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A Pensive Walk Around Pembroke Castle, Wales.

A Pensive Walk Around Pembroke Castle, Wales.

February 2020 · 5 min read · Wales

There are few places that can make you take a deep breath, soak in the environment, recollect your humanity, gather your memories, marshal all of it at once, and attend. This is the effect Pembroke Castle has on me when I visit it. Whether it’s drowning in tourist or the off season like this visit, I’m always left feeling solemn and pensive after walking its grounds.

After the Norman invasion in 1066 the Norman calvary rampaged across Wales like a fire through a dry evergreen forest. Wales was ruled by so many different tribal factions at the time that the inhabitants didn’t stand much of a chance. It was the birth of the Norman Marcher Lords. A group of noblemen that were a law unto themselves.

Earl Roger De Montgomery was the Marcher Lord who seized this area along the coast and started works on the fortifications that would eventually become Pembroke Castle. At first the local ruler King Rhys Ap Tewdr was allowed to rule under Norman governance, but was soon dethroned by Earl Roger.

Earl Montgomery was followed by his son Arnulf.... Or known more affectionately as the devil. His mother Lady Montgomery was a renown poisoner and daughter of a convicted murderer... in many ways his actions in adulthood weren’t terribly surprising.

He cleverly inserted himself into Irish king hoods and began what we know as the first of the Irish troubles by assisting an Irish king in securing his throne. Basically beginning Pembroke Castles legacy as an invasion point into Ireland. He held captive bishops, holy men, peasants, and the god son of former King Rhys Ap Tewdr. He would later remove the mans eyeballs in front of everyone in the castle, leaving the godson of the former king alive to suffer afterwards. It seems his nickname ‘The Devil’ was apt.

In 1102 Arnulf and his brother Robert Montgomery would attempt to rise up against King Henry I, and fail. Arnulf would flee to Ireland and fade away from history, his brother Robert would be killed.

During their time here the stone walls didn’t exist. The castle itself was two raised ring shape mounds with wooden walls. Life would have been brutal inside and out. Men laying siege to those walls would die in the mud outside, and defenders would in the same way inside. It was a dark age in the truest sense.

In 1135 all hell broke loose across Wales. The Welsh princes untied and struck taking every Norman held fortification, and King Henry sent Earl Gilbert to retake Pembroke. It took him 8 years of try and fail to do so. Thousands would die before power would be re-consolidated at Pembroke castle. Earl Gilbert would later be known as Strongbow due to his fighting prowess in this conflict.

From this point in Wales multiple invasions would be launched into Ireland under the different Earls who were appointed here. It’s strategic importance for both trade and warfare eventually brought Pembroke to a point where it could rival London. A fact that didn’t escape sitting Monarchs notice, as they tended to flatter whoever the Earl of Pembroke Castle was at anytime. Lands, made up titles, wealth, etc.

However one of the most important men in history held a seat here. He would bring stone walls to the fortification, and a kings hand to sign the most important document of its age. The Magna Carta. That man was William Marshal.

William Marshal managed to effectively earn the trust of three of this countries most difficult monarchs. King Henry the II, King Richard the I, and King John. The last the most difficult, cruel, and sadistic of the lot. The idea that a king could be held accountable to law was repulsive to John. But somehow William Marshal managed to bring him to sign that document, and get it signed again by all the lords who signed it previously after Johns death. Now today we still have problems holding royalty to law (Prince Andrew), but the concept was a revolutionary one in its time. Whereas nowadays it’s more the thought that counts.

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While walking around Pembroke Castle I cant help but really reflect on its part in our history. So many people I meet over romanticize history, but this place was brutal. People bathed once a year at best, they wiped their backside with bunched up straw shaped like a miniature broom, rotten meat was consumed, dysentery/disease was common, dental hygiene was non existent...and at any point your appointed betters could squabble leading you to fight and die on a sharp piece of steel. Life could be a rotten bloody smelly affair.

Kings Pooper
Kings Pooper

All of this gives me a humbling chill of sorts. Over 80,000 years ago our species migrated out of Africa and across continents. We survived ice ages through cannibalism, hunting, and cooperating. We sired, birthed, grew, and suffered for thousands of years, and the people who died violently inside and outside these walls were part of the chain. It almost makes these walls feel like a sinister punctuation mark in the story of our shared history.

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Pembroke castle wouldn’t really know peace until the 19th century as conflicts would continue to occur at its walls. The most bloody of these being the English Civil War Siege. Today it sits in a bustling town looking out over to Ireland as a powerful echo of what it once was. If ever you get the chance to visit here then do so in the winter. It’s quiet and far more rewarding.

Well guys thanks for reading. I’m sorry about the length. It’s difficult to make short the story of a place that once dictated the story of the world it inhabited. I’m looking forward to all your amazing posts and projects. Keep on Steeming.

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