Fort Denison

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It’s easy to see Fort Denison as a funny looking little island in the Sydney Harbour, but it has a fascinating history.

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When the Europeans arrived in what is now called Sydney Harbour Fort Denison looked approximately like this.

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It stood  at an elevation of about 75 feet.

For the local indigenous people the island was known as Muttewai. When the First Fleet landed the local indigenous population, the Eora, Guringai and Daruk nations, were forced inland away from traditional grounds and killed, by European diseases such as small pox, in the wars trying to protect their land from Europeans settlers and quite intentionally by Europeans. For more information click here.

I believe it is worth discussing the indigenous history of the area because, even though it doesn’t invalidate the interesting later history of Fort Denison itself, it is essential to acknowledge and understand that the European history of Fort Denison wasn’t built on a nice clean blank slate. [1]

Fort Denison itself wasn’t called Fort Denison by the European settlers to begin with. It was originally known as Pinchgut Island. Pinchgut is a nautical term meaning a narrow passage, but it was also used because the convicts they marooned there as punishment, before a gaol was built, had very little food so they always had ‘pinched guts’.  In the early 1800s a gibbet was also erected on the island to display a convict called Francis Morgan in chains. It was named Fort Denison after the current Governor of New South Wales in 1857.

The island of Fort Denison was levelled in the 1840s, partly with the idea of making it a defensive site and partly to mine the sandstone which was used to help construct Bennelong Point, which the Opera House now sits on. One of the reasons for the levelling of the island to make it a defensive position was the completely unexpected arrival of two American men of war in December 1839. They arrived over night and the locals completely failed to notice their arrival until the morning. The commander of the American ships was quoted as saying

“If [we had been] enemies, it would have been in our power before daylight to have fired all the Shipping and store houses, laid the town under contribution and departed unhurt.”

Developing the island to be a fortification was one of the reactions to this nasty shock. The top was blasted, but the majority of the work was carried out by convicts with pickaxes. By 1842 it was almost completely levelled. No decisions, however,  regarding the island’s use as a defensive structure were made and it was left levelled for a number of years.

The settlers in Sydney Harbour were always frightened of attack and coastal defences were erected, but when the Crimean War broke out in the 1850s there was serious and widespread fear of a Russian attack on Sydney. It was decided definitively that a defensive fort should be built on the island. The fort was built by paid labour with 8000 tonnes of sandstone brought over for the construction of the Martello Tower, gun batteries and barracks. The Martello Tower is the only one in Australia and one of the last of its type of Martello Tower in the world. The walls in the base of the tower are four metres thick.

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Martello Towers are a very particular type of structure and this one, the whole fort was ready for habitation by 1857, is actually one of the later examples of its kind. Martello Towers were built to a specific plan based on a tower on Mortella Point in Corsica, which held off two British warships for two days in 1794. The British were so impressed by the design that they copied it and it was replicated across the empire. Martello Towers were designed to protect the men within from cannon fire and to have cannon on the top and inside to fire back. For more information on Martello Towers click here. In the case of the Fort Denison Martello Tower, it would have originally have had a cannon on the top, but it was removed much later. You can see roughly where the cannon would have stood below.

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From the top of the tower, just below where the original cannon would have stood, you can see the power that the view from the tower would have commanded. The bell in the photo is the fog bell.

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The tower is also built to withstand cannon fire. You can see the linking keystones in the the photo below. They are made from granite and are embedded in the softer large blocks of sandstone that make up the rest of the tower, to link them together and to hold the tower in one piece in the face of a strike from a cannon.

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The tower also contains the powder storage room, where you can still see the rings left in the floor by the powder barrels, as well as another storage room next door. When men were collecting the powder for the guns they had to take their shoes off as their hobnail boots could cause sparks and set the gun powder off.

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The tower also has musket loupes in the wall as well as the cannon that were mounted around the base of the tower in the battery. You can see a loupe below as well as the view through one of the recesses in which a cannon would have stood in. It is believed that a shot from a cannon in this position could have reached the headland you can see in the photo.

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As well as the guns in the tower there were some very impressive guns in the bastion area of the Fort which can be seen on the left at the end of the photo below. The flag is a navigational aid.

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The semi circular bastion was added as the fort was built and it housed 2 cast iron ten inch shell guns each weighing 4 420 kg, like the guns in the battery these guns were mounted on movable carriages. One covered the shipping channel and one pointed south towards the harbour.

