Pembrokeshire Castles are among the oldest, most intriguing and most recent castles you’ll find in all of Wales. This beautiful county in south-west Wales has a long, rich history, and our selection includes some of the most picturesque castles in Wales, a castle continuously lived in for over 700 years and the castle that was home to the founder of the powerful Tudor dynasty that ruled England for over a century.
Most of the castles in Pembrokeshire were built by Norman and Flemish settlers who arrived in the century following the Norman Conquest. This accounts for the presence of so many 12th-century castles around Pembrokeshire, which predate Edward I’s great castles in North Wales by over 150 years.
Surprisingly, most of the Pembrokeshire castles receive far less attention than these and some of the great Welsh castles to the east including Caerphilly and Cardiff.
Pembrokeshire Castles – An Introduction
The area of south Pembrokeshire where most of the castles we describe are located has, for centuries,been known as Little England Beyond Wales. There are far more castles in this part of the county than in North Pembrokeshire, where Norman settlers made less inroads against the native Welsh.
Pembrokeshire has been historically divided by the landsker, an imaginary line crossing the south of the county, from Laugharne (in neighbouring Carmarthenshire) in the east to St Bride’s Bay in the west. Three of the castles we describe – Roch, Wiston and Llawhaden – were built close to this line.
The area south of the landsker was mostly populated by English speakers, and this is reflected in many of its place names – Bosherston and Flemingston, for example have English roots.
The area to the north of the line was overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking, and its place names are predominantly Welsh (Abereiddi, Porthgain, Cwm-yr-eglwys among many others)..
We begin at Carew (Caeriw in Welsh), one of the prettiest and most iconic of Welsh castles. Carew Castle is one of the best-known and most-photographed castles in Pembrokeshire because of its riverside setting, the 15th century north windows of the Castle often reflected in the still waters of the River Carew.
The Castle was built in three main phases – our photographs show its earlier medieval side with stout fortified towers and walls. This was the work of Sir Nicholas de Carew, dating from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Rhys ap Thomas made some alterations in the 15th century, and Sir John Perrot turned part of it into a grand Elizabethan manor house with its distinctive north windows.
Visiting Carew is one of the best things to do in Pembrokeshire, The ticket to the Castle also includes access to the Carew Tidal Mill, one of only five remaining in Britain. And don’t miss the stunning intricately carved 11th century Celtic cross at the end of the car park, just above the road.
Open: April to October, with ticketed entry
Manorbier – Castell Maenorbyr – is one of the earliest Norman Pembrokeshire castles, the current stone iteration probably dating from the early 12th century, making it around 900 years old. It was built by William de Barri, and was the birthplace of the writer Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) who was responsible for the fascinating Journey Through Wales, on which he accompanied Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury recruiting for the Third Crusade.
Manorbier Castle is quite extensive, with a spacious inner ward, a large open area and gardens. There is also plenty to explore, including a fine Great Hall and Chapel, and a Smuggler’s Well – a secret tunnel down to the sea. Gerald of Wales was a little biased when describing it as the ‘most pleasant place by far’ in Wales but Manorbier is a magnificent spot, with the 12th century St James’ Church on the hill across the valley, one of the most pleasant beaches in Pembrokeshire and a great stretch of Pembrokeshire Coast Path in both directions.
Open: daily, 10-5pm – check https://manorbiercastle.co.uk/ for occasional closure dates.
Pembroke is undoubtedly the most formidable of all Pembrokeshire castles. It’s built on a promontory (and a natural cave!) overlooking the Milford Haven waterway, and surrounded on three sides by water from the Pembroke river. It became the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, who wielded considerable power in medieval times.
Much of what you see today dates from the 13th century, with restoration in the early 20th century. The most impressive feature is the circular keep tower, standing 75 feet high. Pembroke Castle escaped the attentions of rebel Welsh Prince Owain Glyndwr as the Castle Constable bribed him with gold. Just over half a century later, in 1457, a certain Harri Tudur – Henry Tudor – was born in the Castle, and by 1485 he had been crowned King Henry VII of England.
