Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms

 

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The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

History Carnival 163: Around the World in Fifteen Blog Posts

cherokee_country_1900

A map of Cherokee country from History Imagined

Good morning, everybody! Today on DSH, we are thrilled to be hosting this month’s History Carnival, a moving showcase of some of the best new history posts from the previous month. We have a lot of great stuff for you from the ancient world to modern Britain, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and travel around the world with us in fifteen fascinating history posts.

China

On History in the Margins, Pamela Toler has a timely post about defensive walls in history, in particular, The Great Wall of China. While The Great Wall we know today was mostly constructed by the Ming dynasty in the Middle Ages, the walls’ first defenses were actually erected some fifteen hundred years earlier to keep out “barbarians” from the steppes.

Constantinople

On Military History and Warfare, Alexander Clark has an excellent review of Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East. While there are many history books about the Crusades, Frankopan adds to the discussion by considering the Byzantine perspective through analysis of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad, a history of Alexios’ reign through the eyes of his daughter. The review is an informative history post in itself, and I will be adding both Frankopan’s book and Military History and Warfare to my reading list.

England

Theresa Phipps has a fantastic post on law as it was applied to violent women in medieval England on The Dangerous Women Project. While it is still surprisingly difficult to find solid resources on the legal status of women in the Middle Ages, Phipps uses primary legal documents and court records to examine specific cases of women misbehaving and explains why women were viewed as particularly dangerous. “Law, Violence, and ‘Dangerous Women.’”

In “The Otherness of Now: Contemporary History via Berger & Sontag,” George Campbell Gosling continues the discussion of storytelling and the particular challenges of writing modern and contemporary history started by John Berger and Susan Sontag on Channel 4 in 1983. Where do we as historians start, if we don’t know how the story ends? How do we analyze events that are still taking place? https://gcgosling.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/berger-sontag/

la-dame-aux-camc3a9lias-72

Mucha, La Dame aux Camelias (1896)

Berlin

Ever wonder where the SS went for their vacations? No, me either. However, the story of the Wannsee villa is not just a bizarre look at a former Nazi holiday resort. The history of the villa is also intertwined with the fortunes of the Nazi party, from failed Putsch, to Final Solution, to Holocaust museum and archive. Sometimes walls can talk… The Wannsee Conference on Art and Architecture, Mainly

Paris & Prague

Brand new art blog Vermillion Goldfish made a splash (sorry) this month with its first post, an in-depth look at In Quest of Beauty, the latest exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work that explores the theory of beauty that inspired the artist’s iconic portraits that still grace stationary and paper the walls of dorm rooms the world over. So much more than a teaser, this post offers valuable insight into Mucha’s work and explains his personal perception of beauty. We may associate his models with theatrical costumes and gravity-defying hair, but for Mucha, beauty was all about idealized femininity and serenity of expression.

Spain

J.K. Knauss stopped by Unusual Historicals with the story of Maria de Padilla, the mistress of King Pedro of Castile. While Pedro was obliged to marry for political advantage, Maria was the love of his life. Often overlooked by historians due to her (ahem) position as mistress, Maria gave Pedro four children during his two failed marriages and spent her time founding convents and monasteries before she died of plague at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

Malta

Catherine Kullman looks at the extraordinary notebook of British naval Commander Charles Haultain R.N. on My Scrap Album. Over a twelve year period, Haultain filled the book with newspaper clippings, pop up pictures, poetry, and personal stories of his adventures in the Mediterranean from ages twenty-four to thirty-six, such as the time he thought he found the grave of Hannibal in Malta…

edward-hale-psyche-at-the-throne-of-venus

Psyche at Venus’ feet from “Love is a Monster”

Rome

Zenobia Neil guests on Writing the Past with “Love is a Monster,” a delightful post about love in the ancient world. Love in Rome was anything but romantic, where marriages were made and ended for the sake of political alliance and love was a debilitating madness. She uses the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass to argue that the dual love/fury aspects of Venus were effectively the same thing to a society that did not view love as a benevolent force, but rightly feared its potentially devastating power.

Sardinia…and Cherokee Country

On History Imagined, Caroline Warfield traces the Jacobite succession following Bonnie Prince Charlie to the House of Savoy in Sardinia. On the same blog, Linda Bennett Pennell writes about the daily lives of the Cherokee during the colonization of the United States in “When Being Civilized Was Not Enough.” History Imagined has years’ worth of fascinating social history archives and it’s well worth having a browse.

