Possible birthplace of Henry VII brought to light

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Recent excavation of the outer ward at Pembroke Castle by Dyfed Archaeological Trust revealed the foundations of a high-status domestic building. Could this be the birthplace of Henry VII? (IMAGE: Dyfed Archaeological Trust)

Excavations at Pembroke Castle in Wales have revealed the foundations of a large medieval domestic building within the outer ward of the complex. With the dig uncovering evidence for a slate roof with green-glazed ceramic ridge tiles, a curving staircase, and two walls measuring 1m thick, it would have been a building fit for a king. Indeed, Pembroke Castle expert Neil Ludlow, who carried out the project with archaeologists from Dyfed Archaeological Trust, believes that it might be the birthplace of the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

Henry was born at Pembroke Castle on 28 January 1457. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, had been taken there following the death of her husband three months previously, to be guarded by her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke. Legend has it that the future king was born in one of the defensive towers, but Neil suggests that this would have been a rather unlikely place for a noblewoman to give birth. With the buildings in the inner ward recorded as being in disrepair in the 15th century and previous geophysical survey suggesting that the rest of the outer ward was largely empty, it is possible that the recently excavated structure served as a high-status residence – and possible birthplace.

(IMAGE: Dyfed Archaeological Trust)

The building was known to exist before the current project: its wall-lines showed up strongly as parchmarks during dry spells, and it was partly excavated in the 1930s. This work, however, was not accompanied by any record, save for a couple of photographs and a short anonymous note in an archaeological journal, which mentioned spiral staircases, cobbled floors, and a cesspit. To learn more about it, two trenches were opened: one targeting the southern side of the building and the other cutting across its northern wing. The results suggest that it was a grand free-standing, double-winged hall-house, of late-medieval form (radiocarbon dating will hopefully be able to pin down a more exact age) that is likely to have been an elite residence.

Whether it was the birthplace of Henry VII or not, the location of the building is unusual and will fuel debate on the use of space within castles. Outer wards, in general, have not been studied closely, and it may be that others were of higher status than is normally thought – or, at least, that their use and status could change through time.

Further investigation is planned at Pembroke, during which it is hoped that the castle will give up more of its secrets, shedding additional light on these questions. The project was funded by Castle Studies Trust, with the support of Pembroke Castle, and the work was carried out with the assistance of numerous volunteers.

This article appeared in CA 345.

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