The Fort was built in response to what was seen as a serious threat and the nine massive 32 pounder guns could have destroyed wooden sailing ships. The development of armour plated steam ships and the improvement of the guns on said ships, however,  rendered the Fort obsolete by the 1870s. Fort Denison has never been in a real military battle, although there have been military units quartered there for many years. In the 19th century the Royal Artillery used the Fort for artillery practice as did the NSW Volunteer Artillery. Since the 1890s the main use has been as a light and tide station, and tides as still measured from there today. By 1936 the military units had moved out and a caretaker had moved in. You can see some of the history of the Fort and some of the work of the caretaker in the videos below from 1936. The videos are from the National Film and Sound Archive and can be found here.

The caretakers were not only single men living alone on the island. The first lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wren, and his family arrived in 1869. In the 1950s the island was occupied by Osmund Jarvis, his wife Jessie and their children. They used to show people around the fort and Jessie would make tea and scones for visitors. They grew vegetables and kept animals and were largely self sufficient, though they did bring in supplies from the mainland. You can see a fruit tree in the photo below, which is a relic from when the island was lived on. The longest serving caretaker was Cliff Morris who lived on the Fort for 25 years with his wife and two daughters. The final caretaker, Norman Dow and his family of five, left in 1992.

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In the second video from 1936 you can see the caretaker loading the small cannon that was fired at 1pm from 1906 until 1942 to allow ships to calibrate their chronometers. However the practice was discontinued in 1942 because of World War II, the sound was frightening understandably nervous Sydneysiders. The tradition was reinstated in 1986 and the modern firing can be seen the video below. I apologise for the wonkyness of the footage. I was trying to hold my phone still and cover my ears, as instructed, at the same time.

The firing of the 1 pm cannon might have been discontinued during World War II, but some more modern fire power was installed on the Fort. In the photo below you can see the remains of the concrete block in the bastion area of the fort. In 1942 a 3 inch 20 hundred weight anti aircraft gun was installed here to defend from Japanese attack. It could be lowered to fire at ships if necessary.

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Fort Denison is now an important tourist attraction, the barracks is used as a lovely and informative museum as well as being part of a restaurant with the most incredible views.

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It is a place with a fascinating and complicated past, and is well worth a visit. If you do go I would highly recommend doing the guided tour. As well as supporting the national parks service who run the island, it is also the only way you’ll get inside the Martello Tower, which is absolutely worth it. Apart from anything else, the whole place is in the most beautiful location.

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References:

Site visit 2016 and Sydney visit 2006.

The Fort Denison Museum on Fort Denison.

http://www.fortdenison.com.au/

http://aso.gov.au/titles/newsreels/australia-today-fort-denison-p/clip2/#

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/historic-buildings-places/Fort-Denison

http://www.geograph.org.uk/article/Martello-Towers

http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/defending_colonial_sydney

The photos are all mine.

[1] Significantly more qualified people have written much better and in more detail about the atrocities committed towards the indigenous population of Australia. I would recommend anyone who wants a broader overview of exactly what was destroyed to read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 24th: Foix Castle

This is the final castle on this advent calendar. I hope everyone has enjoyed the collection of castles and has a wonderful holiday season and new years.

Ellen

Now please enjoy Foix.

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Foix, the third and final French castle, sits impressively perched on a massive lump of carboniferous limestone looking out toward the Pyrenees. It was the home of the Counts of Foix. The  first mention of the castle is in the early 11th century when it featured in the testament of the Count of Carcassonne. The original castle though was probably built at the end of the 10th century possibly on the site of an early older building of some description. The original castle would have just been one square tower with a wall.  Then later in the 11th century a second square tower was added along with a building connecting the two towers. The square tower with the roof  you can see today was probably built on the foundations of the original tower.

The castle was caught up in the Albigensian Crusade at the beginning of the 13th century. Foix was right in Cathar country and after several sieges it was occupied by the crusaders for a number of years. However the counts did survive the crusades largely intact, though by the end they were certainly distancing themselves from the Cathars.

By the mid 14th century the Counts of Foix were not using the castle as their principal residence. Though Gaston Febus ,the Count of Foix, did use the castle as a prison for a number of well born lords that he captured in 1362.

The final tower of the castle was constructed in the first half of the 15th century. It’s the round tower that stands at the end. It was built primarily to use as a residence, which is evidenced by the fact that the door is on the ground floor. The round tower is 32m high and 4m thick and it was built out of sandstone rather than local limestone to give it a more sumptuous appearance.