New York

If you’re out and about in upstate New York, you might consider stopping by Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown. Chris Clemens has an interesting post on Exploring Upstate about Sir William Johnson’s life from his position as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and his relations with the Mohawk tribe (he learned their language and married a Mohawk woman) to his being awarded a baronetcy and constructing Johnson Hall. Lots of great photos of a lovingly preserved Colonial mansion.

Chicago

Michelle Cox is writing the history of Chicago, one person at a time. Her latest post, “I Wanted to Be With People,” tells the life story of Erna (Hager) Lindner, an Austrian woman who immigrated to Chicago in 1925 at the age of nineteen. Erna moved to America on her own in pursuit of a boy from her church she had fallen in love with; three months after arriving in Chicago, she found him and married him. Michelle Cox’s blog is packed with compelling stories of the everyday people that make up Chicago’s colorful past and is a goldmine for anyone interested in early twentieth century social history, and may also be useful for those tracing their family history through Chicago. elizabeth_russell

Just for Fun

Anna Castle takes a look at the postures of monarchs throughout history from an ergonomic perspective in “How to Sit on a Throne.” See right, Elizabeth Russell looks a bit too comfortable with that footstool she has found…

10 Welsh Castles to Celebrate St. David’s Day

Today is the feast day of Saint David, the patron Saint of Wales. It is a public holiday in Wales not unlike Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland, and is celebrated with parades, festivals, and other cultural events. It is a day to celebrate Wales and Welsh culture around the world, so I thought I would share some of what I love about Wales with you today.

I was lucky enough to go to Swansea University for both of my degrees and I lived in Wales for seven years. There are so many things I love about Wales that it would be difficult to summarize in a single blog post, so I’m going to focus on one of my favorite things: the castles! 

As I’m a historical romance author with a degree in Medieval History, it might not surprise you to hear that I love castles. If you like castles, too, you should know that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country on earth, and they’re all beautiful with dramatic locations and fascinating history. I got to visit many castles and other historical tourism attractions around Wales as a freelance journalist, so I have built up quite a collection of photos and Cadw brochures. Although I haven’t seen every castle in Wales yet, I do have my favorites, and I thought I would share those with you today. 

In honor of St. David’s Day, here are ten of my favorite castles of southern Wales:

10. Hay


Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye is one of the last surviving castles of the Welsh marches. Built for defense by William de Braose in the late twelfth century, it was sacked by the last Prince of Wales, Llewelyn II in 1233. It was rebuilt by Henry III, and in 1660, the Jacobean mansion Castle House was built alongside it. Although it has been damaged by fire twice in the last hundred years, there’s still much to see, and parts of the 18th century formal gardens can still be seen. Today, the castle is owned by the Hay Castle Trust, an organization devoted to the conservation of this historic monument. Preserving Hay Castle will take a lot of work, and the Trust has a vision to make the a center for education and culture. You can learn more about them here

It’s well worth a visit, and not only for the history: Hay-on-Wye has a yearly festival of arts and literature visited by hundreds of thousands with lots of great guest authors. The town itself is the National Book Town of Wales and has more than two dozen bookstores, many specializing in used and rare books. 

9. Oystermouth


The first castle on this site was built in 1106 by William de Londres after Gower was captured by the Normans. Ten years later, it was burned by the Welsh of Deheubarth when they retook the Gower peninsula, and again in 1137 after it had been rebuilt. Henry III expelled the Welsh from the Gower in 1220 and gave it to John de Braose who at last built it in stone. Edward I even visited in 1284. The chapel was later improved by Aline de Mowbray, and much of it still stands today (see one of the fourteenth century windows, above). Oystermouth is located just outside of Mumbles, overlooking Swansea Bay, and has recently undergone a massive refurbishment by the National Assembly for Wales. Updates include a thirty-foot high glass viewing platform and bridge through the chapel to the windows on the other side. 


8. Weobley


Weobley Castle is a fortified manor house overlooking the Llanrhidian Marsh built more for comfort than defense by the de la Bere family in the twelfth century. While the walls are not what they once were (I climbed them) perhaps due to Owain Glyndwr’s attack in 1403, the castle was built with many comforts, including private rooms, fireplaces, decorative windows, and multiple indoor toilets! 

7. Margam


Margam Castle is really a Victorian country house built between 1830 and 1840 during the Gothic Revival for Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot. It was designed by Thomas Hopper and Edward Haycock Snr. David Evans-Bevan bought it in 1941, but found it too large to live in, so the castle fell into disrepair. Restoration began after it was damaged by a fire in 1977. Today, the castle hosts ghost tours and is a popular setting for ghost hunter TV shows. Episodes of Doctor Who have also been filmed here. 

