Looming over the western bank of the River Gwendraeth, Kidwelly Castle (Carmarthenshire) has a long history from 12th-century Norman fortress, elaborate 13th/early 14th-century stone castle built by the De Chaworth family and the Earl of Lancaster, to 15th-century residence of Rhys ap Thomas as outlined here. Now managed by Cadw, it has a gift shop, heritage displays and guide book.
In the context of this blog, I was particularly interested in how the castle has become a focus of material commemoration focusing on a medieval female historical figure. Of particular interest is how her story is materialised and visualised both through heritage interpretation within the castle and a commemorative monument outside the main gate.
The subject of commemoration in both regards is not an elite male Norman, English or Welsh occupant of the castle, but one of its Welsh opponents. The 12th-century wife of the Gruffudd ap Rhys of Deheubarth – Gwenllian – is a key figure in the castle’s heritage displays aimed at children and adults alike, in which she is portrayed as a ‘warrior princess‘ and national martyr. Her relationship with Kidwelly is one of war and defeat. Gwenllian was executed by beheading together with one of her sons, having had her forces and other son killed close by Maurice de Londres in 1136. Still, this negative, failed legacy is balanced by the fact that her youngest son – the Lord Rhys – became a key figure in Welsh history and successfully took Kidwelly Castle himself.
Her story is told, and she is depicted as a cartoon character and photographs of her in armour, both within the gatehouse as part of a narrative regarding the history of the castle itself, but also from the highest tower where you are invited to look out and imagine the battle in which Gwenllian was captured, and the town where she likely died. The recent art installations take up this narrative, providing odd apparitional art that alludes to her story as nationalist martyr – ‘one of Wales’s greatest heroines’ – and subaltern resistance fighter. There is a headless female figure in prayer within the tower and a contrived graffiti on the back of the wooden throne to distribute her identity throughout the interior of the castle – in buildings not even built when she died.
The memorial itself is opposite the castle, and is another example, as discussed recently for Cilgerran, where castles become a focus of 20th-century memorials. In particular, it shows the power of using the space outside castles to juxtapose, and in some regards contradict, their dominant narrative.
Rather than a statue, it is a modest pillar with her name enwrapped around an interlace cross; very much an allusion to 19th-century imaginings of Celtic art and drawing from late medieval memorial cross-slabs from North Wales and early medieval stone sculpture from the region. The benches serve to commemorate the local trade and tourism association…
It must be said that the Joan of Arc-esque worship of Gwenllian is a tad close to the royal necrophilia one finds in the extreme passions of adoration afforded to the remains of Richard III. Still, the focus on the beauty and bravery of Gwenllian and her martial appearance is another example of how the modern visitor’s embodied engagement with castles is about bringing back the dead and how this needn’t take place at mortuary monuments alone. Her story provides a neat counter to the Norman and English hegemony foregrounded by the castle ruins themselves, including the fact that it effectively withstood the forces of Owain Glyndwr. It also serves as a neat contrast to the male martial associations of both the castle and the First World War memorial commemorating Kidwelly’s war dead close by. In summary, while the nationalist martyrdom narrative is rather repugnant, at least it reveals about ruins can be deployed to bring the dead back to life and needn’t be an exclusively male realm of memorialisation.