Raglan Castle (Welsh: Castell Rhaglan) is a late medieval castle located just north of the village of Raglan in the county of Monmouthshire in south east Wales.
The modern castle dates from between the 15th and early 17th-centuries when the successive ruling families of the Herberts and the Somersets created a luxurious, fortified castle, complete with a large hexagonal keep, known as the Great Tower or the Yellow Tower of Gwent.
Surrounded by parkland, water gardens, and terraces, the castle was considered by contemporaries to be the equal of any other in England or Wales. During the English Civil War, the castle was held on behalf of Charles I and was taken by Parliamentary forces in 1646.
In the aftermath, the castle was slighted, or deliberately put beyond military use; after the restoration of Charles II, the Somersets declined to restore the castle. Raglan Castle became first a source of local building materials, then a romantic ruin, and is now a modern tourist attraction.
Early history of the castle
Following the Norman invasion of Wales, the area around the village of Raglan was granted to William FitzOsbern, the Earl of Hereford.
Some historians, such as John Kenyon, suspect that an early motte and bailey castle may have been built on the Raglan site during this period: the location had strategic importance and archaeologists have discovered the remains of a possible bailey ditch on the site.
The local manor was held by the Bloet family from the late 12th century until the late 14th century, and the family built a manor house somewhere on the site during this period, surrounded by a park.
By the late medieval period, the Raglan site was surrounded by the large deer parks of Home Park and Red Deer Park, the latter being enclosed at the end of the period.
15th – 16th centuries
The current Raglan Castle was begun by Sir William ap Thomas, the lesser son of a minor Welsh family who rose through the ranks of mid-15th-century politics, profiting from the benefits of the local offices he held. William married first Elizabeth, a wealthy heiress, and then Gwladus ap Thomas, another heiress who would prove to be a powerful regional figure in her own right.
In 1432 William purchased the manor of Raglan, where he had already been staying as a tenant, for 1,000 marks (£666) and commenced a programme of building work that established the basic shape of the castle as seen today, although most of it — with the exception of the South Gate and the Great Tower — was later built over.
William’s son dropped the Welsh version of his name, calling himself William Herbert. He continued to rise in prominence, supporting the House of York during the War of the Roses, fighting in the Hundred Years War in France but making his fortune from the Gascon wine trade.
He was also closely associated with Welsh politics and status, being the first Welshman to be made an earl and being described by contemporary poets as the “national deliverer” who might achieve Welsh independence.
In the 1460s William used his increasing wealth to remodel Raglan on a much grander scale. The symbolism of the castle architecture may have reflected the Welsh family roots — historian Matthew Johnson has suggested that the polygonal towers were possibly designed to imitate those of Caernarfon Castle, whose architecture carries numerous allusions to the eventual return of a Roman Emperor to Wales.
The resulting castle was what historian Anthony Emery has described as one of the “last formidable displays of medieval defensive architecture“.
There was an important link between the Raglan Castle and the surrounding parkland, in particular, the Home Park and the Red Deer Park.
Historian Robert Liddiard suggests that on the basis of the views from the castle at this time, the structured nature of the parks would have contrasted with the wilderness of the mountain peaks framing the scene beyond, making an important statement about the refinement and cultured nature of the castle lord.
In the 15th century, there were also extensive orchards and fish ponds surrounding the castle, favorably commented upon by contemporaries.
William Herbert was executed in 1469 as a Yorkist supporter after the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Building work may have stopped for a period under his son, also called William Herbert, before recommencing in the late 1470s. By 1492, the castle passed to Elizabeth Somerset, William Herbert’s daughter, who married Sir Charles Somerset, passing the castle into a new family line.
Sir Charles Somerset was politically successful under both Henry VII and Henry VIII, being made the Earl of Worcester. His son, Henry Somerset, died shortly after inheriting Raglan, but not before using lead reclaimed from Tintern Abbey to help the building work at Raglan Castle during the dissolution of the monasteries.
His son and grandson, William Somerset and Edward Somerset, proved to be what John Kenyon describes as “wealthy, brilliant and cultured men”. William rebuilt much of the Pitched Stone Court, including the hall, adding the Long Gallery and developing the gardens into the new Renaissance style.
The Somerset family owned two key castles in the region, Raglan, and Chepstow, and these appeared to have figured prominently as important status symbols in paintings owned by the family.
Edward Somerset made minor improvements to the interior of the castle at the start of the 17th century, but focused primarily on the exterior, expanding and developing the gardens and building the moat walk around the Great Tower. The resulting gardens were considered the equal of any other others in the kingdom at the time.
Upon inheriting Raglan in 1628, Henry Somerset, then the 5th Earl of Worcester, continued to live a grand lifestyle in the castle in the 1630s, with a host of staff, including a steward, Master of Horse, Master of Fishponds, surveyors, auditors, ushers, a falconer and many footmen.
