natural harbour, and a settlement was created, named after him - Sweynesse. This was the first recorded name, in 1165, but it had obviously been in use since Sweyne's time. 

Swansea logo
Spelling didn't begin to be standardised until dictionaries were introduced in the 17th century. Scribes would spell things according to their own fancy. So Sweynesse was spelled Sueinesea in 1190, and Swanesey in 1322. Today it's called Swansea. The city's logo is a swan, but the name has nothing to do with swans or the sea.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd statue (Wikimedia)
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd statue
The city's Welsh name is much more practical. The River Tawe flows through the city into the sea, and Aber means mouth of a river so the Welsh call the city Abertawe [pronounced Abba-toway]. This name does not appear in records until the 13th century, when the castle was taken by Llewellyn ap Gruffydd in his campaign to become the sole Prince of Wales.

The area was part of the old Welsh kingdom of Ystrad Tywi, meaning valley of the Tywi (could be the River Tawe, which flows through Swansea, or the River Towy which flows through Carmarthen!). The kingdom was divided into areas of about one hundred villages or settlements, called cantref, which literally means cant, one hundred, and tref, village or settlement. The cantref in this area was called Eginog, and was divided into three cymwd (commotes) called Gŵyr, Carnwyllion, and Cedweli. 

Gŵyr comes from the old Welsh word gwhyr, meaning curved, which refers to the shape of the peninsular. When the Norman baron Henry de Neubourgh seized Gŵyr in 1138 he 'anglicised' the name as Gower and changed his name to Henry de Gower. 

There was another Welsh kingdom to the east of the Tawe, called gwlad Morgan (the land of Morgan). It stretched from the Tawe to the River Wye. In the Acts of Union, 1536-42, Gower became part of the new county of Glamorgan. Gŵyr had always been associated with lands to the west, but the government took no notice of this. Today Swansea has its own county, but still incorporating lands to the east, rather than the west. 

So which do you prefer today – Swansea or Abertawe? Or should it really be called Sweynesse?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Swansea Castle, Past and Present

Swansea Castle (Wikimedia)
Swansea Castle (Wikimedia)
The first castle built in Swansea, on the bluff above the river, was the traditional wooden motte and bailey type. Basically a mound and a palisade. The Welsh were not happy to be invaded, and repeatedly attacked the castle. 

The first mention of a castle at Swansea dates to 1116, when the Welsh, led by Gruffydd ap Rhys, assaulted the stronghold, burning the bailey ramparts but not capturing the castle. By 1138, when Henry de Neubourgh seized Gower, the Normans were firmly back in control. 

Henry changed his name to 'de Gower' and refortified Swansea Castle, which became the lordship's caput, or capital. One of the castle's important roles was as a mint. De Gower's nephew, Earl William of Warwick, inherited the lordship and issued Swansea's first borough charter. 

In 1217, the Welsh attacked Swansea, destroyed the castle, and wrested the lordship from Reginald de Braose. Shortly afterwards, John de Braose regained control and began refortifying the castle with stone. The ongoing threat of rebellion led to the construction of more substantial defences at Swansea. 

Yet, in the next century, the financial mismanagement of the de Braoses and the continued attacks by the Welsh, saw walls and towers in disrepair and sold off. In the early 1300s William de Braose enclosed a corner of the castle, calling it the New Castle, and built a hall there. That corner is all that remains today. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries parts of the castle were variously used as a market, a town hall, a drill hall and a prison. Part of the interior of the new castle was demolished early in the 20th century in the construction of a newspaper office. The remains were then consolidated and opened up to view from the street.

Last year work on the castle started again. For a while I wondered what was happening, but then it became clear that the council was cutting back the ground to the medieval level and landscaping it. Seats have been installed, though the view is of a busy road junction and concrete Castle Square, not very attractive. 

I have been told that when money is available, they hope to make the castle ruins safe for visitors, leveling the floors and building staircases to access the upper floors (see this newspaper article). The castle ruins, though small, are a tourist attraction right in the town centre, and it's time the council took advantage.