Swansea Castle stood at the heart of the Marcher lordship of Gower. It was a target for Welsh attacks and had cliffs overlooking the River Tawe on one side and substantial outer walls.
The first castle raised here was a wooden motte-and-bailey. It was constructed by Henry de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Warwick, in 1106. He had been given the lordship as a reward for his staunch support of King Henry I during his accession to the throne.
The castle was attacked by Gruffudd ap Rhys in 1116 and, although the attack was unsuccessful, the Welsh did manage to destroy the outer defences.
In 1192, in his final years of campaigning, Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys, attacked Swansea Castle. His forces besieged it for 10 weeks although they didn’t manage to take it.
In the early 13th Century Swansea was converted to stone. It was attacked a couple of times by Rhys ap Rhys, the fourth son of The Lord Rhys. He succeeded in burning the town and taking the castle.
By 1220 the lordship had passed, via the Crown, to the de Breos family. The castle was subject to further Welsh attacks and a lengthy legal challenge to de Breos’ ownership from William Beauchamp, 9th Earl of Warwick.
Having warded off the Welsh attacks and with the legal challenge a distant memory, William de Braose II extended the castle in the 1280s. The town was prospering and had developed into a port. William’s extensions were largely domestic in nature. He added a suite of rooms, including a great hall for entertaining guests, private apartments for his family and cellars for storing supplies.
In 1287 Rhys ap Maredudd launched a surprise attack, burned the town and managed to capture nearby Oystermouth Castle.
Swansea was repaired and in 1291 passed to William de Braose III, 2nd Baron Braose. He continued his father’s improvements to the castle adding window seats and garderobes to the rooms. He is probably responsible for much of the castle we see today.
Most of the castle building that survives dates from around 1300 and consists of the main residential block including the hall and solar. The hall sits at the top of the building over vaulted undercrofts. The solar projects at an angle from the eastern end of the hall.
A square chamber block sits just to the north of the solar. It has been considerably altered over the years as it was used as a debtors prison and its interior is divided into cells dating from the 18th Century.
The early 14th Century saw the start of the castle’s decline. The de Braose family had moved to nearby Oystermouth Castle, but Swansea was still being garrisoned.
In 1320 Swansea Castle was involved in the start of the Despenser War. William left the lordship of Gower to his daughter and her husband, John de Mowbray, 2nd Baron Mowbray, but he had also promised the castle to several other people, including Hugh Despenser – a powerful nobleman and favourite of King Edward II. In an act that helped precipitate the war, Edward seized the lordship of Gower from de Mowbray.
The castle reverted back to the de Mowbray family, who ran it as absentee landlords. It subsequently passed through a number of hands and in 1650 it was described as “quite decayed”.
In the 18th Century the first industrial uses were made of the castle as the square tower became part of a glassworks. Later part of the courtyard became a workhouse for the poor. The city buildings were also rapidly encroaching.
The industrial revolution in the 19th Century saw the land around the castle change radically. Docks were installed in the river below the castle and the square keep became a notorious debtors’ prison. The prison was so bad that it was shut down in 1858 by an order of parliament.
By the 1930s the castle courtyard housed a printing press and newspaper offices. The famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas worked here for a time as a young reporter.
Swansea Castle survived WWII bombing, though the rubble wasn’t cleared until the mid-1970s. Though it is a shadow of its former self and scarred by industry, it is a key part of Swansea’s history and today it is under the care of Cadw.
It isn’t possible to get inside the structure, but you can get up close and see all around it. There are no facilities at the castle, but it is in the centre of Swansea and there is ample parking, cafes and restaurants and city centre amenities close by.
Status: Historic Monument
Tel: 01443 336 000
Opening Times: Free access to outside; no access to interior.
Swansea Castle viewed from the square