6. Laugharne


Now little more than a beautiful shell, Laugharne has a long and complicated history. The first castle on this site was built in 1116 by Robert Courtemain and served as the place where Henry II and Rhys as Gruffudd agreed to a treaty of peace in 1171. Rhys ap Gruffudd later burned it down in 1189 when the castle was retaken by the Welsh of Deheubarth after the death of Henry II. Rebuilt in 1215 by the Normans, Laugharne was promptly captured by Llewelyn the Great and destroyed in 1257 by Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. Although Sir John Perrot converted it into a Tudor mansion in the late sixteenth century, it suffered further damage by cannon fire in a week long siege during the Civil War, after which it was left as a romantic ruin. 

In more recent years, the castle has served as a place of inspiration for artists and writers. Here Richard Hughes wrote Hazard, and Dylan Thomas wrote his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. The nearby boathouse was home to Dylan Thomas and his family from 1949-1953 and still has much of original furniture. Well worth a visit! 

5. Carew


Carew Castle stands on a limestone bluff that has been used for military purposes for at least 2,000 years. The first stone keep was built on this site in 1100 by Gerald de Windsor. The castle was expanded almost continuously until the Carew family fell on hard times during the Black Death and it was mortgaged. Rhys ap Thomas expanded the castle again with luxurious Tudor apartments. Carew reverted to the crown in 1531 when Rhys’ grandson was executed for treason by Henry VIII. Like Laugharne, it was acquired by Sir John Perrot and completed. The castle was repurchased by the Carew family in 1592 after Sir John Perrot died out of favor in the Tower of London. Although it was refortified by the Royalists during the Civil War, much of it was pulled down by the local Parliamentarians it was abandoned during the late seventeenth century. There’s still plenty to see, though, and the grounds also contain Wales’ only intact Tidal Mill built in the early nineteenth century. 

Oh, and it’s haunted by a monkey.

4. Pembroke


Begun in 1093 by Arnulf de Montgomery, Pembroke has withstood sieges and survived the Civil War. Henry VII was born there in 1457. Enormous and wonderfully intact, Pembroke Castle is like a full-sized playground for adults. There are enough rooms, halls, and staircases in wonderful condition to keep you busy for hours, including the massive drum tower built in by none other than William Marshal (sigh!). You can climb the stairs and even sit on the top if you’re brave, or try not to look down if you’re not! There are few places where so much history is so accessible. It is without a doubt one of the best preserved castles in Wales. 

3. Cardiff 

Although parts of Cardiff Castle are medieval or even Roman, much of what you see today is the result of a nostalgic fever-dream that Bute had in the 19th century and built with the help of mad genius William Burges. This idea we have of the middle ages being particularly romantic is a result of hundreds of years of rose-tinted propaganda dating back to the early Arthurian Romances, and it hit a high point when the Industrial Revolution set people yearning for simpler times.

One of the best things to come out of this was the Arts & Crafts movement, and Cardiff Castle has some truly spectacular examples of art and art-architecture from it. I’ve been several times, and have never had the same tour twice. Here’s a bonus picture of the library:


2. Caerphilly


Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Britain. The only one bigger is Windsor! Built in the thirteenth century by Gilbert de Clare, it introduced concentric castle defenses to Wales and boasts “the most elaborate water defenses in all of Britain.” Situated on an island surrounded by artificial lakes with fortified dams, Caerphilly withstood several attacks throughout the fourteenth century and eventually fell into disrepair until it was restored by the Bute family in the eighteenth century. Beautiful as it is well-designed, Caerphilly is a wonderful day out and can even be rented for weddings and other parties. Several episodes of Doctor Who have been filmed here, too! 

Some of Caerphilly’s defenses:


And the hall:


1. Raglan

Of all the castles I’ve seen, Raglan may be my favorite. A fifteenth century castle in the Welsh Marches, Raglan is a newer castle than many in Wales, but is no less stunning for it. Sir William ap Thomas started it in 1432 and building continued under his son, William Herbert, the first Welshman to be made an earl. Expansions were made through the 17th century until the civil war. It resisted Cromwell’s army during a thirteen-week siege before it was surrendered and dismantled by parliament.

Enough of it remains that it’s well worth a visit. The hillside setting is beautiful in the summer, and swallows dart around the moat catching insects. As lovely as it is now, you can tell that it was stunning when it was still in use. If you have ever have the chance, be sure to see it. At only thirteen miles away from Tintern Abbey, you can’t beat it for location.

Bizarrely, the land Raglan was built on had previously belonged the Earls of Hereford following the Norman Invasion. I find this a particularly strange coincidence not because of the location (come on, Hereford is right there), but because there is an Earl of Hereford in my novels. By the time I’m writing in the 1670s, the title had gone extinct.

Happy St. David’s Day!