From the end of the 15th century the castle fell into disuse and was almost razed by the government, a fate which many castles met because they were too expensive to maintain. Thankfully in this case the order was never carried out. Foix was home to a garrison from the mid 15th century and this use continued until the mid 17th century when it mainly became used as a prison. At times the prison held more than 200 people, but it was finally closed at the end of the 19th century.  By the mid 20th century the castle had been restored to its medieval origins and was open for the public.

References

Site visit 2012

Foix, historic city: 9782913641433

http://www.catharcastles.info/foix.php

http://www.cathar.info/cathar_wars.htm

The photos are all mine.

 

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 23rd: Caen

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Caen is William the Conqueror’s castle. It dates to c.1060 and would have been a wood and earth construction originally, though the walls were rapidly built in stone. It remains one of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe.

Inside the huge enclosing walls would have stood a ducal palace , some private houses and a parish church. It was Henry I of England who most likely built the towers on the walls in the early 12th century, though they were added to by the French in the 13th century.

In the 11th century the castle would have been entered the castle from the Northside, using a drawbridge over the defensive ditch, which never had water in it. The entrance would have been a tower gate, similar to that which you can see in Richmond castle in England.  Additionally in the 12th century there would have been an imposing keep within the walls. Built in c. 1120 by Henry I of England it is believed to have stood at nearly 30 meters high. Sadly it was largely lost during the French revolution.

One of the most fascinating survivals from the early medieval period within the castle walls is the 12th century exchequer hall. It was built again by Henry I. In the 12th century the hall would have most likely had two stories, with the ground floor being used for kitchens and the like and the upper floor being used as the ceremonial space. The building was heavily restored in the 1960s, but some Norman elements do remain.

Normandy fell to the French in 1204 and Phillip II of France added a curtain wall to Henry I’s keep along with four round towers and a dry moat. He also constructed the massive Porte des Champs gate as a replacement for the Norman tower gate in the castle’s ramparts as well as adding two new towers to the ramparts.

The English held Caen during the 15th century hundred years war and they refortified much of the ramparts adding a barbican to one of the gates. However by the end of the conflict gunpowder was beginning to render the still impressive walls useless and despite attempts to shore them up against canon fire the use of the castle began to diminish. By the French Revolution only one barracks building housing a regiment of disabled soldiers remained. Much demolition of the castle occurred during the French Revolution in retaliation for the imprisonment there of two MPs. While they didn’t destroy the Norman keep completely it was significantly damaged and it was ultimately dynamited to make way for a gunpowder store in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century Caen castle was home to the Lefebvre barracks  and it was occupied by the Germans in WWII which led to further destruction as it was also bombed. The castle was opened to the public after WWII and now houses the Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts.

References:

Site visit 2015

Caen castle: 9782815100854

http://www.normanconnections.com/en/norman-sites/caen-castle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 22nd of December: Angers

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Angers is the first French castle on this list, it was the home of the Dukes of Anjou who went on to become the Plantagenet dynasty of England.

Angers sits on a rocky promontory which overlooks the River Maine, and there has been some sort of occupation of this site since Neolithic times. The first structure on this site dates to the 9th century when a lookout tower was established by the Counts of Anjou to help to counter the threat of the Normans. There was a castle here from the tenth to the twelfth centuries and it was the home of the Counts of Anjou, but almost nothing remains. The only remains of this original palace are the walls of the grand hall, the steam room and the chapel of St Lud.

The immense castle you see today dates to the 14th century and was built by Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, in her role as regent for her young son Louis the IX, who was later canonised as Saint Louis.

The ramparts of the original castle, which largely still stand today, measure approximately half a kilometre in length and boast 17 shale and limestone towers. The castle was very much built as a way to repel invading troops.  The walls were changed in the late 16th century with the towers being shorted drastically and pepper pot roofs added to the top. This was mainly to deal with changes in military technology, especially canons.

The Dukes of Anjou used the castle as a place for art and entertainment in the 14th and 15th centuries, in fact the moat you can see today was never intended to hold water and in the 1400s Rene of Anjou used the moat to house his menagerie. The moat, which was constructed in c.1232, has been used for grazing and a vegetable garden as well. It became very overgrown and in 1912 the Mayor of Anjou had it turned into flower beds.

Apart from being a spectacular castle in its own right, Angers also houses the 14th century apocalypse tapestry. It was commissioned in 1375 by Louis I of Anjou and illustrates the book of revelations of St. John, the final book of the old testament. It originally measured roughly 140m in length and 100 m are preserved and are now on display inside the castle.

Angers also served as a departmental prison in the 1800s and was used as a barracks until the mid 20th century. When the army left the castle, the apocalypse tapestry was returned from the cathedral and Angers was opened to the public.

