Llandovery Castle was first mentioned in 1116. This was originally a Norman motte-and-bailey castle utilising a natural outcrop above the river Bran. Recaptured by the Welsh twice and remaining Welsh for over a century, it was taken by the Edward I in 1277. It fell to Llywelyn the Last in 1282 but came back under English control. The masonry that survives – a D-shaped tower and twin-towered gatehouse – dates to the late 13th century. The castle was besieged by Owain Glyndwr in 1403. Its later history of decline is obscure.
Having criticised a statue of Owain Glyndwr in Corwen in a recent blog, I want to use this blog to comment on the medievalism of a statue in Llandovery Castle’s bailey. I first visited it soon after completion c. 2001 in bright sunshine. After a decade it was interesting to come back and view Llandovery Castle in the mirk of a rainy early morning en route to Llandeilo and then St David’s.
Following a campaign that began in 1998, Toby and Gideon Petersen won a public competition to complete a statue to honour of the Carmarthenshire gentleman Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan who was drawn, hung, beheaded and quartered for his loyalty to Owain Glyndwr’s revolt.
16ft tall, this larger-than-life stainless steel carapace sits on a piece of rock brought from Caeo with his name fixed to the front: Caeo was where Llywelyn’s power was based. In stark contrast to the hyper-real statue of Glyndwr, this is an empty shell, allowing all manner of people to populate the armour. Moreover, the armour, spear, shield, brooch pin and torc are ludicrously anti-historical and drawn on pan-Celtic romanticism.
Yet unlike the Glyndwr statue, and despite (or perhaps because) it is not attempting to be historically accurate, I have warmed to this statue over the last decade. In corporeal terms, it is a re-embodiment of the deceased, affording him with a new superhero stature and longevity, thus defying the execution that ripped Llywelyn’s body apart.
The statue’s power and presence are also difficult to dismiss because of its context. Through a corporeal shell, the statue foregrounds absence, making the visitor contemplate on the man who died a torturous death by the castle gates close by. Moreover, the statue creates a reinterpretation of the entire castle ruins, foregrounding the power and conflict the ruins embody and overlooking Llandovery’s principal bus-stop and car park.The statue is thus a powerful prompt for how to read the castle and the many complex stories and conflicts woven around it.
The statue allows us to contemplate the man himself but also the many different stories of loyalty, resistance, cruelty and punishment that Llywelyn’s story provokes. Consequently, I feel this statue has a power that takes it out of a narrow nationalist context and escapes the particulars of Llywelyn’s life and cause. Instead, this statue has a power for the specificity of the commemorated person and events, but also as a broader engagement with torture and execution in the human past. In doing so, art re-frames the narrative of the entire castle, redefining a ruinous space in a fashion that deserves our consideration and reflection.