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Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle is located on the Northern side of the village of Raglan, in the county of Monmouthshire in South-Eastern Wales. It started to be built in the 1430s, and in fact it was one of the very last castles built in the United Kingdom. Raglan Castle started life in late medieval times, as a fortified castle, however, being built during a peaceful period in the English/Welsh border wars, it didn’t see much military action. As a result, it mostly evolved as a large beautiful Tudor manor-house, surrounded by parkland, water gardens and terraces, with far more attention being given to comfort than earlier castles. This does not mean that it wasn’t built for defence as well however, and in fact it took one of the longest sieges of the Civil War for it to be subdued.

History

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. (more)

Today

Raglan Castle, with its great multi-angular towers and Tudor-styling, is different from any other castle in Wales. Two different kinds of sandstone were used in its construction – one being the yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the Wye river, three miles away, and the other is local Old Red sandstone usually used in Tudor work. A paler stone was used in fireplaces.

Both William ap Thomas and his son William Herbert fought in France extensively, and undoubtedly this Castle’s architecture was influenced by the Castles they saw there. The elaborately decorated polygonal keep, as well as the double-drawbridge, are unique in Britain, and demonstrate this French influence. Raglan Castle was built during several phases. Initial works began in the 1430s, there was a second major phase in the 1460s, where various alterations and additions were made, as well as one during the 16th century.

Raglan Castle was designed to be approached and entered in a particular way, which maximised the aesthetic and political value of the fortification. A visitor would have had to ride first through Raglan Village, until the Great Tower and the rest of the Castle appeared suddenly over the rise of the terrain. One would then have needed to circle the Great Tower and the moat, before coming in through the gatehouse into the Pitched Stone Court, around the edge of the hall, before reaching the inner Fountain Court. Only then would one be able to enter the Great Tower itself, which at the time, overlooked the Herbert family’s own chambers.

The Great Tower, surrounded by its apron wall and beautiful moat, is the most impressive feature of Raglan Castle. The wall of the tower has six corner turrets, one of which has a postern door leading to the moat. Its construction was begun at the time of William ap Thomas, and it too was designed in quite a contemporary French style. The tower and moat are outside the main body of the castle, and it served as the main entrance to the castle after 1460. Also called the ‘Yellow Tower of Gwent’, this impressive structure spirals up to emerge 90-odd steps later, and ends in majestic panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. Today, only three storeys of this grand circular tower are left intact, though in its heyday it sported five full storeys. One entire side of it was destroyed during the Civil Wars, giving one a glimpse of the layers of rooms and chambers once held inside. To reach the Tower, access today is through a modern wooden bridge from the Eastern Gate to the main ruins, but visitors in the 15th century would have used a bascule drawbridge. The Tower demonstrates everything that was needed in a medieval fortification – it was self-sufficient, having its own supplies of food and water, and containing an assembly of living rooms, a kitchen and hospitality quarters, wrapped in a protective apron wall and moat, studded with arrow-loops for defence. The original moat around the tower would have had a simple design originally, but was redesigned in the 1460s to provide a walkway around the outside of the tower. The niches in the walls of the walkway are of 17th century origin, and would originally have held classical statues.

In the 1460s William Herbert used his increasing wealth to remodel Raglan on a grander scale. Some historians even suggest that the polygonal towers may have been designed to imitate those of Caernarfon Castle. At this time, the three-storey gatehouse leading to the Castle was built. The gatehouse is characterised by extensive machicolations and is approached over a stone bridge. Its upper part originally provided chambers for the constable of the Castle. To the west of the gatehouse there was the Castle library, and to the east side one can find the three-storey Closet Tower, which was designed to be an integral part of the gatehouse itself. The Closet Tower, which served to house the officer’s quarters as well as the prison, was altered in later years, perhaps to allow its basement to be used as storage during the English Civil War.

William Herbert also remodelled the north-eastern corner of the Castle, which is taken up by the Pitched Stone Court. This provided a centre for the Castle services and servants. The Castle kitchens and pantries were to be found on the north side, containing two large fireplaces and storage facilities for food and supplies in the cellars, which one can still admire today. The buttery in the north-west corner would have been used to store and serve beer and wine. Here we also find the Kitchen Tower.

Whereas the Cobbled Court was a focus for everyday life, the adjacent Fountain Court acted as the centre for the prestige and entertainment of life in the Castle, highlighting the social importance of Raglan Castle’s owners. This was also the idea behind the William Herbert’s construction of the grand Tudor Oriel Window – which was a stained glass masterpiece, allowing coloured light to flood into the later-built Hall. Raglan also boasted a long gallery, which was the very height of style during the Tudor period. The long gallery was 126 feet long (38 metres), and during the Tudor period it would have been wood-panelled throughout, lined with tapestries and paintings. It was the 3rd Earl of Somerset who finished the castle, extending the Pitched Stone Court, rebuilding the hall, and erecting a fashionable long gallery on the second floor, overlooking the Fountain Court. The hall was originally 42 feet high (13 metres), with a roof made of Irish oak. It is the most complete and the finest of the castle’s surviving apartments

The third phase of Raglan Castle’s evolution took place mostly during the 17th century, at the time of the Somersets. Edward Somerset focused primarily on the Castle’s exterior, expanding and developing the gardens, and building the moat walk around the Great Tower. His son, Henry Somerset, the 5th Earl of Worcester, developed the entrance route to the Castle, building the Red Gate, while his grandson Edward became famous for building the ‘water-commanding machine’ in the Great Tower, which used steam to pump a huge spout of water high into the air from the moat.

For decades following the end of the Second World War, extensive conservation efforts were conducted to maintain the Castle. In 1938, it was placed in the guardianship of the Commissioner of HM Works by the 10th Duke of Beaufort. Today, it is maintained by CADW, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Wales.

For those who want to visit – tourists will almost certainly need their own transport to arrive to Raglan Castle, as it is located on a minor slip-road leading off the busy A40. There is a sizeable gift-shop at the Castle gates, as well as a working farm next door to the Castle, which hosts an excellent tea room – the Raglan Castle Café.

Opening Hours of Raglan Castle

January and February 2016 – Monday – Saturday: 10.00am – 4.00pm, Sunday – 11.00am – 4.00pm
March to June – daily: 9.30am – 5.00pm
July to August – daily: 9.30am – 6.00pm
September to October 2016 – daily: 9.30am – 5.00pm
Check opening hours on official website before visiting the castle.
 
Text: Melisande Aquilina