Monday, 21 July 2014

Loughor Castle

Loughor Castle is very easy to miss, unless you know where to look. Like Swansea Castle, it stands on a hill overlooking a river, but there is so much going on around it that the ruins are hard to see. 

For a start, it lies alongside the busy A48 road, with screening either side. Away from the road, it lies behind houses. And there are steep banks and a lot of trees. When I visited I could find no signposts and no way to access it except scrambling up the bank. I am not up to scrambling these days, so I didn't get near it.

Loughor lies at the western gateway to Gower. In that respect it was Swansea's counterpart. Strategically placed at the estuary of the River Loughor, it was originally used by the Romans, who built a fort there and called it Leucarum. The fort guarded the road to Carmarthen and was a major communications route.

When the Romans left in the 4th century the fort was abandoned and fell into decay, until the coming of the Normans in the 12th century. The Welsh name is Llwchwr, which the Normans couldn't pronounce (neither can most non-Welsh people today) so they called it Loughor. The Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont, built a ringwork castle on the same site, but after many Welsh attacks and burnings a stone castle was built.

Loughor Castle was one of those given to William de Braose (or Breos) by King John in 1203. The story of William's rise and fall at the hands of King John is told in my book, Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. When Gower was regained by the de Braose family, William's grandson John de Braose became its lord, and added a low stone curtain wall. The rectangular tower which is the main feature of the ruins was built in the late 13th century by John's son William for residential use.

In 1302 a later William gave Loughor Castle to his steward John Iweyn. The story of William's daughter and son-in-law is told in my book, Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth. Alina's son John de Mowbray eventually inherited the castle along with the rest of Gower.

Monday, 14 July 2014

What's the Difference Between the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages and the Medieval Period?

Coming to medieval history as a complete novice, this question was a puzzle to me. The terms seem to be interchangeable, so why not stick to one? I thought you might wonder too, so here is the explanation.

The Middle Ages were so named by humanists in Italy in the late 15th century. They were working to revive Classical learning and culture, and looked back to the ancient Greek and Roman Empires as the last high point of culture. In between the two, was the 'Middle Ages'.

The word 'Medieval' is the adjective used for the Middle Ages. It comes from the Latin, meaning 'middle age'! So, Middle Ages and Medieval Period mean the same thing.

There is much debate over exactly when the Middle Ages began and ended. It covers roughly 1000 years, from the fall of Roman civilisation to the Renaissance. But Roman civilisation didn't collapse overnight, and the Renaissance came to different places at different times.

The web site gives the following dates: 

The Beginning of the Middle Ages
476 AD Regarded as the end of rule across Europe by the Roman Empire. Although Roman control of many parts of Europe had ceased several years previously due to rebellions and uprisings; in fact the Roman armies finally left Britain almost sixty years prior to that date.

The End of the Middle Ages
1453 The capture of Constantinople by the Turks
1453 The end of the Hundred Years' War between the English and the French
1492 The Muslims’ being ejected from Spain
1492 The discovery of America by Columbus
1517 The Protestant Reformation starting

Many people like to use round numbers to make it easier and say that the Middle Ages was 500AD to 1500AD. The second date is when the modern world is considered to have begun. Historians have also put forward cases for the Renaissance beginning in the 14th and even 13th centuries, and sometimes as late as the 17th century, but the 15th century is a good general date to use, and gives us that round number of 1000 years.

Now, just to complicate matters, the Middle Ages is split into three periods:
1. The Early Middle Ages (6th to 10th centuries)
2. The High Middle Ages (11th to 13th centuries)
3. The Late Middle Ages (14th to 15th centuries)

It was the first period which was known as the Dark Ages. This was originally named because it was assumed to be a time of ignorance and barbarity, and little was known about it. As historians learn more about this period, the term has fallen into disuse. I wrote about this in another blog post.


Monday, 7 July 2014

Penrice Castle

Castles are mysterious places. They fire our imaginations as we wonder who built them and what their lives were like. They are full of history.

Penrice Castle is even more mysterious, because there is no public access, which is a shame because there is a lot left. It is the largest castle on Gower. You can glimpse some of it from a nearby public footpath, but it stands on private land.

The family of knights who owned the land in the 13th century took their name, Penres, from Penrice. There was a simple wooden castle there before but when Sir Robert de Penres married in 1237 he decided to build in stone and chose another location nearby. Like many castles, it was built in stages. Originally there was just a keep and a thin curtain wall cutting off the promontory on which it stands.

In the 1250s and 60s Robert strengthened the site by enclosing it in stone walls with tiny round flanking turrets. More buildings were added – a barn, hall block and gatehouse. His son, also called Robert, added a solar block and a chemise around the turn of the century.

The core of the land around Penrice Castle and the village has remained in the family and they have now lived there for twenty nine generations. In the 1960s the overgrown land was cleared and gardens planted and in the past twenty-five years many of the traditional cottages and houses owned by the family have been converted into holiday homes.

The great park around Penrice Castle, the deep woodlands that encircle it, and the strange marshlands at its foot are still intact and form a landscape composition that is hard to beat in the whole of South Wales. If you add glimpses of the prow of Oxwich Head and the rich brown background of Cefn Bryn, the whole area lying at the back of the dunes of Oxwich Bay takes on an Arcadian quality.
~ Wynford Vaughan Thomas 1976