On October 14th 1066, at the battle of Hastings, William Duke of Normandy effectively captured England in a single afternoon.
To protect his new kingdom from Welsh raids he established a series of marcher (frontier or boundary) lordships centred on Chester, Hereford and Shrewsbury. At the time, Wales consisted of several warring kingdoms. The Anglo-Norman lords and their mailed, mounted warriors were soon drawn into conflicts between the Welsh princes, for whom they initially acted as mercenaries. But over the next 200 years they colonized much of south and east Wales, the whole country coming under full Anglo-Norman control by 1283.
Over the centuries of fighting, the Normans built many castles in the invaded territory, acting as strongholds from which they could muster their troops and patrol the surrounding lands. But the Welsh were difficult to subjugate, and control of many castles passed back and forth from one faction to another
The Normans come to Cemais
In 1108 Cemais—the cantref around Nevern extending between the Preselis, Fishguard and Cardigan—was captured by Robert FitzMartin as part of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Pembrokeshire of 1108-1110. Robert already held lands in Devon, Somerset, and Normandy which he had inherited from his parents and stepfather.
This colonisation was orchestrated by Henry I, king of England and Normandy, a son of William the Conqueror. He granted the cantrefs of south-west Wales to loyal followers including both Anglo-Normans and Flemings. (Following flooding in their homelands, many Flemish were looking for new homes. Henry saw a chance to establish settlements of loyal followers by granting them lands in south west Wales.) Pebidiog remained under the control of the bishop of St Davids.
The historical record suggests that Cemais had previously been under the control of the Welsh lord Cuhelyn. (There is an alternative story, dating from the 19th century, that Robert’s father Martin was already in control of Cemais.)
Nevern was the secular and ecclesiastical centre of Cemais, which is presumably why Robert FitzMartin established his castle here, located on a defensible spur from which he could dominate the area.
The sixteenth century historian George Owen recorded that FitzMartin established a town of 18 burgage plots on this site, as well as founding the abbey of St Dogmaels, six miles away on the earlier Welsh monastic site of Llandudoch. Continued Welsh military activity included attacks on the castle at Cilgerran in 1109 (resulting in the capture of Nest, wife of the castellan). Attacks on Llandovery, Swansea and Narberth castles in 1116 led the Anglo-Normans to enhance their castle defences. In 1136, following the Battle of Crug Mawr, when Welsh forces recaptured Ceredigion, it is probable that Robert FitzMartin lost control of Nevern, although there is no written evidence to indicate who controlled Nevern and Cemais between 1136 and the 1170s.
Rhys retakes Cemais
From 1155, much of west Wales was under the control of the Welsh leader Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys). The conflict for the English crown between Stephen and Matilda (known as The Anarchy) meant few resources were available for Anglo-Norman lords to retake their Welsh lands until peace was established with the succession of Henry II in 1154. At Henry’s insistence, lands and castles were returned to their Anglo-Norman lords in 1158. But Robert FitzMartin died in 1159, with his son William still a minor. The Brut-y-Tywsogyon records that in that year ‘Rhys subdued the castles all over Dyfed which the French [Anglo-Normans] had built.’ So it is doubtful that the FitzMartins regained significant control at Nevern in this period. Welsh rule certainly returned when, in 1165, the Lord Rhys recaptured Cardigan and Cilgerran castles and associated lands. Nevern castle would have come under his control, if it was not so already.
In 1171-2, after reaching agreement with Henry II, the Lord Rhys was given the rank of Justiciar and allowed to retain his ancestral lands of Deheubarth, but required to return other lands to their Anglo-Norman lords. Lord Rhys acceded to this demand, but retained some influence in Nevern by marrying his daughter Angharad to William FitzMartin, Robert’s son, who then occupied the castle. The first recorded eisteddfod, which occurred in Cardigan in 1176, may have been held to celebrate this marriage.
In 1191, following the death of Henry II in 1189 and the departure of William FitzMartin on crusade with Richard I, the Lord Rhys captured Nevern Castle—ignoring his earlier oaths sworn on holy relics not to do so. Control of the castle then swapped back and forth between the Lord Rhys and three of his sons (Gruffudd, Maelgwyn and Hywel Sais), with the Lord Rhys being held prisoner in the castle by his sons during 1194 (probably in the basement of the Round Tower). Hywel subsequently took the castle from Maelgwyn by deception and released his father, who died in 1197.
Nevern after the Castle
It is recorded that in 1195 Hywel Sais slighted (destroyed) Nevern Castle to prevent it falling into Anglo-Norman hands. By 1204, Anglo-Norman forces had retaken control of north Pembrokeshire including Nevern.
A new castle and borough were established in Newport by 1204 and Nevern Castle disappears from the written record. By the 14th century, easy access to a town was much more important than military defences. While many towns improved their roads and took down their defences, some 12th century settlements were simply abandoned.
Even without the castle, the village of Nevern in the more comfortable valley below continued throughout the medieval period. The church of St Brynach was rebuilt in stone between the 13th and 16th centuries and Nevern was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to St David’s Cathedral. There was active quarrying and export of slate from Nevern in the 16th and 17th century, although by 1603 the local historian George Owen described Nevern as one of nine Pembrokeshire “boroughs in decay.” From the 13th century to the present day, Nevern has largely been a village supporting the local agricultural community.
The use of the Welsh language, personal and place names haves continued around Nevern and the parishes of north Pembrokeshire from prehistory to the present day—unlike mid and south Pembrokeshire, where English place names, personal names and language are most commonly used. The Landsker line—the name for the boundary that divides these two zones— reflects the 12th century displacement of the Welsh population of mid and south Pembrokeshire by Flemish and English Anglo-Norman settlers, as their languages began to evolve into what we know as English today.