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 the Norman invasion of Glamorgan began. Robert Fitzhamon and his legendary twelve knights are alleged to have landed at Porthkerry bay in the late eleventh century, and from there went on to conquer Glamorgan from its native Welsh ruler, one Iestyn ap Gwrgant. The story narrates that Fitzhamon fought and defeated Iestyn near Cardiff and promptly stole his lands keeping the most fertile tracts for himself and dividing the rest up among his twelve knights.  The story has been in existence since at least the fifteenth century although probably the most well known version was written in the 1560's by Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats in his work The Winning of the Lordship of Glamorgan out of the Welshman's Hands, and 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. 

                       (Early view of Porthkerry before landscaping)

Another local legend based upon 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 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. It seems highly unlikely that there was ever a castle on Castle Rock, but if one looks beneath the veneer of legend it does 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, note a 'Porthkerry castle' which suggests that there was indeed a castle in the vicinity of Porthkerry. However, confusingly, most early antiquarian sources 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 noted was a ruin by the time of his visit. It seems unlikely that Leland, 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, or a castle like structure, 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 Bristol Channel floods, although the disaster has been likened to a tsunami, and it is estimated that a wave of varying height, approximately 16 ft high when it reached Glamorgan, wreaked havoc along the Welsh coastline and is said to have destroyed Porthkerry Castle and left us with Castle Rock as we see it today.

(Contemporary image of the Bristol Channel Floods thought to be depicting Nash church near Newport)

Later maps of Glamorgan dating from latter part 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 its namesake, 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-enfeoffed or demesne manor to nearby Penmark; its church dedicated to St Curig, was included in the Norwich Taxation of 1254 and the Taxatio of 1291-2.  The village of Porthkerry provides a realistic antecedent for a castle setting.

(The medieval church of St Curig)

There is no building within the village of Porthkerry however that resembles a castle. This is not to say that a castle or a castle like structure 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 (fee).

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 constituted a cheap and readily available source of dressed stone for newer constructions; a good example of this occurrence is to be found at Cosmeston medieval village. 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 has ever 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, which is unlikely as there is no tradition of any castle ruins within the village of Porthkerry, and if there were any surviving castle remains they would have attracted the attention of one of Glamorgan's gentlemen antiquarians who would have no doubt recorded it for posterity, or a building that was erroneously labelled a castle.

(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 (Church) Farm. This building dates to the late fifteenth or early Sixteenth Century and is thought to have been originally built to house the village's incumbent priest.  It is possible that this building was built on the site of or in the near vicinity of an earlier building of medieval origins, perhaps a small fortified manor house resembling a castle, 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.  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". 

                             (Detail of arched doorways within Glebe Farm)

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 Court, which frequently appears in historical documents as 'Flemingston castle', and Dunraven 'castle'.  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, yet often carried the appellation of 'castle'.  Based on the evidence it is possible that the late medieval 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 small castle, the name of which survived long after the building vanished. 


  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