There are 641 castles in Wales, enough to keep those with a severe fortress fetish going for a couple of years, but Raglan, just north of the village in the county of Monmouthshire in the south east, with its great multi-angular towers and Tudor-styling, is unlike any other.
It evokes memories of earlier fortresses like Caernarfon. The great gatehouse impresses visitors as its owner intended. Built for show rather than battle, nonetheless, it held off Oliver Cromwell's parliamentarian forces for thirteen weeks in one of the last sieges of the Civil War, but was eventually taken and systematically destroyed.
What remains still impresses. In fact, the castle was used as a set for part of Led
Zeppelin's 1976 release The Song Remains the Same, and Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam's 1981 film, shot most of its Napoleon sequence here.
The deceptive sandstone is composed of two types, pale, almost yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the Wye River, three miles away and local Old Red Sandstone, red, brown or purplish in color. As we approach from a distance, the castle appears quite reddish, but soon, the yellow magically emerges.
Raglan was begun in the 1430s, quite late for castle building by some 150 years! However, impressive details such as massive mullioned windows brought
the design up-to-date, bathing the rooms in luxurious light. The oriel window, described as "a bay to end all bay windows," is one of Raglan's defining features. It lit up the high table at the dais end of the hall. Raglan also boasted a long gallery, the very height of fashionable living in the Tudor period. Intricately carved wooden panels are on show in the visitor centre where one may use a mobile phone to download audio stories for an insight into castle life.
The castle is associated with Sir William ap Thomas, who fought with King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Thomas also fought in France whose castles influenced Raglan. The elaborately decorated polygonal keep, as well as the double-drawbridge arrangement of the keep, unique in Britain, demonstrate such influence.
Thomas exploited his position as a local agent of the duke of York in south-east Wales to amass great wealth. In 1435, he began building the Great Tower, subsequently known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent. Surrounded by a water-filled moat, the unusual hexagonal plan of
the tower, together with its elaborate drawbridge, again are modeled on France.
Son, William Herbert, continued to develop Raglan and as a prominent Yorkist, he played a major role in securing the throne for Edward IV in 1461, subsequently raised to the peerage as Lord Herbert of Raglan. Attaining Earl of Pembroke, his political success is reflected in the lavish building. Under Herbert, Raglan became a palace, unmatched in the 15th century.
Unfortunately, Herbert was beheaded following defeat at the battle of Edgecote in 1469. No major alterations to Raglan appeared until ownership by William Somerset, earl of Worcester (1548-89).
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Raglan was a garrison for King Charles. By 1646, the castle was pounded by heavy artillery under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, and finally forced to surrender. The fall of Raglan marked the end of the Civil War.
The garrison was treated with leniency, given the eleven-week siege, and allowed to leave with colors flying and drums beating. Officers, gentlemen and squires were actually allowed to retain their arms and baggage.
Today, the castle's walls and towers beckon tourists with its history and remaining beauty. I'm happy to have made its acquaintance. Now, about those remaining 640 Welsh castles...
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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