Wiston Castle; a vast bailey and an impressive motte with shell-keep on top
The bailey earthworks on the south-west side

I couldn’t make this stuff up. If I were trying to design a children’s play area or heritage attraction with a medieval theme, I’d probably would call it something naff like ‘Wizo’s Castle’. It is so contrived it simply must be true that such a site exists. Of course it exists, and Wiston (Cas Wis in Welsh), Pembrokeshire’s place-name is thought to originate from ‘Wizo’s town’ or something similar. This medieval castle and  borough are well worth a visit if you are anywhere near Haverfordwest or Narberth and here’s why.

Wiston’s shell-keep

The Castle and Borough’s History and Archaeology

Sian Rees refers to Wiston Castle, Pembrokeshire, as ‘one of the best-preserved motte-and-bailey castles in Wales’. It may have got its name from a Flemish settler of the region in the early 11th century, although the castle itself is not mentioned until 1147 after the hypothetical ‘Wizo/Gwys’ may have lived. The castle sites on high ground in the heart of Pembrokeshire, close to the ‘Landsker Line‘ dividing linguistic and cultural zones between Welsh-speaking North Pembrokeshire and English-speaking South Pembrokeshire. Unsurprisingly this fortification changed hands numerous times. With the expanding power of Welsh Deheubarth, it fell in 1147 to the Welsh and then again in 1193. Recaptured by the English in 1195 it was destroyed by Llywelyn the Great in 1220.

Inside the shell-keep

Connecting the archaeology to this narrative is problematic and intriguing, although detailed fieldwork by Dyfed Archaeological Trust has enhanced our understanding of these earthworks and stone ruins, identifying traces of buildings within the castle’s bailey and details of the keep’s construction. Ken Murphy’s 1995 article in Archaeologia Cambrensis outlines our full appreciation of this striking fortification and its landscape context.

View from the motte over the bailey earthworks

The 9m high motte was added to what was presumably an earlier timber fortification and structure at some stage in the 12th century. It is an 18-sided polygonal shell keep and its addition reflects the longevity of activity on this site. The other key feature is the large scale of the bailey – large enough to embrace an entire borough, suggests that this was as much a fortified settlement in its earliest phases as much as an elite residence. The entrance to the bailey to the north-east was protected by a further outer protective earthwork. In short, Wiston Castle is unique in its morphology and scale as a surviving motte-and-bailey castle for Pembrokeshire. For far more details, I refer you to Ken’s report.

Rubble and roots

The Church and Civil War Memorial

This is the archaeodeath dimension. The castle was paired with a medium-sized parish church. As well as a rather typical Pembrokeshire tower, nave and chancel, it has a neat range of post-medieval memorials within and an extremely large, partly cleared historic churchyard. As usual, I was intrigued by the double-layer of relocated and displayed historic gravestones along the northern side of the graveyard.

Sealed Knot memorial, St Mary’s Wiston churchyard
Dislocated and displayed; memorials on the northern edge of St Mary’s Wiston churchyard
St Mary’s, Wiston, probably the medieval borough’s parish church

Like many castles in Wales, there is an ‘English’ Civil War dimension. Wiston was temporarily fortified for the king in 1644. Close by the Battle of Colby Moor resulting in a slaughter of the Royalist forces in retreat. A mound near the battle site is taken to be one burial site, while the northern side of the churchyard of St Mary’s church, Wiston, is regarded as another. It is here that the Sealed Knot society have supported the creation of a memorial to the Civil War dead: I confess this is the first such memorial I have witnessed, a 21st-century cenotaph to 17th-century conflict.

I saw a talk at the EAA conference in Istanbul by Rachel Askew about the archaeology of the English Civil War dead and this modern-day commemoration of conflicts hitherto lacking commemoration is a distinctive dimension of our early 21st-century obsession with rectifying and historicising the war dead, even when precise locations are unknown.