Medieval Pembroke

The castle, at the western end of the town, was originally an earthwork. In its shadow grew a town which quickly became the military and administrative centre of south west Wales.


From the Pembroke Murals by George and Jeanne Lewis

The new Norman settlement was threatened because the indigenous Welsh were constantly attempting to regain their lands and repel the Norman invaders. Pembroke Castle held firm: it was never to fall to the Welsh.


Royal Charters

In 1130 Pembroke was granted a charter of privileges by Henry I (unfortunately no copy exists); and this was followed by a second charter under Henry II which confirmed “to my burgesses of Pembroke all their liberties, immunities and free customs as freely as they had them in the time of King Henry, my grandfather.

Under the terms of these charters all merchant ships were required to report to the customs house in Pembroke, making it the centre of trade for the whole of the Milford Haven Waterway.

During the first year of his reign (1199) King John granted a new charter to the Borough of Pembroke, confirming the one made by his father in 1154. He also gave Pembroke Castle mill to the Knights Templars.


Little England Beyond Wales

In order to secure this area still further Henry I, as well as encouraging English settlement, encouraged the arrival in Pembroke of Flemish settlers, many of whom had come over to England some time before. It was claimed that England contained so many of these Flemings, who had come over due to Henry's father's marriage to his Flemish wife (Henry's mother), that the country was overburdened with them. These newcomers soon mastered the English language because their own tongue was very similar; and they settled in villages to which they gave English names. The Welsh language was displaced entirely, so that even today this part of Pembrokeshire is called “Little England beyond Wales”. Arguably, in an act of ethnic cleansing the Welsh were turned off their land to make room for the influx.


Growth of the Town

As Pembroke grew in size people demanded protection; not only was the castle strengthened but walls were built around the thriving town. The present day walls were built during the mid- to late-thirteenth century when the Earldom of Pembroke was in the tenure of William de Valence and his wife Joan, who had inherited it from her grandfather William Marshall. Pembroke originally possessed three gates – East Gate, West Gate & North Gate. While some parts of the town walls still remain, sadly the gates have gone.


Remains of the old West Gate
View of the end of the old houses of Westgate. This piece of the Town Wall is all that remains of the old West Gate.

Until about 1820 Pembroke still retained the impressive North Gate on the nearby South Quay.

Unfortunately the North Gate impeded the growing traffic (in the form of horse drawn vehicles), and was demolished.

The North Gate
Barnard's Tower

Each tower along the perimeter of the town walls was the responsibility of a local feudal lord. The lord of Carew was responsible for the north-eastern tower of the circuit, called Barnard’s Tower, and the Lord of Manorbier guarded the East Gate.

Nothing remains of East Gate.  

In its Mediaeval heyday, we see the founding of the borough, the granting of privileges to the burgesses by the Crown, and marked population growth until a total of about 228 burgage plots had been taken up. Many present-day houses and gardens within the old walls of the town stand on the sites of these medieval burgage plots.


Royal Visits

In 1172 Henry I stayed in Pembroke on the eve of the Irish Invasion, and on his return.

In 1210 King John appeared in Pembroke, having previously sent a large force there by sea. He summoned the Flemish soldiery to South Pembrokeshire to meet him at Holy Cross. Most likely this was the cross which stood outside the east gate of Pembroke, near a hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalen and later to be known as Marlan’s Chapel (Fenton). It is said that Kings Bridge is so named because King John's army camped there at this time.

King John appears to have made this journey to Pembroke en route to Ireland in pursuit of William de Broase and William's wife Maud de Broase. Maud was captured and sent with her eldest son to Windsor where, so it is said, they were starved to death.



1349 Disaster Strikes - The Plague

Bubonic Plague

In 1349 a severe epidemic of bubonic plague hit Britain.

The heavy death rate in Pembroke devestated the town and wiped out whole families. Many houses fell into ruin, trade declined, and the economy stagnated.

Even in 1540 the antiquary John Leland was to write of Pembroke “the est suburbe hath been about as great as the town, but now it is totally yn ruine”.


The period of expansion was brought to an end. As the new age, represented by the rise of the Tudors, dawned, Pembroke was suffering a severe economic and plitical depression.