Castle Square, at the intersection of High Street and Wind Street is the nexus that connects every part of Swansea city centre.
Heading off in each direction from the square, which was once home to a beautiful gardens, you’ll find either the bars and pubs on offer in Wind Street, the shopping experience of Oxford Street, or the transport hub of Swansea railway station further up High Street.
The castle that gives the square its name was built there for its prominent position overlooking the River Tawe, which used to meander by the modern-day Parc Tawe retail park, before it was diverted past Sainsbury’s.
In its time the square has been a place of celebration, devastation, and regeneration and has seen its fair share of violence, including hangings and armed clashes.
Looking at it now, a wide expanse of concrete with a fountain at one end and a massive TV screen in a corner, you might not realise it has such an interesting story to tell.
12th and 13th centuries – Foundations and rebellion
Swansea Castle, the remains of which stand sentinel above the square to this day, was founded by Norman Nobleman and friend of King Henry I, Henry De Beaumont, in 1107.
Granted the Lordship of Gower a year earlier in 1106, Henry soon set about building a timber fortification on the site adjacent to Castle Square along the classic motte and bailey design of Norman-era castles.
It is likely that Castle Square in its earliest form was an Anglo-Norman settlement covered in burgage plots, characteristically long and narrow pieces of land which included a house and narrow street frontage.
Wares would have been peddled from the shops by craftsmen and a “burgage tenure” paid to the local lord as a form of rent.
Castles are built for a reason and in its earliest form, the fortification and the square in its shadow, were under constant threat of attack.
The timber Swansea castle is recorded as being attacked by Welsh forces in 1116 when the outer defences were destroyed.
Another assault came in 1192, when Rhys Ap Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth, besieged the castle. However, after 10 weeks of siege and starvation, the defenders survived and the siege was broken.
Welsh forces attacked the castle’s palisades again and again in subsequent attempts to capture it until they were finally successful in 1217.
It was was then returned to the English in 1220 as part of an agreement between Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Henry III of England.
In the 13th Century, Castle Square was swallowed up by the castle and became part of its outer ward, encircled by a protective stone wall.
The older timber structure was replaced by a stone fortification sometime between 1221 and 1284.
14th – 17th centuries – The “robber baron” and expansion
As the area around Castle Square secured itself as the administrative centre of Swansea in the early 14th Century, a bitter dispute between the Lord Of Gower, William de Breos III, and his tenants played out there as grand new buildings began to spring up around the square.
A court of inquiry into William de Breos III, nicknamed “the robber baron” was convened at Swansea Castle in 1306.
De Breos was a controversial figure locally and nationally and he had been getting on the wrong side of influential people – namely the King and the Bishop of Llandaff, with whom he had disputed.
His latest clash was with his Gower tenants. After a flurry of complaints over how De Breos was governing, three royal judges held an inquiry into the matter at Swansea Castle.
The accusations against De Breos ranged from falsely imprisoning his tenants to forcing loans from them, denying them proper justice and forcing them to drop legal proceedings against him.
After the inquiry, the Lord of Gower issued two charters to redress his tenants and grant them new privileges.
Read the incredible story of one man hanged twice on the orders of William de Breos, who lived to tell the tale.
In 1585, legal activity moved across the square to the newly-built guildhall.
Tudor-queen Elizabeth I was sat on the English throne when the two-storey stone building was built. For the next two centuries, the guildhall in Castle Square would become the centre for justice and government in the heart of Swansea.
The structure included a court room and a gaol and misbehaving locals would have been humiliated in the stocks outside the building in Castle Square.
The accused of Swansea would learn their fate in the Tudor Guildhall until 1829, when a new guildhall was inaugurated in Somerset Place – where the Dylan Thomas Centre is today.
During the civil war of 1642-51, which tore the British Isles in two between those who supported the royalist or parliamentarian cause, the guildhall became the home of a gunpowder magazine to supply Swansea’s gun emplacements.
It was built in the ground floor of the old guildhall in Castle Square and cost £15 16s and 9d. Swansea switched hands between the royalist and parliamentarians but was finally held for the parliamentarians by Governor of Swansea, Philip Jones of Fonmon.
