Manorbier Castle is one of my favourite medieval fortified elite residences. What survives today is the inner ward with a gatehouse and two towers to the east, and the fortified hall and chamber to the west, all joined together by a curtain wall.
Gerald of Wales, was a member of the de Barri who owned Manorbier and thus he and his brothers grew up in the castle. In his famous Journey through Wales, he leaves space to describe the family home:
Only about three miles from Pembroke Castle is the fortified mansion known as Manorbier, that is the house of one Pyrrus. The same man also owned Caldy Island, called by the Welsh Ynys Byr, which means the Island of Pyrrus. There the house stands, visible from afar because of its turrets and crenellations on the top of a hill which is quite near the sea and which on the western side reaches as far as the harbour. To the north and the north-west, just beneath the walls, there is an excellent fish-pond, well constructed and remarkable for its deep waters. On the same side there is a most attractive orchard, shut in between the fish-pond and a grove of trees, with a great crag of rock and hazel-nut trees which grow to a great height. At the east end of the fortified promontory, between the castle, if I may call it such, and the church, a stream of water which never fails winds its way along a valley, which is strewn with sand by the strong sea-winds. It runs down from a large lake, and there is a water-mill on its bank. To the west it is washed by a winding inlet of the Severn Sea which forms a bay quite near to the castle and yet looks out towards the Irish Sea”.
(Thorpe 1978 (trans.): 150-1.
This account has been well rehearsed in discussions of elite fortified residences. At a superficial glance, it appears that Giraldus is describing the main economic components of a lordly landscape comparable to those identified by historians and archaeologists elsewhere of 12th-century date and later.
Another approach is to regard this a literary abstraction, a window onto an ideology of lordship manifest in both architecture and the ‘designed’ landscape of its environs, including harbour, orchards, fishponds and mill.
Incorporating the potential failings of memory, lack of detail and likelihood of exaggeration and distortion to enhance his family’s reputation and prestige, the account is clearly partial and incomplete. Equally though, the chosen elements for description were evidently selected from real, remembered physical and topographical features to the exclusion of others, notably lower-status residences and farms and fields.
To me, it seems futile to emphasise either economic or symbolic readings, since this is both a physical and a literary landscape in conversation with each other. Gerald describes neither a fantastical landscape nor a comprehensive account of his family home, how it looked, and how its landscape was ordered by lordly authority.
I wonder whether we can instead approach his account as a topography of memory, conveying from Gerald’s own experiences and engagements with a powerful and important locale for his family and personal identity. There might be a choreographic element, as one moves around the castle’s environs, one is taking a virtual tour of the public dimensions of his family home.
If so, what stands out from his account is not simply the individual dimensions of the castle’s landscape or the fact that his audience would recognise these from a tick-box list of lordly status symbols, but the elemental associations linking these components.
The importance of element dimensions to castle architecture were raised recently by Richard Jones in a a recent TAG session on the elemental theory. Jones was talking about a late 14th-century castle (Bodiam) far removed from the Anglo-Norman fortifications of West Wales. Still, while the account by Gerald of his own family home does not explicitly allude to medieval perceptions of the elements, this perspective can be gleaned from seeing how Gerald describes Manorbier in comparison and contrast with other sites in his writings, including Llanthony Priory whose landscape is described as a cloister and whose air is heavenly. This approach allows us to see connections between the dimensions of the landscape described by Gerald, Christian cosmological ideals, and specific elemental attributes and allusions connected to this locale.
Earth/Stone: the castle itself is distinctive for its lithic construction as well as its hilltop location. Nearby rocks are also clearly a key dimension of the landscape, from whence springs emerge. The quality of the place and its soils are also implicit in the description of the trees and orchards.
Air: aerial dimensions are explicit in the choice to describe the tall trees and castle towers. While not mentioned by Gerald, we also know of the potential aerial dimension of the landscape embodied in the dovecote beneath the castle walls.
Water: perhaps the key elemental feature of this description, there are the many watery connections of the siting of Manorbier. These include the millpond and fishponds as well as the perpetual stream feeding the former. The sea itself and the harbour connecting castle with it are also crucial dimensions in this regard, including the foundation myth connecting the locale with the island priory of Caldy.
Therefore, Manorbier is positioned in an elemental topography of memory, with fire absent from mention but implicit in the damage Gerald knew had been done to the castle and settlement by raiders in his personal history. Water and air are perhaps more important.
The potential of this approach is to recast the account by Gerald as neither prosaic nor abstract. Instead, it was an elemental articulation of lordship, family and the holy embodied in the elemental qualities of the house of Pyrrus and mediated by memory in his writings.