References

Site visit 2012

Angers brochures

http://www.chateau-angers.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 21st of December: Trim Castle

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Trim castle is my second Irish castle and like Ferns it was built by an English baron on Irish soil. Unlike Ferns, Trim had no connection to the old Irish Kingdoms. In 1172 Hugh de Lacy was granted the Liberty of Meath by Henry II. It was an attempt by Henry to stop Strongbow taking all that he could of Ireland. Shortly after he was granted the land de Lacy erected a wood and timber motte and bailey castle at Trim. By 1176 this castle had been replaced, after it had been burnt down by one of de Lacy’s barons to keep it from Irish hands, with a stone keep.

While the rest of Trim is not that unusual by Anglo-Norman castle standards the keep very much is. It is built in a cruciform shape which was an experimental military design for the period.  The keep would have contained a public hall, great chambers for the lord and his family and a chapel, as well as quarters for castle officials and the garrison. Trim’s keep also has extensive cellars which were kept well stocked so that the keep could hold out in a long siege if necessary. In 1196 Walter de Lacy enlarged the keep adding new floors, and later a great hall was built at the third floor level. In the 13th century the side towers were extended and plinth at the base of the keep was added, which closed off one of the original doorways. While this made the keep more secure it did not make it especially accessible for large public gatherings and a great hall was built in the grounds outside the keep sometime after 1250.

Although the original wall around the keep would have been wooden, by 1180 a stone wall had been built, which would have contained stables and places for stores, there was also, eventually, a ditch added as well as a drawer bridge and three defensive towers and a stone gatehouse. In the 13th century weirs were put on the River Boyne which allowed for the moat/ditch to be flooded and a new gate was constructed to guard the south entrance to the castle.

Trim came into the Mortimer family in 1306 and they held it until 1425, parliaments were held at Trim in the 15th century but by the 16th the castle was in decline and eventually it was surrendered to Cromwell’s forces in 1649.

 

References:

Site visit 2015

OPW Trim visitor’s guide

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlands-eastcoast/trimcastle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 20th: Ferns Castle

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The first of the Irish castles on this list, and the third Marshal castle.

Ferns stands at an important strategic site as the area was historically the capital of the Kings of Leinster. Diarmait Mac Murchada was the last King of Leinster and he invited the Normans, led by Richard de Clare, to Leinster to regain his kingdom. He promised both his daughter, Aoife, and the inheritance of his kingdom to Strongbow as a reward. Isabel de Clare was Strongbow and Aoife’s daughter and through her marriage to William Marshal Ferns came into Marshal hands. More about the background to all of this can be found here.  Diarmait was also buried in Ferns and his grave can be seen there today.

There was an earth and timber motte and bailey castle on the site built by the kings of Leinster before Marshal arrived in Ireland, but the castle, the remains of which you can see today, was most likely built by William Marshal. The original castle was built between c.1199 and c.1220 so most likely William Marshal the elder begun the building, but he died in 1219 so his son William Marshal the younger most likely finished it. There were later additions made though.

The castle may not look especially impressive, but the interior has a significant number of original features including original floors in some places, a stunning chapel with some of the original carvings and a spectacular vaulted ceiling. There is also a complete original cellar with a beehive vaulted ceiling. Additionally in the cellar are trip steps which were specifically built so any raider coming down into the cellar would fall, injuring himself hopefully fatefully.

The ditch around the castle was intended as a moat, but it was a dry moat and would have likely been filled with rubbish. The castle was lost and retaken several times by both the Irish and the Normans over the centuries. The current condition of the castle is due partly to neglect but also due to the demolition of it by Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century.

References:

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Ferns Castle information brochures.

Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland 9781854107527

http://www.fernsvillage.ie/ferns-heritage-page53898.html

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/south-east/fernscastle/

Advent Calendar of Castles: 19th of December: Caerphilly Castle

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Caerphilly is another Marcher castle, but it is much later in date than the other two on this list. It was begun in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare Lord of Glamorgan in response to Llywelyn the Last’s threats to the area. Gilbert de Clare took the area in which the castle stands in 1266 to try to stop Llywelyn the Last from moving further south. Construction of the castle was halted in 1270 when Llywelyn the Last attacked it. However it began again in 1271 and continued apace. What makes Caerphilly remarkable is that apart from some basic domestic remodelling in the mid 14th century there were no additions or changes to the castle as the years went past. This makes it an extraordinarily complete example of a late 13th century military castle. It is also an excellent example of the cutting edge of military defence at the time.

