Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Legend of Castle Rock

The country park of Porthkerry near the town of Barry is the home of several local legends, one of which asserts that Porthkerry was the site where Robert Fitzhamon and his legendary twelve knights landed in 1093 in order to ally themselves with one Jestyn ap Gwrgant, king of Glamorgan, in a bid to help him in his struggle against his rival Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth.  The story narrates that upon completion of his victory Jestyn was betrayed by one of his Welsh allies called Eneon, and was ultimately usurped by Fitzhamon, who promptly stole his lands and divided them up among his twelve knights.  This account of the conquest of Glamorgan is based upon the writings of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats in his work The Winning of the Lordship of Glamorgan out of the Welshman's Hands, which was written in the 1560's at the request of William Cecil, but was subsequently published in Powel's Historie of Cambria in 1584.  Although impossible to verify by contemporary narratives it almost certainly represents a popular oral tradition of the conquest of Glamorgan, which has since passed into local legend. 

Another local legend based on a popular oral tradition asserts that there was once a castle in Porthkerry bay.  This legend is perpetuated by a rarely seen outcrop of stone that only becomes visible during very low tides some one Kilometre out into the Bristol Channel between the bay at Porthkerry and Rhoose opposite the Bulwarks Camp. This flat piece of rock is called Castle Rock, and as its name implies, is the supposed site of Porthkerry Castle.

The earliest reference to the name Castle Rock that we could find comes from a Victorian OS map dated 1877, in which the name Castle Rock appears next to the words The remains of Porthkerry Castle.  How the Victorian cartographer who drew the map deduced the remains of Porthkerry Castle were some one kilometer out at sea is anyone's guess, but the Bristol Channel was a busy shipping lane for centuries, so the rock must have been a well known hazard.  It is perhaps at this time that the legend of Castle Rock was born. 

(View of Porthkerry beach where Castle Rock is located)

The rock itself is often cited as being a part of the castle, but close inspection has revealed that the rock is a natural formation, probably of blue lias stone which is common in this part of Wales, and exhibits no walls, foundations or anything else alluding to a castle like structure (although there is, rather evocatively, an old anchor resting on the rock). It seems highly unlikely that there was ever a castle on Castle Rock, but if one looks beneath the veneer of legend it does indeed seem that there is evidence to suggest that a castle once stood in the Porthkerry area.

Every early map of Glamorgan, in particular maps drawn by cartographers Christopher Saxton in 1583, and John Speed in 1610, indicate that there was a castle in the vicinity of Porthkerry. However, rather confusingly, most early antiquarian sources appear to make no mention of a Porthkerry castle. Leland for example in his Itineraries, makes no mention of any castle or indeed any "notable buildings" in the Porthkerry area, despite detailing every building of note that he chanced across during his travels throughout Glamorgan, including nearby Barry castle, which he notes was a ruin by the time of his visit. It seems unlikely that Leyland, who was specifically looking for places of interest to record, would omit any castle, ruinous or otherwise, from his Itineraries. William Camden too makes no mention of a Porthkerry castle, however, Rhys Meyrick in his 1578 publication A Booke of Glamorganshire Antiquities, makes reference to a Porthkerry castle which is listed as a castle "bordering neare the sea-Coast".

That a castle once existed within the Porthkerry area is almost certain, but where was it located?  It is unlikely that the early maps showed the exact location of Porthkerry castle, but probably gave a rough indication of its whereabouts, however-it is very unlikely that Porthkerry castle stood approximately one kilometre out at sea at Castle Rock; there is however one possible explanation to account for the Castle Rock legend which is often cited as cause for the castles disappearance.

A natural disaster occurred in the year 1607 which has since been called the Bristol Channel floods. This flood is well documented and it devastated much of the Welsh coast killing many people.  No one quite knows the cause of the floods, although a recent academic study made by Haslett and Bryant in 2002 liken the disaster to a tsunami, and estimate that a wave of varying height, approximately 16 ft high when it reached Glamorgan, wreaked havoc long the Welsh coastline and is said to have destroyed Porthkerry Castle and left us with Castle Rock as we see it today.

