One thing’s for certain: you can’t miss Raglan Castle.
If you’re coming by car or coach, the castle ruins loom over the A40, one of the trunk-roads connecting the Welsh towns of Abergavenny and Chepstow with the borders of England.
Even today, the ruined castle evokes some of the magnificence and grandeur of its heyday – back in the c17th.
Raglan has a rather checkered history – it started life, in late Medieval times, as a real fortified castle. However, being built during a peaceful period in the English/Welsh border wars, it didn’t see much military action. As a result, it evolved into a breathtakingly beautiful Tudor manor-house.
Then, ironically enough, the English Civil War came – and the grand fortified manor of Raglan was at the front-lines of a lengthy siege and armoured bombardment. The castle sustained significant damage in the war – and was ‘slighted’ (intentionally destroyed) after battle ended.
Nowadays, the vast ruins of Raglan are extremely impressive: but a shadow of the castle’s former glory. I visited in Winter 2012, and here’re some of my photos and impressions from the visit.
Rather than provide an extensive history, I’m going to focus on three sections of the castle: the Great Tower, the Gatehouse, and the Tudor Oriel Window. I’ll use these three parts of the castle to illustrate three crucial periods in Raglan’s history.
The Three Ages of Raglan Castle
The ruins of Raglan are quite vast, although it isn’t truly a ‘medieval’ castle. Builders laid some of the original fortifications back in late Medieval times, but the majority of the castle was built in the Early Modern period – intended as a grand country mansion.
As a result, different segments of Raglan were built at different times, and this is quite evident as you approach the castle. After you proceed through the entrance kiosk and shop, two elements at the front of the ruins vie for your attention.
The first of these is the Great Tower (or Keep); and the second is the highly impressive Gatehouse (flanked with hexagonal towers, and easily the most photographed part of the castle).
The Great Tower would once have been the crowning glory of Raglan Castle: and it’s a good spot to first focus your attention.
The Military Might of Raglan’s Great Tower
Looking at the Great Tower today, what you’ll see is a more-or-less four storey, grand circular tower; which is surrounded by a murky-green, shield-shaped moat. Today, one entire side of the tower is destroyed; giving you a glimpse of the layers of rooms and chambers once held inside.
The Great Tower and moat stand alone outside the castle – like a sentinel guarding a palace. To reach the Tower, access today is via a modern wooden bridge from the Eastern Gate to the main ruins – but c15th visitors would have used a bascule drawbridge – a design infrequently seen in Britain.
It’s easy to see, then, that the Great Tower represents the strongest and most secure part of Raglan – and, chronologically, it was one of the original elements, built back in about 1435.
There’s some conjecture if the Tower was built upon an existing Motte and Bailey earthworks – a modern fortification of an existing stronghold – or if the location was plucked from an architect’s imagination. Either way, the Tower demonstrates everything that was needed in a Medieval fortification: a self-contained assembly of living rooms; kitchen and hospitality quarters; wrapped in a protective apron wall and moat, and studded with arrow-loops for defence.
Evidently, the more modern segments of Raglan Castle mushroomed around the Great Tower, but the Tower’s strength and purpose remained intact throughout its existence. Successive owners – such as Sir William Herbert – could effectively move into the castle and ‘pull up the drawbridge’ if they wanted peace and quiet.
The sheer height of the tower – in its heyday, it measured five stories high (nowadays, it’s three-and-a-bit) – granted Raglan a touch of prestige and a defensive advantage. The tower could be seen (and was a vantage point) across vast swathes of the Welsh countryside – and, today, the views are still jaw-dropping.
The downfall of the Great Tower came during the English Civil War. The Tower was bombarded extensively from one side; and then, when Raglan fell to the Parliamentarians, the forces attempted to destroy it to prevent future Royalist use. Workers managed to hack off the upper layers with pickaxes; but the tower was stronger than they, and so ended up entirely undermining the foundations – leading the collapse you see today.
