Swords Castle & Courtyard is open to visitors Monday to Friday 10am - 6pm
Swords Castle, Main Street, Swords.
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Located in the centre of the ancient town Swords Castle is a former residence of the Medieval Archbishop of Dublin. The extensive complex of buildings is in the form of a rough pentagon of 0.5 hectares and is enclosed by a perimeter wall of 260 meters.
The castle was constructed in a piecemeal fashion over a period of 400 years and became one of the eight manorial estates belonging to the medieval Archbishops of Dublin. Parliaments are even said to have been held in the great hall of the Castle. Swords Castle is the only fortified residence of the Archbishop of Dublin to survive in a reasonable state of preservation. The Castle is currently under restoration, the work is being carried out by Fingal County Council and FAS.
Swords Castle contains over 800 years of history and, as a recent surprising discovery of burials beneath the gatehouse shows, it has yet to give up all of its secrets. The castle was built by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Comyn, around 1200. It was not a castle in the accepted sense but an Archbishop’s Palace and administrative centre.
It is a National Monument, and it is the best surviving example of an Archbishop’s Palace in Ireland. The curtain walls enclose over an acre of land that slopes down to the Ward River. This complex of buildings is made up of many phases of reuse and redesign reflecting its long history and changing fortunes.
This tower was built during a period of fortification after the 1450s making it one of the later buildings on site. The War of the Roses was raging in Britain and the inhabitants of the Pale, the English-controlled lands around Dublin, were under considerable pressure. By this time it was normal for the archbishop’s manors to be protected by curtain walls and a tower.
Constables Tower was restored between 1996 and 1998 by FAS trainees. A new roof was added. The plank and timber beam floors are made of oak from trees that were saved from Newbridge Demesne. Beside the chambers which contain new fireplace is a Garderobe. A chute would take the waste outside the east wall. Traditionally clothes were hung in the Garderobe as the ammonia from urine would prevent moths and kill lice.
There were buildings along the high ground to the east which are likely to be the oldest part of the complex. The buildings near the Chapel are known as the Archbishop’s Apartments. A decorated medieval tiled pavement was uncovered here during excavation in 1971. Dating to the 14th century similar tiles have been found in Mellifont Abbey and Christ Church Cathedral.
The Chapel is an unusually large chapel even for an archbishop’s residence. During the 1971 archaeological excavations a silver coin of Philip IV of France (1285-1314) known as a denier tournois was found near to the bottom of the north wall of the building. This suggested an early 14th century date for its construction. Burials were also uncovered outside the chapel and within the Archbishop’s apartments.
Since 1995 the chapel has undergone extensive reconstruction including the addition of a new roof. New tiles were made based on those found during the 1971 excavations. New windows were inserted and new timber gallery was added showcasing the tradition craftsmanship on site. If you look up at the timber where the timber beams meet the walls there are a series of craved heads-these are based on the people working on the site at the time and include the faces of the foreman and the architect.
The Chamber Block
Linked by a doorway from the timber gallery is the Chamber Block. Also largely reconstructed since 1995, it has a new roof, stairs, repaired walls and new parapets. It contains three floors of accommodation. At ground floor level, the undercroft was used for storage. Above this and entered by an external wooden stairs was a chamber probably used as a waiting area for visitors. On the second floor was the archbishop’s private chamber or solar where he entertained his guests.
The presence of a gatehouse was known from the early 12th century when the constable William Galrote, was said to have been murdered ‘at the gate of the court of Swords’. Architectural evidence indicated that the present gatehouse is a later addition and this was confirmed in 2014 when burials and a sunken structure were found beneath it. In all seventeen burials of men, women and children were found. An unusual burial was that of a woman buried face down, a token not far from her right hand. These excavations were undertaken as part of the work to stabilise the Gatehouse wall.
The Knights & Squires
Originally a three storey building it went through several stages of rebuilding. An account of 1326 described it as ‘a chamber for the constable and four chambers for knights and squires’. Under these chambers was a stable, bakehouse, dairy and carpenter’s workshop.
The account of 1326 makes out that Swords Castle was in bad condition at the time and in need of repair. However this may have been a deliberate attempt to play down the wealth of the archbishop. At the time Archbishop Alexander de Bicknor, a powerful, wealthy and by all accounts difficult man was accused of fraud and a formal Inquisition into his wealth was also undertaken in 1326.
