The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 109

Issue 109

Nov / Dec 2009



Museum calls for fund to study treasure finds

Missing Stonehenge circle did not come from Preselis

with Important revision to Stonehenge bluestone theory
An interim note on the latest developments, by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins

Found: "The great lost monument of Cambridge"

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Staffordshire Gold

Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer

Tracking Hunters and Gatherers on the Continental Limits

with Bibliography

Remembering the Great War with Lutyens

Extending the British Museum


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at excavation websites

Matt Ritchie introduces Forest Heritage Scotland

CBA Correspondent

Don Henson looks at the Marsh Award shortlist


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer

Chris Caple is co-directing a long term programme in Pembrokeshire, where historical circumstances promise unusual insights into an early Welsh castle. British Archaeology asked him to describe the project, and what the first six weeks of excavation have revealed.

Nevern castle is a 12th century earthwork overlooking the valley of the river Nefyr in north Pembrokeshire. Its large flat bailey is surrounded by massive banks and ditches and overlooked by one of the larger mottes in West Wales (7–8m high, 30–40m diameter). Perched high above a deep gorge at the eastern end of the bailey, is the inner castle, a rock boss guarded by a rock-cut ditch (7m wide, 7m deep) on which are the remains of a collapsed masonry tower and surrounding wall.

Though it may well be founded on an early medieval site, the castle we see today is the one established by the Anglo-Norman lord Robert FitzMartin in about 1108/9. Control of the castle oscillated between the FitzMartin family and the Welsh prince Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys) between 1135 and 1191, after which it was demolished in 1195 by Rhys's son Hywel Sais. It is a key site for Welsh cultural heritage, as it potentially contains buildings and defences constructed by the Lord Rhys – the earliest excavated remains of a stone castle built by the Welsh. The author's excavations at Dryslwyn castle (1980–95) provided a detailed picture of castle life in West Wales in the 13th century. Likewise, Nevern has the potential to reveal information about Anglo-Norman and Welsh lifestyles during the 12th century. It may also shed light on the interaction and merging of these two groups, a process which has effectively created the Wales of today.

Anglo-Welsh conflict

Roger of Montgomery's attempt to annex West Wales (the lands of Rhys ap Tewdwr) in 1093 failed. But in the early 12th century Henry I (1100–1135), having gained control of the Earldom of Pembroke in 1102 and the Lordship of Glamorgan in 1107, effectively masterminded its Anglo-Norman colonisation. He achieved this through a variety of means:

  • encouraging the establishment of castles such as Loughor, Kidwelly, Laugharne and Llansteffan along the south Wales coast
  • giving the cantref of Rhos (commotes of Rhos and Daugleddau – cantrefs and commotes were medieval Welsh land divisions) to Flemish immigrants (1108), who drove out many of the native Welsh inhabitants and established settlements such as Haverfordwest and Wiston
  • supporting Gerald of Winsor, constable of Pembroke Castle, who annexed the commote of Emlyn Is Cych as the Lordship of Cilgerran in 1109
  • licensing Gilbert Fitz Richard to colonise Ceredigion around 1110
  • creating a new centre of authority by appointing the queen's chancellor, Baldwin, as Bishop of St David's in 1115
  • encouraging a new generation of marcher lords, many from south-west England, to annex Welsh lands.

Principal amongst these new lords was Robert FitzMartin, who annexed the cantref, later the barony, of Cemais, and established a substantial motte and bailey castle at Nevern. He almost certainly chose Nevern because it is likely that it was the seat of the previous Welsh lord Cuhelyn, the site of his llys (hall) and the point from which he ruled Cemais (no evidence of this earlier settlement has yet been located). FitzMartin also established a borough of 18 burgages at Nevern, and brought monks from Tiron in 1113 and 1118 to establish the abbey of St Dogmaels on the site of the earlier Celtic monastery of Llandudoch.

This establishment or development of urban and ecclesiastic settlements, often replacing earlier Welsh ones, occurred throughout West Wales at this time. However, following the defeat of Anglo-Norman forces by the Welsh at the battle of Crug Mawr in 1136, Ceredigion and north Pembrokeshire came back under Welsh control. Thirty five years of armed conflict between Welsh, Anglo-Norman and Flemish forces followed, centred on sites in mid and southern Pembrokeshire.

Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys) became prince of the ancient kingdom of Deheubarth (West Wales) in 1155, following the death or disability of his elder brothers. Together with Gwynedd and Powys, Deheubarth was one of the principal ancient kingdoms to emerge from early medieval Wales. The Lord Rhys was arguably it greatest prince, maintaining his control of most of West Wales throughout 1155–1197. He is the first Welsh prince recorded as building a castle in stone and mortar, at Cardigan in 1171, and he held the first eisteddfod there in 1176.

Rhys was frequently in conflict with the English crown, until in 1171 he came to a long-lasting agreement with Henry II. He subsequently returned lands to their previous Anglo-Norman lords, probably including the barony of Cemais to the FitzMartin family. Rhys himself was confirmed as lord of the lands of Deheubarth (Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi), also accepting the title and role of the king's Justiciar in West Wales.

William FitzMartin inherited his father Robert's lands and titles in the 1170s. His marriage to Rhys's daughter Angharad probably created the type of alliance which Rhys would have been seeking, given the proximity of Cemais to his stronghold of Cardigan. But after the death of Henry II in 1189 and a return to the border conflicts, in 1191 Rhys took Nevern Castle from his son in law. He subsequently gave it to various of his sons, though he was briefly held captive there in 1194 in the ensuing filial conflict (an incident described in both the Brut-y-Tywysogyon – Peniarth MS 20 – and by Giraldus Cambrensis, who had passed through Llanhyfer [Nevern/Nanhyfer] on March 28 1188, in his Journey through Wales).

The Lord Rhys died in 1197. His son Hywel Sais had dismantled the castle in 1195 to deny it to Anglo-Norman forces, who took control of this area in 1204. Ken Murphy has convincingly argued that the caput of Cemais was moved to Newport at this time. This left Nevern Castle an abandoned ruin, spared the damage and destruction of later building activity.

Excavating the castle

The archaeological potential of the site was identified by David Cathcart King and Clifford Perks in their initial survey published in Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1950/51. It was protected through scheduling as an ancient monument, and bought by the community council in 1982 to preserve it as a local amenity and to ensure visitor access.

A partnership between Nevern community council, which owns the site, the author and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA) was able to attract SCIF (strategic capital investment fund) money from the Welsh Assembly, administered through Cadw, to excavate, conserve and develop the site during 2009 and 2010. The project is led by Phil Bennett, archaeological heritage manager of the PCNPA, and the author. The SCIF funding is supporting 12 weeks of excavation and post-excavation work, as well as conservation and on-site display. We will be seeking funding for further excavation and research after 2010. A geophysical survey in 2005 had suggested feint traces of structures behind the northern inner rampart, and two weeks excavating in 2008 revealed that substantial archaeological remains of the 12th century castle still survived. In June and July 2009 students from Durham and Lampeter universities and local volunteers undertook four weeks of excavation.

Sequence of control of Nevern castle and the Barony of Cemais, as suggested by the historical record

Pre-1109 Welsh occupation of the site (Cuhelyn)

1109–1135 Anglo-Norman control (Robert FitzMartin). Castle and borough developed, probably earth and timber construction. St Dogmaels Abbey established (26 years)

1135–1171 Uncertain, probably predominantly Welsh control, with Anglo-Norman control possibly returning briefly in the 1150s (36 years)

1171–1191 Anglo-Norman control (William FitzMartin). Some stone building may have been added to the castle (20 years)

1191–1195 Welsh control (members of the Lord Rhys's family). Further stone building may have been added (four years)

1195–1204 Ruin under the control of Hywel Sais (nine years)

This work revealed that archaeological remains are only present on the north and south sides of the bailey; medieval agriculture has removed all the archaeology from the centre of the site. A large late Medieval drainage ditch running across the site has cut through one of the 12th century buildings.

On the north site of the site, behind the inner rampart, two phases of wooden buildings were recovered, one indicated by beam slots and the other by postholes. These buildings probably derive from the early 12th century Anglo-Norman occupation between 1108 and 1135: they were overlain by rubbish deposits containing mid to late 12th century pottery. There are two large stone buildings on the south side of the site: at 6.5m×10m and 8m×12m (at least). They are constructed of slate, bonded, or more accurately bedded, with clay, with doorways of finely-chiselled blocks of local sandstone. Whilst the claybedded slate may be a local "Welsh" technique, accurately-faced square sandstone blocks are an "Anglo-Norman" tradition. These mid to late 12th century structures (south range buildings 1 and 2) represent a fusion of styles and building technology.