Open: daily – hours vary through the year – see https://pembrokecastle.co.uk/ for details.
Close to: Pembroke is close to several Pembrokeshire places of interest. Lamphey Bishops’ Palace is just 3 miles (5 km) away to the east. Some of the most spectacular The remarkable St Govan’s Chapel is a 20-minute drive away, as are the Elegug Stacks and Green Bridge of Wales, two amazing rock formations normally only accessible at weekends. One of the most popular beaches in Pembrokeshire, Barafundle Bay, is also a short drive away, close to tiny Stackpole Quay.
Picton Castle, for centuries the home of the powerful Philipps family, is one of the most impressive stately homes in Wales. It has been in continuous use for well over 700 years from the time the medieval castle was built to its remodelling as a Georgian stately home in the 18th century. The Philipps family resided there until 1987, since when it has been open as a Museum. The site was chosen because it was strategically important, close to the confluence of the Eastern and Western Cleddau rivers which join forces to become the vast Milford Haven waterway a few miles to the south.
As well as the Castle, there are two fine Gardens – the 18th century Walled Garden and the Welsh Owl Garden to explore. There are displays of birds during the day in the arena within the Owl Garden. There’s also a vast collection of antique lawnmowers to visit. It’s one of the most enjoyable Pembrokeshire attractions I’ve come across in a hundred or more visits, and one we’ll take our six-year-old to see next time we’re nearby.
Getting there: it’s 4 miles east of Haverfordwest, down a lane to the south of the A40.
Open: The Gardens are re-opening after Covid-19 lockdown shortly after the completion of this article. Check the Picton Castle homepage for up-to-date information on what is opening when.
There’s not a great deal left of Tenby Castle now, but some of what remains forms part of one of the best views in Wales, with gorgeous Tenby Harbour and the Castle Hill behind. The Castle is believed to have been built in the 12th century by Norman settlers, and been in active use for less than 200 years. The addition of town walls (the town’s name in Welsh, Dinbych-y-pysgod, means ‘fortress of the fishes’) by the late 13th century effectively made the Caste redundant.
Castle Hill is only a few minutes’ walk from the Harbour. Head towards Castle Beach, following the narrow road on the left until you pass through a fortified gateway. The path then climbs past Tenby Museum & Art Gallery (well worth an hour or so), arriving at the summit which the Castle’s lone surviving tower shares with a large statue of Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria in the 19th century. The headland offers exceptional views, including one of our next Pembrokeshire castle.
Open: All year, free of charge
St Catherine’s Island, Tenby
St Catherine’s Island dominates the view south from Tenby’s Castle Hill, a formidable stone fortress atop what would have been a near-impregnable rocky island. St Catherine’s Fort was one of a series of ‘Palmerston forts’ commissioned by Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston in 1867 to defend against a potential naval invasion by Napoleon III of France. The Fort was completed by 1870, but France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war put paid to any thoughts of incursions abroad.
St Catherine’s Fort was later used as a residence by the wealthy industrialist Windsor-Richards family who hosted the Tenby Hunting Ball there. It was later used as an island zoo before falling into disuse. It has now been opened to the public after many years. Opening times depend on the tide – you access it via the gorgeous Castle Beach, Tenby. You also get a great view of the Island from the adjacent Tenby South Beach.
Open: Check the website (link above) as access depends on the tide on Tenby Castle Beach.
Thorne Island, Angle
Thorne Island is another Palmerston fort from the 19th century, located at the entrance to the entrance to Milford Haven waterway, the one industrialised part of Pembrokeshire. It’s also situated just off the corner of the headland next to lovely West Angle Bay, one of the most overlooked Pembrokeshire beaches.
It was once mooted as a 5-star hotel with a cable car carrying guests over from the mainland. This never quite came to fruition. It was bought in 2017 and since been renovated, with a view to being hired out as a party venue. The closest you can get at present is the Pembrokeshire coastal path, which passes around the aforementioned headland.