Caerphilly not only has walls with in walls making it the first, as well as arguably the best, concentric castle in Britain (between the outer entrance and the heart of the castle were 3 drawbridges, 6 portcullises and 5 sets of double doors) it also has the best use of water as a defence in a castle of this period. The immense water works are manmade lakes and moats and the waters are held back from the castle by earth dams. Caerphilly boats both an inner moat and an outer moat. Because Caerphilly was built on unused ground Gilbert de Clare was able to use all the modern techniques to create a truly massive castle, it occupies a spectacular 30 acres.

The first thing most people notice about Caerphilly is its precariously leaning tower. This is the south east tower and it currently stands at 15m high and leans an alarming 10 degrees out of line. Locals say it was caused during the Civil War bombardment, but it could also just have been subsidence no one is entirely sure.

The need for Caerphilly was negated by the crushing defeat of the Welsh at the start of the 13th century and after this the castle didn’t see that much use. The last real action it saw was when it was besieged by Isabella queen of Edward II in retaliation towards Hugh Despenser, but Hugh had already been taken and was in fact hanged in 1326. By the 16th century the castle was no longer in use and was falling towards ruin. The castle was saved from complete ruin by the Butes in the late 19th century.

References:

Site visit 2012

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/caerphilly-castle/?lang=en

http://www.castlewales.com/caerphil.html

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/forget-pisa—its-leaning-2239600

 

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 18th: Chepstow Castle.

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Chepstow is the second of the Marcher castles on this list, it is also the second with real involvement from William Marshal. It sits on a sheer escarpment of carboniferous limestone on the banks of the River Wye. Chepstow is probably my favourite castle and I will write about it in substantially more detail at a later date. I have written about the extraordinary surviving medieval doors before and that post can be found here.

Chepstow, known then as Striguil, was begun originally as a Norman castle. It was constructed by William Fitz Osbern shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. He was responsible for the beginning of the construction of the castle, but it is unlikely that he had the time to oversee the construction of the Norman great tower before his death in 1071. The great tower is the only substantial surviving part of the Norman castle, though it was extended by the Marshals in the 13th century.

While it will never, of course, be certain it has been argued that the great tower was built under the auspices of William the Conqueror when Chepstow was in royal hands from the 1075 until 1115. The great tower is definitely a Norman building regardless of whether it was built by Fitz Osbern or William the Conqueror, and this makes it one of the oldest dateable surviving stone secular buildings in Britain. It was also impressively built in stone when most other castles were still wood and earth motte and bailey constructions.

Chepstow came into the hands of the Clare family at the start of the 12th century and by 1148 it was in the hands of Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. Strongbow was the founder of the Norman occupation of Ireland and more can be read about him here. When de Clare died in 1176 all his estates passed to his son Gilbert, who was underage, and when Gilbert died, without ever coming of age, to his daughter Isabel de Clare. Isabel married William Marshal in 1189 and all of her extensive estates came to him. Isabel de Clare was a fascinating woman in her own right and you can read more about her here.

Marshal rebuilt the curtain wall with two round towers and the main gate house. Under the Marshals over the years other parts of the castle were extended and modernized. Chepstow came into the hands of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk, by right of his mother who was Marshal’s daughter, in c.1245. The Bigods were responsible for the building of the new hall block inside the castle walls as well as a large new tower in the south east corner of the castle and significant parts of the high walls.

After the death of Roger Bigod in 1306 Chepstow was in royal hands again and after this it passed in and out of various families over the centuries. It was modified by the Tudors and during the Civil War the it fell twice to parliamentary canon before it was refortified. Its final outing on the main stage of history was when Bigod’s tower was used as a prison, albeit a relative comfortable one, for Henry Marten one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. He was held in the tower at the order of Charles II, who spared his life, for roughly 20 years until his death at Chepstow in 1680.

After the Civil War and the Restoration Chepstow slowly crumbled into a picturesque ruin. It came into Cadw hands in 1984.

There is much more to write about Chepstow, not the least the absolutely fascinating well, but that is for another time.

References:

Site visit 2012

Chepstow Castle: Its history and buildings 9781904396529

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/hmarten.html

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/chepstow-castle/?lang=en

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 17th: Pembroke Castle

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Pembroke is the first Marcher castle on my list. While it is arguable whether Pembroke actually stands in the Marches it was certainly owned and built by the men who were or became Marcher lords, including one of my favourites William Marshal. As this is a castle I have written extensively about before, I thought I’d provide a link to my previous post rather than a new potted history.

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/11/15/pembroke-castle/

The photos are all mine.