Friday, August 3, 2012

Tretower Court and Castle Judith Arnopp

Tretower Court, Powys
I have lived in Wales for almost twenty years now and, although I am still stumbling upon new treasures, there are some places that I find myself returning to time and time again. One of my favourites is Tretower Court.  It sits in the green Usk Valley between Abergavenny and Brecon, seemingly untouched, timeless.
When compared with the tourist hot spots like Pembroke and Conwy castles the site is small but for me, the lack of gift shop and tearoom simply adds to the atmosphere. The noise of the traffic dwindles and all you can hear is birdsong and the sporadic bleating of sheep. Best of all, as the place is little known, there are occasions when you can find yourself there completely alone, with the ghosts of the past whispering in your ear. 

Tretower marks the period when castles were abandoned in favour of more comfortable, less fortified homes.  There are two distinct sites at Tretower, each as valuable in their own way as the other: the later medieval house and, two hundred yards to the north-west, the remains of the 12th century castle stronghold, the round tower being added later in the period.
Tretower Castle
Although the more domestic Court building was erected early in the fourteenth century later additions to the Tower suggest that the stronghold was not entirely abandoned at this time. Should the house have come under attack the inhabitants would simply gather up their possessions, round up the livestock, and head for the impregnable walls of the tower.
The earliest part of medieval house is the north range, which dates from the early fourteenth century. The masonry and latrine turret on the west end may even have been built as early as 1300. The four major phases of building can clearly be seen from the central courtyard as can the later modifications added as late as the seventeenth century. As you move through the building from room to room, duck through low doorways, climb twisting stairways and creep into the dark recesses of the latrine turrets you will know you are not alone. So much has happened here, so many people have passed through, so much laughter has rung out and so many tears have fallen. A very brief history of the place reveals a wealth of stories waiting to be told.

Tretower Court photo courtesy of  C. J. McEwen
The first building on the site was a motte and bailey raised by a Norman follower by the name of Picard. The property passed through the family’s male line until the fourteenth century when it moved, via the female line, to Ralph Bluet and then, again through the marriage of another daughter, to James de Berkeley.
His son, also James, became Lord Berkeley on the death of his uncle. Tretower was later purchased from James by his mother’s husband, Sir William ap Thomas. Sir William’s second wife, Gwladys, gave him a son, William Herbert, later the earl of Pembroke, who inherited both Tretower and Raglan Castle on his father’s death. Tretower was later gifted to William’s half-brother, Roger Vaughan the younger, around 1450.

Herbert and Vaughan both played an important role during the Wars of the Roses with William Herbert becoming friend and advisor to Edward IV. His career continued to prosper until he was executed in 1469 following the Yorkist defeat at Edgecote.
Roger Vaughan, who was responsible for most of the major reconstruction of Tretower Court, was knighted in 1464, and present as a veteran at Tewkesbury and finally captured at Chepstow. There, he was beheaded by Jasper Tudor in an act of vengeance for beheading his father, Owen Tudor, ten years previously. Tretower remained in the possession of the Vaughans until the eighteenth century when it was sold and became a farm.
Years of neglect and disrepair followed and it was not until the twentieth century that preservation and repair work began.
The Hall Tretower Court Photo by C. J. McEwen
I am not a great fan of reconstructions, although I do realise their value. Too often historic buildings are Disneyfied and their historic role trivialised but the restoration at Tretower Court is not like that at all, or not yet anyway. The work is totally sympathetic and the building maintains an elegance and integrity.  At the risk of spouting clichés it is like stepping back in time, one can almost hear the laughter of children from the orchard, the sound of a minstrel singing or the murmur of women’s voices from the gardens. 

Medieval Garden Tretower Court
The garden is as beautiful and as authentic as any I have seen is this country. Laid out and designed by Francesca Kay, it has a covered walk to keep the sun from the ladies cheeks, tumbling red and white roses, lavender, aquilega, foxgloves and marigold sprawl beside a bubbling fountain in the midst of a chequered lawn.  
I spent a long time here on a Sunday morning in July, wandering through the rose arbour, lingering in the orchard before returning to the house. As I progressed along the dim corridors I could almost hear the skirts of my gown trailing after me on the stone floors. I paused, and time was suspended as I looked through thick, green glass to the courtyard and garden below.
Tretower courtyard

 If you should have the good fortune to visit Wales, make the time to call in at Tretower and don't forget to bring a picnic and a blanket for I guarantee you will want to stay a while.

 More information about Judith Arnopp and her books can be found on her website:


  1. What a fantastic place! Definitely on my to-be-visited list. Thank you for sharing this, Judith! I enjoyed it very much!


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