Saturday, 23 July 2016

59 Oxwich Castle

59 Oxwich Castle - 23 July 2016 (photos: Oxwich Castle - 2)

In the 1980s novelist Susan Howatch settled in Oxwich, making that Gower village the setting for her 1984 saga “The Wheel of Fortune”.  Oxwich Castle, which is more of a fortified Tudor manor house than a mediaeval stone castle, was thinly disguised as Oxmoor.

But truth is stranger than fiction, for the castle was the scene of a noblewoman’s killing in the sixteenth century, and more recently a medieval gold brooch was uncovered within that may have belonged to a King of England.

Though Oxwich Church and the Oxwich Bay Hotel (formerly the Rectory, now much enlarged) are clearly visible looking west from Pennard cliffs, the castle is hidden among the trees.  It stands off the road that leads uphill from the village to the hamlet of Oxwich Green. 

The castle was erected on the site of an earlier castle in two stages, though there is no consensus on which part came first.  The late Bernard Morris favoured the impressive six-storey eastern block, which contained the hall of Oxwich Castle, being built first - by Sir Rice Mansel.  Born in 1487, after his father’s death Mansel had been brought up by his uncle in Swansea at The Plas, which stood where Castle Square is now, where the Ben Evans store was later built.  Above Oxwich Castle’s gatehouse a stone heraldic panel contains Rice Mansel’s initials, quartered with the arms of the Scurlage and Penrice families.  His third wife had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s eldest child, the future Queen Mary, and Mansel attained status and position under the Tudors.  The castle’s two-storey southern wing was probably added by his son Sir Edward Mansel, and when the family moved their main residence to Margam after the dissolution of the monasteries it was used as a farmhouse.

In 1949 the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works planned to lower the walls of the six-storey eastern block to the height of the two-storey wing, until campaigning by the recently-formed Gower Society caused the decision to be reversed.

For decades the castle was closed to the public while restoration work took place intermittently.  In 1968 workmen uncovered a gold ring-brooch dating from medieval times.  This 40mm-diameter brooch, with six elaborate settings, may have belonged to Edward II, and is now in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.  

Amid the storms of late December 1557 a French ship was wrecked on the rocks of Oxwich Point, and since Britain was at war with France local people had no compunction in seizing the cargo and detaining the surviving seamen.  When news of the shipwreck reached Swansea, Sir George Herbert, steward to the Lord of Gower and no friend of the Mansels, hurried to Oxwich with a group of armed men, determined to recover the booty.  They ransacked some cottages in the village to retrieve goods taken from the shipwreck, before moving on to the castle.  Sir Rice Mansel was absent, but his 28-year-old son Edward in a belligerent mood stood up to the demands of Sir George.  His aunt Lady Anne Mansel, possibly from Old Henllys near Llanddewi, endeavoured to calm the situation, counselling moderation and suggesting taking an inventory of French goods stored at the castle.  The group was about to withdraw reluctantly, when Watkin John ap Jenkin, one of Sir George’s men, flung a stone towards those by the gatehouse.  It struck Lady Anne Mansel, causing her death four days later. 

London’s Court of Star Chamber – so called because of the star pattern painted on the ceiling - had been established at the Palace of Westminster to enforce the law against prominent people whose influence might hinder an ordinary court from convicting them.  Sir George and his men were summoned before the court, and justice administered by fines, imprisonment, and the return of goods seized.

This intriguing castle, which opened to the public in 1995, is now in the care of Cadw.

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