Open: Not as yet, but in the works. You can walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at any time, free of charge.
If you’re looking for castles to stay in Wales, then this is pretty much the ultimate. Roch Castle is a well-known Pembrokeshire landmark, perched on an outcrop of volcanic rock overlooking St Bride’s Bay. It is one of the landsker castles of Pembrokeshire, built to defend newly-acquired land from Welsh attack, and like many others in the county, has its origins in the early 12th century, when it was under the auspices of Norman knight Adam de Rupe.
Roch Castle opened as a six-room 5-star hotel in 2012, one of three properties in the area run by Retreats Group (the others are Penrhiw Court and Twr-y-Felin in St Davids).
Open: To guests, but the castle exterior is clearly visible from around
Close to: Roch is very close to one of the best parts of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the St David’s Peninsula. As you head west from Roch, you’ll encounter awesome Newgale beach (if you know of a more scenic road, do tell…), the lovely village of Solva and it gorgeous estuary, one of the prettiest rivers in Wales. A few miles further on, there are plenty of things to do in St Davids, the smallest city in the UK, with its splendid cathedral and breathtaking coast walking.
Cilgerran is the northernmost castle in Pembrokeshire, perched high above the densely wooded Teifi river gorge. The river marks the boundary between Pembrokeshire to the south and Ceredigion (sometimes anglicized to Cardiganshire) to the north.
Cilgerran Castle is another Anglo-Norman foundation, and the original fell to Welsh incursions over the course of the 12th and early 13th centuries. However, it was secured by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and it remained out of Welsh hands thereafter. Two stout towers and curtain walls remain – stand on the wall walk to appreciate how difficult this Pembrokeshire castle would have been to crack.
Open: daily 10 am to 4 pm, free of charge
Close to: The recently restored Cardigan Castle is 3 miles (5 km) downstream, and across the river on the south bank you’ll also find St Dogmaels Abbey and its adjacent Coach House museum. The village is one of the prettiest in Pembrokeshire, one of the hidden gems of Wales.
Llawhaden Castle is well off the beaten path in Pembrokeshire terms,, ten miles east of Haverfordwest in countryside to the north of the A40. At first sight, the imposing tall gatehouse gives the impression of a large, powerful castle, but much of it was actually built as a fortified country house for Bishops of nearby St David’s. Well worth a brief detour if you’re passing by.
Open: daily 10 am to 4pm, free entry
Haverfordwest – Hwlffordd in Welsh – is the largest town in Pembrokeshire, where most main roads lead and relatively few visitors stop. Yet Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of the scourge of Welsh Princes, King Edward I of England, was so taken with it that she took out a sizeable personal loan to buy it. She then renovated it, and most of what survives dates from this period, in the late 13th century.
The outer walls of the Castle are largely intact, but little else remains within. It houses the Haverfordwest Town Museum where you can uncover all kinds of stories about the town and surrounding area. It subsequently saw off an attack from Welsh Prince Owain Glyndwr and resisted Parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell so effectively during the English Civil War that he was moved to write threatening letters to the Castle ordering them to surrender. The letters are on display in the Town Museum.
Open: Daily – free entry
Close by: While in town, take a quick look at the ruins of Haverfordwest Priory (open all year, entry free) near the river and its rare medieval church garden.
This curious little castle is one of the more obscure places to visit in Pembrokeshire, but for castle aficionados it’s well worth a brief detour. It’s one of the best examples of a motte and bailey castle in Wales, named after its founder, a Flemish settler named Wizo, who arrived in the early 12th century. The walls of the short, stout keep tower stand on top of a small, steep hill.
It was twice captured by Welsh forces (in 1147 and 1220), and partly restored after the second sacking. It was later abandoned by subsequent owner Sir John Wogan, who moved into far more plush quarters at nearby Picton Castle.
Getting there: It’s 5 km (3 miles) north-east of Haverfordwest, off the main A40 road.
Open: All year, free of charge