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History of Raglan Castle

It was Sir William ap Thomas, the lesser son of a minor Welsh family, who first started working on the construction of Raglan Castle as we know it. After rising through the ranks of mid-15th century politics and profiting from his local offices, in 1432 William purchased the manor of Raglan for 1,000 marks (that is, £666) and started building the basic shape of the castle as it is today. The land had previously belonged to the Earl of Hereford, who had been granted the village of Raglan following the Norman invasion of Wales. Perhaps this is why some historians think there might have been another older castle built on the Raglan site during this period, as remains of a possible bailey ditch were found on site.

William ap Thomas was knighted after fighting side-by-side with King Henry V in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he became known as ‘the blue knight of Gwent’.

Sir William ap Thomas’s son dropped the Welsh version of his name, preferring instead to be called William Herbert. Herbert started out enriching himself by following the Gascon wine trade. He supported the House of York during the War of the Roses, and played a prominent role in securing the throne for King Edward IV in 1461. In 1462, he became a Knight of the Garter, and in 1467 he was Chief Justice of North Wales. In 1468, he eventually rose to the title of Earl of Pembroke, after having captured the last Lancastrian stronghold in Wales, Harlech Castle. William Herbert was the first Welshman to be made an Earl, and in fact was hailed by contemporary poets as the ‘national deliverer’. Unfortunately, Herbert was executed and beheaded as a Yorkist supporter following his defeat at the battle of Edgecote in 1469. His son was also called William Herbert, and did not have any male heirs, which is why the castle then passed on to his daughter Elizabeth Somerset, in 1492. Her husband was Sir Charles Somerset, who was politically successful both under King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. The Somerset family also owned Chepstow Castle. Generations of the Somerset family continued to enhance the castle, building the Red Gate, as well as various gardens and terraces.

Civil war broke out in 1642 between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I, and Parliament. The current Lord Herbert Somerset and his son were both firm Royalists, and King Charles I sent his own son, Prince Charles, on a fund-raising tour starting with Raglan Castle, following which Henry was promoted to be the first Marques of Worcester. During this time, the defences of Raglan Castle were improved. Modern earthwork bastions were built around it and a powder mill was created. A garrison of around 300 men was established and heavier cannon were installed in the bastions, with lighter ones placed in the castle towers. Lord Herbert joined the campaign against Parliament. During this time, King Charles I himself visited the Castle twice. Lord Herbert was captured by the enemy in Ireland, and expecting a siege, the garrison was increased to around 800 soldiers. By 1646, the castle was under siege, having been first attacked by an army under the command of Colonel Morgan and Sir Trevor Williams, who were later joined by additional forces under General Thomas Fairfax. The Marques surrendered the castle after a long siege. He was arrested and sent to Windsor Castle, where he eventually died. Fairfax ordered to castle to be totally destroyed, however the building proved to be too strong and only a few of the walls were demolished. The castle’s library, furnishings and various important artefacts were either stolen or destroyed. The fall of Raglan virtually marked the end of the Civil War, and Cromwell’s demolition engineers continued to try and destroy the castle’s walls, which held on until two of the Great Tower’s six sides were finally brought down.

As a result of this siege, the Castle fell into a period of disrepair. The Castle was slighted and deliberately put beyond military use. By the time of King Charles II, the Somerset family had managed to recover most of its possessions, including Raglan Castle, however they preferred to use their resources to take care of other buildings, and neglected Raglan Castle, which continued to deteriorate, its stones sometimes even being removed and used to repair other buildings. In 1756, the 5th Duke of Somerset first started using the Castle as a tourist attraction, temporarily repairing the roof and installing seating, fences and bridges. In 1938, the 10th Duke of Somerset gave Raglan Castle to the Commissioner of Works, making it a permanent tourist attraction. Today, the castle is administered by CADW – the Historic Environmental Division of the Welsh Government.