18th – 19th centuries – Commerce and prosperity
In 1684 part of Swansea castle was leased from the Duke of Beaufort to found a glassworks. Robert Wilmott of Gloucester set up the joint-venture with John Man of Swansea.
There is still a record of the historic lease which refers to: “That parte of the Castle of Swanzey which hath been lately converted into a Glasse house.”
Castle Square, with its central location and protection from the castle, had long been a draw for commerce, starting with the medieval burgage plots.
Swansea history examined:
In 1773 Swansea’s corporation established a shambles (meat market) in the castle garden behind the Tudor guildhall. Granted by an Act of Parliament its aim was to condense the butchers’ stalls that clung to the walls and filled the streets around the castle, which had become a health hazard.
Apparently, the people of Swansea and the traders did not take to the new home and the shambles was an abject failure.
A huge boost to Swansea’s financial clout came in 1826 when it saw off competition from Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff to become home to a regional branch of the Bank of England, which was built in Temple Street overlooking Castle Square.
Find images from Wales past here:
Swansea was one of 11 ‘Branch Banks’ established around the UK. The agent of the bank, Brecon banker John Parry Wilkins, said in 1832 that Swansea was “a small place” though it was “surrounded by a large manufacturing district.”
At the time the population of Swansea was around 12,000 and its economy was built around markets, a port, metal works and colliers as well as being considered a seaside resort.
Sometimes called the Glamorgan Bank, the highly successful venture sadly went into decline in the 1850s before closing in 1859. The business from Swansea’s Bank of England branch was transferred to Bristol.
In 1836, Castle Square resumed its role as a centre for law and order in Swansea with the founding of the Swansea Borough Police Force.
Part of the Tudor Guildhall was converted into the town’s first police station. In the 1840s, the police headquarters moved to a new police station on the corner of Temple Street and Goat Street before shifting again to Tontine Street in 1874.
Swansea’s medieval guildhall was finally demolished in 1856 and its rich history turned into rubble. Two years later, in 1858, a grand new head post office building was built on the site.
It operated as a post office until 1900 and was then used as the base for the offices and printing press of the South Wales Evening Post before it too was demolished in 1976.
20th century and beyond – Devastation and renewal
From 1894 onward you couldn’t visit Castle Square without noticing Wales’ first large department store, Ben Evans & Co.
Mr Evans opened a small shop in Castle Square in the 1870s and gradually bought up more of the surrounding block to open Ben Evans department store in 1894.
The store was a mainstay of shopping and put Swansea on the map until it was destroyed during the Three Nights’ Blitz in 1941.
On three consecutive nights in February, 1941, the German Luftwaffe mounted a relentless bombing campaign which levelled forty-one acres of the town centre and killed over 200 people, injuring over 400 more.
You can find out whether your street in Swansea was bombed during World War Two here.
Many of the Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings in the centre of Swansea were burned to the ground by incendiary bombs and high explosives, including the much-loved Ben Evans department store in Castle Square.
After the dust had settled and the rubble cleared, Swansea Council made the decision to keep the square as a public space, as it had always been in one way or another.
Castle Square gardens with its planted beds and paths was opened in June, 1953, to coincide with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Opinion was divided in the 1990s when the decision was made to develop the gardens into the amphitheatre-style, grass-less seating area it remains today.
An ornate fountain was added as the focal point of the square and a £40,000 stainless steel and glass sculpture of a leaf was installed in 1995.
But surrounding it, things continued to change – the David Evans store on the corner of Princess Way vanishing and later being demolished to make way for the new-build development incorporating Zara and Slaters, and many other businesses changing hands to become something new.
As of 2020, another chapter in Castle Square’s history is set to open with a new consultation on the area’s future set to be opened by Swansea Council.
In what might come as a relief to fans of the old Castle Square gardens, the council said: “The council wants to transform the location into a space that captures the charm of the original Castle Gardens, providing a pleasant public space where visitors will want to spend time and relax.”
The history of Castle Square is the history of Swansea and it continues to be a hub in the city to this day – only time will tell what the future holds for the historic site.