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Excavation at Welsh Castle May Shed Light on the Mystery of Henry VII’s Birthplace

Archaeologists say the Tudor king was likely born in a high-status residence in the castle’s outer ward

Pembroke Castle's outer ward, seen from the south. (Mario Sánchez Prada)
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Henry VII, the man who would one day unite a fractured England and establish the mighty Tudor dynasty, was born at Pembroke Castle, in Wales, on January 28, 1457. But the precise location of his birth is a matter of contention; reports over the centuries have suggested various spots amid the castle’s sprawling grounds.

Now, as Dalya Alberge reports for the Guardian, archaeologists conducting an excavation at Pembroke think they have identified the building where Henry VII came into this world more than 550 years ago: a grand, free-standing, double-winged house in the castle’s outer ward.

The structure was first unearthed during an excavation in the 1930s, but finds from this dig were not documented, leaving contemporary archaeologists somewhat in the dark. In 2013, an aerial survey revealed crop marks indicating a large, medieval building at the site. Jon Williams, the manager of the castle, tells the Tenby Observer that the markings were particularly pronounced this year, due to an unusually scorching summer that revealed historic sites throughout England, Ireland and Wales.

Archaeologists were keen to excavate the strcuture because they suspected it had an intimate connection to Henry VII, who brought an end to England’s War of the Roses when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. According to lore, Henry was born in a tower of the castle’s outer ward, which is now known as Henry VII Tower, but this isn’t very likely; in 2016, consulting archaeologist Neil Ludlow, who conducted the current excavation with the Dyfed Archaeological Trust (DAT), explained that the tower was defensive, and since Pembroke was likely garrisoned during the 1450s, it would also have been filled with soldiers.

“It is unlikely that [Henry’s mother] Lady Margaret Beaufort, a high-status relative of the resident earl, gave birth to her first child in such a martial, and masculine setting,” Ludlow told James Hoare of History Answers.

Some have suggested that Henry VII was born in one of the domestic buildings in the castle’s inner ward, but Ludlow said these structures largely served an administrative function by the time the future king was born. The unexcavated building in the outer ward, believed to be a high-status residence, was therefore seen as the most likely candidate for Henry VII’s birthplace. In fact, in the 1530s, the Tudor antiquarian John Leland visited Pembroke Castle and wrote: “[I]n the outer ward, I saw the chamber where Henry VII was born.”

Archaeologists from the trust undertook a two-week excavation of the site earlier this month in hopes of shedding some light on this historical mystery. The dig, though far from conclusive, lends credence to the team’s suspicions that the structure was, in fact, an elite residential building. Archaeologists found cobbled floors, green-glazed tiles, the curving stair of a spiral staircase and some of the building’s thick walls. The team estimates that the structure was “about the size of two tennis courts,” Alberge reports. The residents of the building also appear to have been eating well. The excavation unearthed a garbage pit filled with oyster shells, according to DAT.

“[G]rand buildings of this particular kind are unusual in castles, and particularly in outer wards which are normally thought to have contained the more lowly buildings associated with everyday castle life,” Ludlow writes for the blog of Castle Studies Trust, which funded DAT’s project. “It means that the outer ward, at Pembroke, may have been ‘gentrified’ – at least in the fifteenth century. This may make sense of historical accounts which place the birth of the future king Henry VII in the outer ward”.

James Meek, who headed the excavation for the DAT, tells Alberge that the structure of the building is consistent with houses from “the later 15th-century period,” when Henry VII’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, took over Pembroke. Ludlow, the other archaeologist involved in the excavation, said that he believes Jasper Tudor may have commissioned the house to serve has his personal accommodations when he visited the castle.

Meek tells Will Hayward of Wales Online that archaeologists “can probably never prove the exact spot [where Henry VII] was born.” But moving forward, they plan to conduct analyses on the remains of the building to confirm that they date to the latter medieval period, when Henry VII lived.

"We won't know for certain until the analysis is done,” Meek says. “However everything is pointing towards that.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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