The Archbishop’s Palace
Although medieval archbishops were military men as well as men of the church, Swords Castle was always a manor house and administrative centre, rather than a serious defensive construction. It is more likely the walls kept livestock in, rather than armies out.
Swords was one of at least six manors encircling Dublin which were visited by the Archbishops to oversee their spiritual and material interests. The wealth and status of the Archbishop of Dublin was reflected in the luxury of their surroundings with decoratively tiled floors, rich wall-hangings, gold and silver plate and fine furniture.
Life in medieval Swords Castle
In the 14th century, Swords manor was almost twice the size of the average manor in the Dublin region. It provided almost half the archbishop’s annual revenue, which is comparable to an income of £6 million today. Swords Castle was the centre of administration for this income. Taxes and tithes were collected with money, grain and livestock being used as payment. In 1193 Comyn had established an eight-day annual fair from the feast of St Columcille on the 9th June, which generated revenue.
A weekly Monday market took place outside on the main street. All of this combined with the inspection of weights and measures, doling out of fines, setting and collection of rents and hearing petitions from the tenants and traders, mean that Swords Castle and its surroundings were a hive of activity.
Decline of the Archbishops
Dubious leasing practices during the 1500s led to a decline in the value of the archbishop’s properties and despite the local Barnewall family having an interest in the tenancy, Swords Castle fell into ruin. In 1583 Sir Henry Sydney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, placed forty Protestant families fleeing from persecution in the Low Countries, into Swords Castle. He wrote that it did his heart good to see how they repaired the ‘quite spoiled old castell’. It is not known exactly when the castle passed out of the ownership of the Archbishops of Dublin.
Orchards and the Cobbe Family
Although there was a garden within the castle in the archbishop’s time, it was the 18th century before Swords Castle is first described as possessing an orchard. The Cobbe family of Newbridge House, Donabate who bought Swords Castle after 1830, used the land for farming and planting an orchard. Although details of the type of orchard are unknown, demesnes of the time grew cherries, pears, damsons and plums as well as apples. The oldest surviving apple tree is near the Chapel. It is an Old Bramley dating from the 1890s.
Restoration & Conservation
Dublin City Council obtained the castle from the Cobbes in 1985. Restoration works began here in the 1990s. The curtain walls, the Constable’s Tower and the Chapel were reconstructed as part of a FÁS scheme which provided training in masonry and carpentry for local people.
In order to protect Swords Castle into the future, a programme of repair and conservation works is also being undertaken now. Repairs to the Gatehouse, which will secure safe access, are a priority. It is hoped that the castle will become a focal point for the town and centre for public events.
Fingal County Council published Swords Castle Conservation Plan in 2014. This details the history and development of the castle, explains its significance and provides a policy framework for the future care and management of the castle. It is available on www.fingal.ie
Swords Castle: Digging History
Starting in Heritage Week (22nd August- 11th September) this year a community archaeology project will be undertaken by Fingal County Council. Three cuttings will be opened to investigate anomalies that had showed up in previous surveys. Everyone is welcome to come and try their hand at being an archaeologist.
John Comyn (pronounced Cumin) was the first Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Dublin. He succeeded Laurence O’Toole in 1181. Keen to expand the income of his estate, John Comyn established a new town. Beforehand the town of Swords was centred on the ancient church of Columcille on the other side of the river.
The new main street, with its property plots known as burgages, was aligned to the castle. In order to attract settlers the same trading and tax privileges as those of the citizens of Dublin were offered. In return the burgesses paid an annual rent of 12 pence and undertook certain labour services such as harvesting the archbishop’s hay and repairing the mill pond. Swords grew to become one of Dublin’s largest boroughs and became known as the Golden Prebend, such was its wealth.
In the absence of the archbishop the manor of Swords was governed by a Seneschal or Constable. They had their own court of justice where they could try all crimes except forestalling, rape, treasure-trove and arson. Punishments were public in stocks or pillories. A visitor several hundred years later in 1838 noted that the stocks were still in front of the castle but now used as a roost for the village poultry.
The curtain wall is 300m long and shaped like a pentagonal. It is between 3m and 10m in height. It measures an average of 1m in width. The walls are made of limestone calp. The mortar is a lime mortar. The scaffold holes known as putlogs indicate the walls were done in 2m section. Some of the stone decorating the windows and arches known as Dundry stone was quarried near Bristol. Medieval pottery recovered from the excavations was also imported from Bristol.