The clay bonding of stone is an effective construction technique, provided that substantial capstones or overhanging eaves prevent water from washing away the clay. There are a number of earth- or clay-bedded stone buildings in this period in Wales, such as the tower at Dinas Emrys, the walls of Tomen-y-Castell (the castle which preceded Dolwyddelan), early walls at Cilgerran and Dolbadarn castles and the llys at Rhosyr. These may represent a traditional local technique, sincemost of these areas lack limestone or chalk sources for making lime mortar. However, they could equally well represent a pre-lime mortar stone construction phase, where there was an aspiration to build in stone, but an incomplete appreciation of the technology required to do so. In all these areas later buildings were constructed with mortar. A building phase with poor appreciation of mortar technology was also suggested at Dryslwyn Castle, where initial construction used a poor quality, lowlime mortar, despite sitting atop a limestone hill. Thus, clay-bedded stone or slate buildings may represent a distinctive, largely 12th century phase of Welsh castle construction, though the technique continued in use in some rural areas of Wales into the 19th century.

The motte, almost certainly erected by Robert FitzMartin around 1108/9, was originally surmounted by a wooden structure, probably some form of lookout tower, based on four large posts sunk into the top. David Cathcart King suggested that this was the most common type of wooden superstructure seen on Norman mottes, exemplified by Abinger in Surrey. Subsequently this was replaced in the mid to late 12th century with a large stone round tower, 9m in diameter with walls nearly 2m thick, again made of slate bedded in clay.

This tower, probably originally two storeys high, now survives to a height of 1.5m in places. It lacks a doorway at the present ground floor (basement) level, and therefore had a first floor entrance. Rooms in towers, especially basements (which can only be accessed through trapdoors in the floor above) have often been suggested as prisons: it is possible that this is where the Lord Rhys was held prisoner by his son Maelgwn in 1194.

The tower had clearly had a period of occupation older than the recorded destruction of the castle in 1195, suggesting that it was built in the mid to late 12th century. This is an early date for a round tower in Wales: most mortared examples – such as Cilgerran, Pembroke or Dryslwyn – date from the early to mid 13th century. The location of this straight-sided tower on the top of a motte is suggestive of a shell keep, such as that at Cardiff (converted into stone in the 1130s and 40s). However, a 9m external diameter makes it almost certainly a tower rather than a shell keep. A more appropriate comparison may be Longtown in Herefordshire.

On the top of the outer northern rampart we have discerned three phases of wooden palisade, one of which probably had a drystone wall revetment at the front. As there was no evidence of a subsequent masonry wall, the 12th century defences of the castle comprised an earth rampart topped with wooden palisades either side of a stone-tower-capped motte.

Excavations in 2008 recovered a Nine Men's Morris board from the floor of south range building 1. It had probably been dropped and left as people fled when the building burnt down. A small circular slate gaming counter was found with that board. We found a second board and several further counters during the 2009 excavations. All come from late 12th century contexts. Evidence from surviving boards, such as that from the Gokstad ship burial and numerous examples scratched in monastery cloisters, suggests that the game, although known earlier, only became established in Britain after the Norman conquest. It achieved high levels of popularity in the 12th and 13th centuries before chess became widespread in the 13th and 14th centuries. The occurrence of two boards at Nevern (and more unusually the presence of the gaming counters) speaks to the popularity of the game by this period, though marks scratched in the slate beside the board retrieved in 2009 suggested that one player was clearly more skilled than their compatriot – they were winning six games to nil.

Thus far, the castle appears to have been built in the early 12th century in earth and timber, probably on an earlier medieval site. Subsequently some buildings, both defensive structures such as the round tower on the motte and internal buildings, were constructed of slate seated in clay, with doorways, widows and corners picked out in well-faced masonry blocks. Though it is likely that many castles went through a similar sequence of initial earth and timber defences subsequently replaced with stone defences and buildings, Nevern represents a rare survival of that evolutionary link, where the initial 12th century stone structures have been preserved. Further excavation will take place on the site next Easter and summer, to reveal the masonry structures of the inner castle. In the meantime research is underway into the most effective way to conserve the round tower and the other buildings of slate seated in clay.

The present phase of archaeological investigation, conservation and presentation is developing an awareness of the castle and raising its value to the local, national, academic and heritage communities. The whole of the Cadw inspectorate accompanied by Geoff Wainwright and the minister for heritage in Wales, Alan Fred Jones and his staff, as well as the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, visited the site in late June/early July. The open evenings held at the end of each of the last two excavation seasons have attracted a large amount of local interest – over 120 residents in 2009. As this is a bilingual community the visits from the local schools have been hosted in English or Welsh as appropriate. One can only guess what the Lord Rhys and the FitzMartin family would have made of it all.

Chris Caple is senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University.

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