Since I am currently considering researching a short history of Aberystwyth’s long lost ancient townhouse of the Pryse family, their home before Castle House, I thought in the mean time a small history of Aberystwyth Castle itself might be interesting.
The castle at Aberystwyth is the fourth to be built within the vicinity of the town. The first was by Gilbert Fitz Richard, a Norman nobleman, in 1109 near where the river Ystwyth then opened out into the sea, it was extensive enough to have motte and bailey earthworks put up and a chapel built within the walls. (This was, arguably, the first ‘Aberystwyth’ church.) This first castle was besieged and soon after burnt down by Cadwalader, Gruffudd ap Rhys, and Owen Gwynedd in 1135. Cadwalader built the second castle, possibly on the same site, soon after. However, after problems between Cadwalader and his fellow Welshman, Owen Gwynedd, Gwynedd returned to Aberystwyth and destroyed the second castle as well.
A third castle was built by Gilbert Fitz Richard’s grandson, Roger Fitz Richard, in 1158 at an unknown site, but survived less than a decade and was destroyed by Welsh forces c1165. There are some suggestions that a fortified position continued after the castle’s destruction, but with little evidence, and it is likely that there was no proper fortified construction again in Aberystwyth until the current castle was begun 112 years later.
In 1277, while Edward I was busy conquering Wales, his brother, Edmund of Lancaster, was sent to Ceredigion to quell any chance of an uprising and construct a new castle to stand against any problems in the future. It was Edmund who must have visited Llanbadarn some time that year and decided to build his castle nearby, choosing a secure site on the cliffs with an ability to both keep the coast defended from raiders, and to be replenished by ships in times of siege.
The actual command of the construction came to a man called James of Saint George, who had already designed and overseen the construction of two other castles built for Edward I. In 1282 construction was briefly halted by a Welsh attack on the castle, who attempted to hold it for themselves until they were quickly routed by English forces. Some suppose that James only commanded the construction of the castle after this attack, but it is probable that he was in control of the project for the entire building process, since he was such an important castle builder in the area.
The present structure was finally completed in 1289, and quickly proved its strength after holding out through a siege in the winter between 1294 and 1295. Shortly afterwards Edward I granted permission for the small settlement outside of the castle to be walled around to protect it from Welsh attacks, at that time it was called ‘Ville de Llanpadarn’, but this was the very first seeds of Aberystwyth as we know it today.
Originally there was a chapel in the castle, probably on the first floor of the great tower by the great hall, but a small medieval church was built next to the castle probably at the very end of the 1200s.
We get some idea of what the castle contained from the numerous repairs that the castle constantly needed due to its close proximity to the sea. In 1342, when it belonged to the Black Prince, it is recorded as having a Long Chamber, King’s Hall, Old Hall, a kitchen, bakehouse, stable, and two granaries. It had two draw bridges; one from the great gate to the town and one over to the small partial-island that the war memorial now stands on. Also, interestingly, it mentions a ‘third bailey’ that had, even at that time, almost been completely destroyed by the sea, this could suggest that once in the area where the war memorial stands there was a castled enclosure, now entirely lost.
In 1450 there is recorded a Knights’ Hall, a Somerhall, and a chapel. While in 1466 a new bridge was built somewhere within the castle complex.
The stable and bakehouse are recorded as under one roof against the wall on the west side of the castle, and adjacent to this was a guard’s chamber with the King’s Hall above. The great hall itself, to the south of the Great Towers, was at some point divided in half and then had an oven added at the south end by the garde-robe chute. I did at one point have a very useful source that explained the location of the chapel, but I have sadly misplaced its name so until then that’s the best description I can offer.
It was besieged in 1404 by Owain Glyndŵr, who was building a power base at Machynlleth where he had that same year crowned himself Prince of Wales. His dream of an independent Welsh state did not succeed, however, and in 1408 Aberystwyth was recaptured by Henry IV.
The castle quickly lost its importance once Wales was pacified and its extraordinary repair costs due to the sea no longer seemed worth paying for. Only the most necessary repairs were made to the castle as it became a simple centre of administration for the small town around it.
As a centre of mining, Aberystwyth remained a great source of revenue for the crown, and a surprisingly vast fortune in coins minted every year in London from silver mined in the Welsh hills of Ceredigion. This was the case when Thomas Bushell took over the lease for mining rights in 1637 and, after getting the attention of Charles I, on the 9th of July that year he was granted the right to erect a mint at the castle. There is a doorway on the southern wall of the Great Gate-corridor, between the two Great Towers, that dates from about that time and very possibly had something to do with the construction of the mint.
It didn’t take long for Bushell to set up a small mint possibly in the small complex of rooms on the north-west corner of the Great Towers, with storage supposedly above. (I must admit, I recall this from memory from a text I read about a year ago now and cannot guarantee I remember it correctly.) It is possible that the ‘King’s Hall’ was converted for use as part of the mint. This ran ran until until September 1642, when the outbreak of civil war even stalled the silversmiths of Aberystwyth. In that time, just about five years, the mint had created £13,069 out of 4,052 lbs of silver. Some silver mined later during the civil war was taken instead to Bristol, since in 1645 Bushell was present in that city when the king requested he minted coins for the payment of the army.
In November 1645 the castle, at that time under command of Roger Whitley, was besieged by Parliamentarian forces who were probably being lead by John Vaughan. Sadly and unlike many other parliamentary attacks on castles, few records remain of the siege from either side of the battle. However, the mint was briefly re-opened in January 1646, when it ran until March before again being stopped as the siege became more intense. By April the castle had been captured; there is a heroic idea that John Vaughan himself triumphantly marched his men into the courtyard and oversaw the expulsion of the Royalists, but he may by this time have had second thoughts about his loyalties, and have in fact returned to his own estates and allowed another unknown commander to enter the castle in his stead.
Some mysterious cavaliers entered the castle and attempted to mint coins in February 1649, when £8 alone was minted, before the minting tools were quickly smuggled out of the castle. Shortly before the 23rd of February 1649 the tools for minting were hurriedly removed from the castle and returned to Royalists outside of Aberystwyth, before they could be found by Cromwell.
Perhaps it was discovered by Parliament that this had occurred, since not long after this the castle was entirely demolished by Cromwell’s order. The catastrophic destruction of the castle compared to others shows how important it was not just to destroy possible Royalist strong-points, but also to obliterate a royal mint that had funded the armies of the king. Enough dynamite was used, in fact, that the following winter the church collapsed in the storms. It is popular belief that the church fell into the sea, but, since the line of the town wall is still quite far from the sea it is impossible for the church to have fallen in unless it stood outside the walls, which is unlikely. It is more probable that it was either destroyed at the same time as the castle by the explosion, or the explosion weakened it so much that the winter storms just blew it down.
For a century afterwards the remains of the castle itself suffered at the hands of the sea as well as being taken down by townsfolk for use in other buildings. The inner bailey wall towards the present church shows the clearest signs of having been dismantled after the castle was slighted by Cromwell. This was until in 1739, when the local council ordered that no one should take any more stones from the castle on pain of a £5 fine.
Most suppose that the town wall, dismantled largely between 1650 and 1850, is now entirely gone without any trace, but there is in fact the stub of the town wall on the outside of the north-west external wall of the outer-bailey.
Some time at the end of the eighteenth century the castle was landscaped and the paths put in, the pair of signal cannons appearing a few decades later as decoration. There was for some time the camera obscura on the site of the war memorial, before the memorial was put there in the 20s. And that, in a nutshell, are the major events that have changed the castle and its buildings since it was built.