Nevern Castle is important in so many regards. It is a striking survival of a complex, well-preserved and multi-phased motte-and-bailey castle of the 12th century in South-West Wales. Situated in the lordship of Cemais, it was an Anglo-Norman earth and timber castle in its first phase, built by Robert FitzMartin c. 1108-1110. The site was recaptured by the Welsh from 1136 and it became enhanced with stone-built defences, perhaps during its occupation by The Lord Rhys of Deheubarth after 1156 or by William FitzMartin who took possession of the castle from c. 1171. The site is recorded as being dismantled in 1195 by Hwyel Sais to prevent its capture and use by the Anglo-Normans. The nearby town of Newport was its successor during the 13th century and the historical and archaeological evidence suggests the site was not reoccupied. This makes Nevern Castle a striking example of a fortified elite residence that switched hands repeatedly and embodies the conflicts of Anglo-Norman Pembrokeshire with the Welsh. Its abandonment means it is a striking example of a site where much can be learned without the interference of later rebuilding and occupation.
The castle is situated in a beautiful wooded location on a promontary overlooking the Gamman stream to its east, just uphill from the church and settlement of Nevern in North Pembrokeshire. Half of the site is thus naturally defended by extremely steep slopes. Two lines of bank and ditch link the scarps to the motte. The northern defences comprise a double bank with external ditches, the western (south of the motte) comprise a single bank and ditch. A further distinctive feature is the ‘inner castle’ constructed on the tip of the promontary in the site’s later phase, comprising of a tower defended by a deep and wide rock-cut ditch. This is a component rare if unique (I’m not sure which) for 12th-century castles.
Between my earlier visits and my most recent, Nevern Castle has been the focus of a sustained programme of new archaeological research led by Durham University’s Chris Caple in collaboration with Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. The castle’s website gives interim details of the discoveries, revealing details of the phasing of the site by investigating the defences and entrances, the motte, the buildings in the bailey and the inner castle.
As with so many castle sites, as discussed here for the motte-and-bailey at Hembury, Devon, we know little of the early medieval origins of Castell Nanhyfer. Yet the location is crying out to be considered an Iron Age promontary fort like the site of Castell Henllys nearby. Moreover, immediately below the site of the hillfort is a clas church with a rich collection of early medieval inscribed and sculpted stones spanning the 5th to 11th centuries AD. Therefore it will be interesting to learn whether the Nevern excavations have revealed traces of first millennium BC and/or first millennium AD occupation. I mentioned the site was ‘recaptured’ by the Welsh above because I anticipate there must have been some kind of pre-Norman phase…
The site’s beautiful wooden setting make it pleasant and different in heritage terms, although the arboreal context is reminiscent of Ewloe Castle for me. Visiting in September 2014, it looked little different from when I visited a decade earlier, apart from new heritage display boards. It is a free entry site run by a dedicated charity. Disappointing were the lack of remaining leaflets in the dispensers which I imagine, based on the signs, are supposed to provide visitors with information about the castle on site. Still, I guess that means that people are taking them and using them!?
I did like the present of a large wooden throne to create a focus within the bailey. This creates a focus, although precisely for what is unclear. Otherwise, the site is relatively unscathed by development; it is managed in so far as there are paths with steps and the bailey is mown, but much of it is left to be overgrown. This is more appealing to the visitor and more effective as a wildlife habitat than the pristine management of Cadw and English Heritage sites.
However, it is the bilingual website here that is more striking in heritage terms. Although seemingly not updated for the last couple of years, this remains a superior product and one that far exceeds Cadw monuments’ websites for detailed textual and visual information. The website includes a 3D map and video, both sporting artist’s reconstructions of the castle through its different phases. There is also a valuable audio trial and galleries of photographs from the 2008-2010 excavation seasons. Another section hosts post-excavation photographs of finds.
As noted, the website is not without flaws and updating. The list of publications has no links to the pdf documents which is disappointing, and there is no mention of the 2012 Archaeological Journal article mentioned above. Still, it is a welcome online digital resource about this castle that exceeds the information one can find online for most of Pembrokeshire’s many castles.
I look forward to the publication of Caple’s fieldwork and also invite those interested to reflect on the contrasting management and interpretation strategies adopted between this and other medieval castle sites under Cadw guardianship and other private owners. Whatever the weather, visiting Nevern Castle is never a disappointment.