Cymraeg

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle is one of the finest late medieval buildings in the British Isles and, although now ruined, it remains a striking presence in the landscape of south-east Wales.

Where is Raglan Castle?

Raglan Castle is located just north of the village of Raglan in the county of Monmouthshire, off the A40 between Monmouth and Abergavenny. For details on how to visit, see Cadw’s webpage.

When was Raglan Castle built?

Much of what remains at Raglan dates from the 15th century, the period of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudor dynasty, though there is believed to have been an earlier, Norman motte-and-bailey castle on the site.

The hexagonal Great Tower is the most impressive of the buildings from this period, dominating the two courtyards of the castle.

The Great Tower.
The Great Tower. An impressive self-contained fortress-cum-residence which lies outside the circuit of the castle's curtain walls. Image: Cadw (Crown copyright).

The castle as it stands today was built in three main phases.

The first phase of building in the fifteenth century included the hexagonal, five-storey Great Tower, which was surrounded by a moat and, when it was originally built, could only be accessed from inside the castle via a drawbridge.

The second phase, built by Sir William Herbert, the first Earl of Pembroke, added sumptuous apartments. Finally, the castle was transformed into a mansion by the Earls of Worcester in the 16th century.

The Great Gatehouse, Raglan.
The Great Gatehouse, Raglan. Built between 1460 and 1469 the gatehouse was designed to impress and intimidate visitors with its arrays of gun loops, machicolations, portcullises and doors. Image: Cadw (Crown copyright).

Who built Raglan Castle?

There is some controversy over who built the first phase of the castle; it was built either by William Herbert, the first Earl of Pembroke, or his father, William ap Thomas, who had purchased Raglan in 1432.

William Herbert was a key figure in the politics of the late 15th century. During the Wars of the Roses he supported Edward IV.

The reward for his loyalty was considerable, providing him with the title Earl of Pembroke, and sufficient resources to convert Raglan into a palace-fortress.

Earl William's success was, however, to be short-lived. In 1469 he was captured by Lancastrian supporters at the Battle of Edgecote and put to death.

The Herberts retained control of Raglan until 1492 when it passed to the Somerset family. William Somerset, the third Earl of Worcester (1526–1589), was the first of his family to significantly alter the castle's buildings.

Raglan Castle, about 1620
Reconstruction of Raglan Castle, about 1620, showing the formal gardens that existed in the castle's heyday. Image: Cadw (Crown copyright).

He focused his efforts on upgrading the quality of the hall and service ranges to meet the social expectations of his time. He also established the gardens, including a series of walled terraces, an artificial lake, a fountain, flower beds and herb gardens.

The Herberts retained control of Raglan until 1492, when it passed to the Somerset family. William Somerset, the third Earl of Worcester (1526–1589), was the first of his family to significantly alter the castle's buildings.

The third Earl focused his efforts on upgrading the quality of the hall and service ranges to meet the social expectations of his time. He also established the gardens, including a series of walled terraces, an artificial lake, a fountain, flower beds and herb gardens.

Reconstruction of life at Raglan Castle in the 16th century, at the time of the Third Earl of Worcester. Image: Cadw (Crown copyright).
Reconstruction of life at Raglan Castle in the 16th century, at the time of the Third Earl of Worcester. Image: Cadw (Crown copyright).

What happened to Raglan Castle?

By the middle of the 17th century, Raglan's fortunes were at their peak. It had achieved a level of sophistication and opulence that only the greatest country houses could match. However, the English Civil War was to change all this.

In 1642, the fifth Earl of Worcester declared his support for the Royalist cause, offering considerable financial support to King Charles I. This was to make Raglan a target for Parliamentarian forces, which subsequently besieged the castle in June 1646. Its defenders held out during the summer, but by mid-August the Parliamentarians had moved their siege works to within sixty yards of the castle. Its defenders surrendered on 19 August.

After it was captured, the castle was deliberately made useless for defensive purposes, a process known as ‘slighting’. This is when the gigantic hole was torn through the Great Tower.

In the years that followed Raglan was abandoned and left to decay, becoming a convenient source of building material and a picturesque tourist attraction. Today this decay has been halted and the building conserved through the work of Cadw and its predecessors.

Black-and-white photograph of a castle gatehouse, largely covered with ivy

Who owns Raglan Castle?

Raglan Castle is still owned by the Somerset family, who became Dukes of Beaufort in 1682. In 1938 it was put in the care of the Ministry of Works, and it is now looked after by Cadw.

Which films have used Raglan Castle as a backdrop?

Raglan Castle appeared in Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits (1981), where it stood in for an Italian castle under siege in the Napoleonic Wars.

Background reading

Header image adapted from Raglan Castle by Steve Slater, CC BY 2.0

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