The interior walls were hung with rich tapestries from Arras in France, while an inventory taken in 1639 recorded a large number of silver and gilt plate kept in the Great Tower, including a basket for the consumption of oranges and lemons, then luxury items in Wales.
Mead was a popular drink in the castle, but contemporaries described the castle as being a particular sober and respectful community. Henry developed the entrance route to the castle, including building the Red Gate. His son Edward, Lord Herbert became famous for building a “water commanding machine” in the Great Tower, which used steam to pump a huge spout of water high into the air from the moat.
However, in 1642 civil war broke out between the rival Royalist supporters of King Charles I and Parliament. Raglan Castle was still held by Henry, then an elderly man, supported by his son, Lord Herbert. Both men were firm royalists. King Charles sent his own son, Prince Charles, on a fund-raising tour of friendly regions, starting with Raglan Castle in October 1642, following which Henry was promoted to be the first Marquess of Worcester.
Tensions grew in the immediate region, partially driven by religious tensions between some of the more Protestant local people and the Roman Catholic Marquess; on one of these occasions a local group attempted to search the castle but were reportedly driven away by the sudden noise of Lord Herbert’s steam-engine.
The defenses of Raglan were improved after this, with modern earthwork bastions built around the castle and a powder mill created; a garrison of around 300 men was established at a cost of £40,000. Heavier cannon was installed in the bastions, with lighter pieces placed in the castle towers.
Lord Herbert left the castle to join the campaign against Parliament, returning at intervals to acquire more funds for the war. Charles I himself visited the castle twice, first in June 1645 after the battle of Naseby and again in 1646, when he enjoyed playing bowls on the castle’s green.
The Royalist cause was now close to military collapse, and the Marquess started to send some valuables, including the oak paneling from the parlor, some plaster ceiling, and many pictures, to his brother at nearby Troy House for safe-keeping. Lord Herbert was captured in Ireland, and an attack on Raglan itself appeared imminent.
In the expectation of a siege, the castle garrison was increased to around 800 soldiers; the avenue of trees outside the castle gates was cut down, and neighboring buildings destroyed to avoid them being used by Parliamentary forces.
Large amounts of food were brought in to support the growing castle community, which also included a number of the wider Herbert family and other regional Royalist leaders who had sought shelter there. The first Parliamentary army arrived in early June, under the command of Colonel Morgan and Sir Trevor Williams.
After several calls for the castle to surrender, a siege ensued, lasting through the summer months. In August, additional Parliamentary forces under General Fairfax arrived, and calls for the castle to surrender were renewed. Fairfax’s men began to dig trenches towards the castle and used these to move mortars forward, probably including the famous “Roaring Meg“, bringing the interior of the castle into artillery range.
Facing a hopeless situation, the Marquess surrendered the castle on 19 August on relatively generous terms for the garrison. The Marquess himself was arrested and sent to Windsor Castle, where he died shortly afterward. Informed shortly before his death that Parliament had granted his request to be buried in the family vault at Windsor, the Marquess remarked; “Why then I shall have a better castle when I am dead than they took from me when alive.”
Fairfax ordered the castle to be totally destroyed under the supervision of Henry Herbert, a descendant of William ap Thomas.
The fortifications proved too strong, however, and only a few of the walls were destroyed or slighted.
Historian Matthew Johnson describes the event as having the atmosphere of a “community festival“, as local people dredged the castle moat in search of treasure, and emptied the fishponds of valuable carp. The castle’s library, including an important collection of Welsh documents and books, was either stolen or destroyed.
Despite some immediate confiscations after the siege, by the time of the Restoration of Charles II, the Somerset family had managed to recover most of their possessions, including Raglan Castle.
Henry Somerset, the 3rd Marquess, decided to prioritize the rebuilding of his other houses at Troy and Badminton, rather than Raglan, reusing some of the property sent away for safety before the war or salvaged after the slighting.
18th to 21st centuries
For the first half of the 18th century, the castle continued to deteriorate, with the Somerset family allowing their stewards to quarry stone from the castle for the repair of other estate buildings. One particular estate surveyor called Hopkins became known as the “Grand Dilapidator”, due to the number of chimneys, window frames, and staircases he had removed from the castle.
Henry Somerset, the 5th Duke, finally put an end to this practice in 1756, and the castle became a tourist attraction, part of the popular Wye Tour. Seats, fences, and bridges were installed, and the first guidebook to the site was published in the early 19th century.
The Great Hall was temporarily re-roofed in the 1820s when the castle was used for a “Grand Entertainment” by the Somersets, and in 1830 Jeffrey Wyattville was employed to reinstate the Grand Staircase.
The Monmouthshire antiquarian Joseph Bradney recorded a visit to the castle by Edward VIII and Queen Alexandra, then Prince and Princess of Wales, in October 1881. In 1938 Henry Somerset, the 10th Duke, entrusted guardianship of Raglan Castle to the Commissioner of Works, and the castle became a permanent tourist attraction.
Today, the castle is classed as a Grade I listed building and as a Scheduled Monument, administered by Cadw.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org