We have for a long time been interested in the myths, legends, folklore and history of our hometown of Barry and the Vale of Glamorgan and have written extensively on these subjects in our books and on our blogsite.
One such legend that has repeatedly piqued our interest is the legend of Castle Rock, Porthkerry. Castle Rock is a rarely seen outcrop of lias stone that only becomes visible during very low tides within Porthkerry Bay and for a long time has been cited as the site of Porthkerry Castle.
The origin of the legend is rooted in a natural disaster that occurred in the early seventeenth century.
In the year 1607 a tsunami devastated much of the coastline of the Bristol Channel killing many people and destroying many buildings-notably St Mary’s Church in Cardiff. A wave of approximately 16 ft in height hit lowland Glamorgan hard and wreaked havoc along the Welsh coastline. According to local legend this tsunami is said to have swept away Porthkerry Castle and left us with Castle Rock.
We were keen to dig deeper and learn more about Porthkerry Castle, but the written records appeared to show very little regarding this mysterious building. The tsunami is well attested to within the historical records, the same however could not be said about Porthkerry Castle.
We were left wondering, did Porthkerry Castle ever exist beyond legend?
After numerous fruitless searches our detective work finally paid off, and we found some concrete references to a Porthkerry Castle on a number of old maps, and a single literary reference by Glamorgan antiquarian Rhys Meyrick in his 1578 publication A Booke of Glamorganshire Antiquities, in which he lists a Porthkerry Castle as ‘bordering neare the sea-Coast’.
Early maps 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 a castle in the vicinity of Porthkerry. We also discovered that numerous maps referred to a Porthkerry Castle after the date of the tsunami meaning that the Castle Rock legend cannot be relied upon as fact.
It is likely that the tsunami lingered on within local folk memory long after it occurred and was eventually ascribed as the cause of Porthkerry Castle’s disappearance. Porthkerry Bay was for centuries home to a small port-the port of Ceri. Castle Rock must have been a well-known shipping hazard to the mariners who once landed at the port of Ceri during the preceding centuries. It is perhaps at this time that the legend of Castle Rock was born.
Despite the maps providing some convincing clues, what we also found was conflicting evidence as the majority of written sources, namely early antiquarian accounts made no reference to a Porthkerry Castle.
John Leland (1503-1552) 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 at 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. Antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623) also makes no mention of a Porthkerry Castle.
Could the cartographers perhaps have been alluding to the nearby Bulwarks Camp as being Porthkerry Castle?
This idea seems plausible enough considering that the series of ditches that comprise this Iron Age monument might have been interpreted by some in the preceding centuries to have been the remains of a castle.
However, the etymology of the word castle in relation to such structures appears only to have begun proper in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when a popular interest in the medieval past of Britain began to flourish within the Romantic and Antiquarian movements.
An interesting comparison can be made with Hopkin’s Mount in Sully. This Iron Age-Romano British settlement is also situated on a promontory near the coast and exhibits a similar series of earthworks, yet it has never (to our knowledge) been called a ‘castle’. Llantwit Major too contains a prominent Iron Age coastal settlement, known locally as ‘Castle Ditches’ (a likely Victorian appellation), however, an examination of the Tudor and Stuart period maps of Glamorgan does not show a ‘Llantwit Major Castle’.
If the Bulwarks Camp earthworks was seemingly well-known enough to have been included by early cartographers on their maps as ‘Porthkerry Castle’, why then did Leland et al not make note of this curiosity? It also seems unlikely that Rhys Meyrick would have regarded this Iron Age enclosure as a castle.
A plausible location for Porthkerry Castle – if it existed, is that it was located somewhere near its namesake, the village of Porthkerry. The origins of the village of Porthkerry are obscure-but it is likely that Porthkerry began its existence during the medieval period as a manor related to nearby Penmark.
Many medieval settlements throughout lowland Glamorgan contained a small castle or fortified manor house such as existed at Barry, Wenvoe and Cogan. The medieval village of Porthkerry thus provides a realistic antecedent and setting for a castle.
There is however, no building within the village of Porthkerry that resembles a castle-nor is there any tradition of a castle ever existing there. This is of course not to say that a small castle or more likely a fortified manor-house structure did not exist, as most nucleated settlements within Glamorgan during the medieval period would have contained such a building where the incumbent lord or steward would have resided. For example, we know that Wenvoe and Cogan villages contained a fortified manor house-or ‘castle’, which by the sixteenth century were in an advanced state of ruin and decay, and which have over the subsequent centuries vanished, their locations lost. Could the same thing have happened to Porthkerry Castle?
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cartographers had ceased to note Porthkerry Castle on their maps. Could Porthkerry Castle have been in existence until the mid to late eighteenth century? It is possible-but seems unlikely, as any surviving castle remains would probably have attracted the attention of one of Glamorgan’s antiquarians or piqued the attention of passing tourists, who would have no doubt recorded it for posterity. Perhaps some later cartographers simply relied upon earlier maps for information rather than actually visiting the places they depicted and represented on their maps.
There is one more scenario to consider, and that is the possibility that the village of Porthkerry contained a building that was erroneously labelled a castle.
If this scenario was the case, then there is one other building in the village of Porthkerry 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. 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 the village of Porthkerry, if they even took time to visit, is because the building they saw simply did not look like a castle but resembled a prosaic looking sixteenth 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.
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 were not castles but rather were houses belonging to their yeoman or gentry owners. Many post medieval mansions however, were built on the site of a medieval castle which had previously occupied the same ground. The appellation of ‘castle’ it seems lived on through these later buildings. Could this have been the case with Porthkerry Castle?
It is perhaps possible that the late medieval farmhouse at Glebe Farm is the actual location of ‘Porthkerry Castle’, and that this building itself replaced an earlier medieval building, maybe a small, fortified manor-house (or castle), the name of which survived long after the building had vanished.
Given that our research has produced several different theories it is difficult to draw any certain conclusions to this historical mystery, and if anything, serves to ask more questions than to provide answers. Is the Bulwarks camp the location of Porthkerry Castle? Did Porthkerry Castle crumble to dust during the late medieval period? Did Glebe Farm carry the name, at least for a time, of Porthkerry’s erstwhile castle? Or did Porthkerry Castle ever exist at all? Perhaps in the future we will find new clues, but the chances are that we will never know for certain, but there are certainly enough theories to keep us wondering. We will leave it to the reader to decide for themselves.
This article was adapted from our 2012 work ‘Porthkerry Castle and The Legend of Castle Rock’, which can be found on our blogsite Hidden Glamorgan.