Later maps of Glamorgan dating from the later half of the Seventeenth Century and the first Half of the Eighteenth Century however seem to contradict this theory as they clearly indicate that there was a Porthkerry Castle in existence after the tsunami occurred.

(Map by Pieter Van Den Keere dating to 1627-32, showing a Porthkerry Castle in existence after the Tsunami of 1607)

The most plausible location for Porthkerry Castle is that it was located somewhere near the village of Porthkerry, which is located at the summit of the steep hill which borders Porthkerry beach. The village of Porthkerry was certainly in existence during the medieval period and was probably a sub-manor to one of the numerous higher lordships in Glamorgan; its church dedicated to St Curig, was included in the Norwich Taxation of 1254 and the Taxatio of 1291-2, thus providing a realistic antecedent for a castle setting.

(The medieval church of St Curig)

There is no extant building in the village of Porthkerry that resembles a castle; indeed, the whitewashed church dedicated to St Curig is the sole surviving medieval structure within the village. This is not to say that a castle did not exist within or near to Porthkerry village as most nucleated settlements within Glamorgan during the medieval period would have contained a small castle or fortified manor house where the resident lord would have administered his fief .

The passage of time however has not been kind to many of these buildings, many were neglected or abandoned once their original functions as a home and microcosm of the feudal world had ended, and as a result stripped of everything of value that could be reused right down to the bare stone, and even then many were ultimately dismantled as they were seen by their unsentimental owners as a cheap and readily available source of dressed stone for newer constructions. Those buildings that survive to this present day, and there are many within Glamorgan, were often left as shells, such as nearby Penmark castle and Barry Castle. No such ruin however exists at Porthkerry or is known to have existed.

By the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries cartographers had ceased to note Porthkerry Castle on their maps; so either we have a building that was extant until the mid to late Eighteenth Century that has completely vanished, or a building that was labelled a castle long after its original form and function had ceased.

(Glebe Farm, Pothkerry village)

If this was the case then there is one other building in Porthkerry village that is of sufficient antiquity to be of interest, and that is the farmhouse belonging to Glebe Farm. This building dates to the early Sixteenth Century and is thought to have been originally built to house the village's incumbent priest, but it is possible that this building was built on the site of or in the near vicinity of an earlier building of medieval origins, certainly medieval pottery has been found within the immediate vicinity of Glebe Farm by the authors.  Could Glebe Farm be the site of Porthkerry castle?

Perhaps the reason why Leyland and Camden neglected to make any mention of a castle in Porthkerry village is because the building they saw simply did not look like a castle but resembled a rather prosaic looking 16th Century dwelling, which to most contemporary antiquarians with the exception of Meyrick, who was primarily interested in Glamorgan history, would have been of little interest, certainly a written reference to this early Tudor building written in 1636 simply refers to it as a "dwelling house and barn with an orchard and garden plot". 

There are many buildings throughout Glamorgan however that are of post-medieval construction yet carry the title of "castle", such as St Fagans castle, a 16th Century mansion built on the site of a medieval castle, Hensol castle- a late 17th Century building, and Wenvoe castle, a Georgian period mansion that replaced an earlier Tudor period building.  

(The site of Porthkerry castle?)

It is interesting to note that Meyrick also included in his list of "Castles bordering neare the sea-Coast" such buildings as Cogan Pill, Flemingston and Dunraven.  These buildings at this point in time were not castles but rather were houses belonging to the their local gentry owners, and although it is possible that many contained medieval antecedents, these buildings were all of 16th Century construction.  Based on the evidence it is possible that the 16th Century farmhouse at Glebe Farm is the location of "Porthkerry Castle", and that this building itself replaced an earlier medieval building, perhaps a fortified manor-house or maybe even a castle. 


  1. Nice article Mark! How do you get access to the old maps you've referenced?

  2. Glad you liked it James. The Victorian OS maps are available to view on I found the other maps on a website called