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Castle, Museum, Prison

Haverfordwest Castle

Records suggest that the castle was built originally by the Flemings in around 1120.

For over fifty years it would have been a mainly timber structure with the rectangular keep in the north eastern corner being the only stone building.

In 1188 Gerald of Wales, born locally in Manobier and royal clerk and chaplain to Henry II, visited the castle whilst recruiting for the 3rd crusade under Richard the Lionheart, and mentions in his writing that the castle already boasted stone walls.

Much of this work, already undertaken by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, was carried on by William Marshal on being given the castle by King John in 1210.

Marshall’s work paid off in that in 1220, Llewellyn the Great, prince/king of most of Wales, attacked Haverfordwest and despite burning the town, failed to take the castle.

The biggest transformation came following a visit of Edward 1 and his queen Eleanor (of Castile) whilst on their way to St Davids in 1284. Eleanor, an acquisitive soul, declared that she wanted the castle and Humphrey de Bohun, then part owner, had little option other than to gift or sell his share to his queen.

Eleanor borrowed £407 in order to radically alter the castle, introducing the huge windows that we still see, which transforms the structure into more of a residence than a fortress. A small area just outside the walls on the eastern side is still referred to as, ‘Queen Eleanor’s Bower’; ‘bower’ being an old term for garden. Eleanor had little chance to enjoy her new acquisition; she died in 1289 whilst accompanying her husband to Lincoln. The thirteen beautiful memorial structures erected where her body lay overnight on the journey back to London are known as the Eleanor Crosses.

Further attacks came against the castle in 1405 when at the behest of Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr (1349-1415), French forces landed in Milford Haven and again burned the town without securing the castle.

By 1558, at the point of Elizabeth I ascending to the throne, the castle was already being described as being decayed and derelict, but ninety years later it was still considered sufficiently strong enough to be used during the Civil War. Following the Battle of Colby Moor, on the outskirts of the town, in 1645, the defeated Royalists retreated here and attempted to make a stand in the castle. There was not however much of a fight, and the Royalists surrendered.

When Cromwell arrived in 1648, on his way to take Pembroke castle, (being held for the Royalists during the Second Civil War), he decided that this castle had to be slighted, which meant demolished to a point whereby it couldn’t be used as a defensive structure.

There were a series of letters, now famous and still in existence in the Pembrokeshire Archives, in which the mayor and councillors pleaded that they couldn’t afford the gunpowder necessary, with Cromwell replying to give them permission to raise the rates to pay for it. He also told them that if they didn’t comply, he would billet several companies of his army in the town... which was something that the mayor and townspeople certainly didn’t want.

The town council watched Cromwell disappear off to other trouble spots, having taken Pembroke, and made a lacklustre attempt to blow up one of the towers, hoping that he wouldn’t check on their progress. The townscape would have been extremely different to that which we know if they had followed their orders to the letter.

By the late 18th century, the main prison was located in the inner ward. It was such a poor structure, that it led to an outcry by those involved with social reform.

During 1797 some of the French soldiers who had formed part of the infamous French Invasion at Fishguard, and subsequently been taken prisoner, were incarcerated here. By 1815, the conditions were an embarrassment even to the authorities. An outbreak of scarlet fever, resulting in many fatalities, triggered a decision to build the huge prison in the outer ward in 1820.

State of the art designs and ideas were incorporated into the new building and a treadmill was erected in the inner ward. It had room for 12 prisoners and had a function of allowing corn to be ground, but the main reason was punishment. A woman had to do 10 turns before being allowed a rest and men had to perform 15 or 16 turns.

The building ceased to be a prison in the 1870s and the whole site became the county police headquarters. It remained as such until 1962 when a new police station was built on Merlins Hill (Haverfordwest).

With the site empty for the first time, there followed radical alteration with a considerable amount of demolition and a complete overhaul of the gaol building to create a county museum and Records/Archive facility.

With both of these services having been moved to other buildings the building is once again empty and unused.

An attempt was made to purchase the site with a view to building a ‘bijou’ hotel complex on it but it came to nothing. Haverfordwest Civic Society and the Town Council launched an attempt to have the area registered as a Village Green which would have protected it, but the County Council contested the attempt and in a public hearing lasting two days in October 2013 the Village Green application was defeated.

In July 2010 a plaque commissioned by Haverfordwest Civic Society was unveiled at Haverfordwest Castle by Sir John Roch (President of the Society) and The Hon Robin Lewis (Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed). The plaque set in stone in front of the Old Gaol commemorates the 900th anniversary of the founding of the town and lists those considered (by Haverfordwest Civic Society) to have been its most famous sons and daughters, or to have had the most impact on the town.

Haverfordwest Town Museum is well worth a visit and is located in what was the Prison Governor’s residence.

As you leave the castle, go through Queen’s Square once again but turn right into North Street. Alternatively, if you wish a shorter route, turn left immediately that you leave the castle and follow the narrow lane (with many steps) down into the town.


Base map from