The Beginnings of Grandeur: The Importance of Raglan’s Gatehouse
The second significant period in Raglan’s history is exemplified by the Gatehouse. The Gatehouse is easily the most photographed spot of Raglan Castle – and that’s certainly because those hexagonal towers and pointy machilations (battlements) have a story-book quality.
The attractive grey brick paneling is somewhat unusual – the pale, grey-yellow sandstone is a graceful contrast to the blood-red brick used elsewhere in the building. The facade of the tower is almost tiled in these bricks, and the result is a finish more commonly seen on the continent than in mainland Britain.
Aside from the finish, the Gatehouse design appears defensive, too: the construction includes two portcullises, a drawbridge and numerous arrow-loops; but these features were more likely to demonstrate strength than to be used in battle. That’s because the Gatehouse was built in 1462 – during the third wave of Raglan’s construction, well after any military threat had subsided.
During 1460 to 1470, Raglan castle became reborn as a noble castle-mansion. As well as the Gatehouse, Sir William Herbert added the main features of the castle – elements of the large Cobbled Court behind the main Gatehouse; the incredible Fountain court to its left; and the chapel and parlour rooms.
Whereas the Cobbled Court was a focus for everyday domestic life (housing the kitchen and buttery, for example), the adjacent Fountain Court acted as the centre for prestige and entertainment – the state apartments, chapel and later library were build around this focus of privileged life.
Evidently, the purpose of the castle had shifted dramatically – from military outpost to noble home. And the design of the Gatehouse helped fulfil this aim. It was the architecture of grand pretensions – a breath-taking entrance to the building, highlighting the social importance of Raglan’s owners.
The Third (and final!) Age of Raglan: The Tudor Oriel Window
There’s one final part of Raglan Castle which I’d like to focus upon: the sad grandeur of the mighty Tudor Oriel Window, which would have been one of the most magnificent features of the c16th and c17th castle.
If the foundations of grandeur were laid in the 1460s, the flourishing touches were added in the from 1549 onwards. And, although it requires a bit of imagination today, the Tudor Oriel Window would have been one of the most majestic features of the castle – a grand stained glass masterpiece allowing dappled light to flood into the newly-built Hall.
During the c16th, Raglan Castle was owned by the Earls of Worcester – and they lavished money to create a truly grand country home. The Earls created the grand Hall, connecting the Cobblestone Court with the Fountain Court; and an extremely grand Long Gallery – an upstairs corridor used to demonstrate the power and prestige of the noble family.
Outside the castle, they landscaped a series of water-gardens and even a bowling lawn: completing the image of a perfect country house.
The Tudor Oriel Window, towards the end of the new, hammer-beamed hall, was a particularly lofty achievement. This delicate window would have been filled with the finest stained glass and would have allowed light to flood onto the raised stage (dais) at the end of the hallway. This dais would have been reserved for the most important guests at dinner.
This window has a particularly poignant significance, too. Raglan Castle was besieged during the English Civil War, as the Earl of Worcester was a staunch Royalist. He picked the losing side, and the Parliamentarians laid siege to the castle in 1646.
It’s said that the noble family watched from this window in terror as the final defences of the castle fell, and Raglan was besieged.
The result of the civil war was the deliberate destruction (slighting) of the castle – which saw hundreds of precious manuscripts, paintings and antiques being engulfed in flames. It also reduced the castle to the ruins we see today.
Visiting Raglan Castle Today: Tips and Advice
If you’d like to visit Raglan Castle today, you’ll almost certainly need your own transport – the castle’s located on a minor slip-road leading off from the busy A40.
The castle is presently managed by Cadw – the Welsh heritage conservation body. They’ve built a sizeable gift shop at the castle gates, and there’re also toilets located in the castle.
There’s a working farm next door to the castle, which is home to an excellent tea-room – the Raglan Castle Cafe. The cafe’s been nicely done up and a balcony with outside-seating affords beautiful views across the nearby farmland. Don’t miss having tea and a welsh-cake here!
If you’d like to stay nearby, your best bet is to stop in Abergavenny – a very pretty Welsh town that’s about 20m drive. Alternatively, you’re less than an hour from the bright lights of Cardiff.