Discover the Fascinating History of Tenby

Jun 13, 2022

Accommodation in Tenby

Today, Tenby is famous for its golden beaches and warm Welsh hospitality. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find it has a fascinating history stretching back thousands of years. It’s fair to say that life has not always been so rosy in this picturesque Pembrokeshire town. Pirates, plague, ghostly goings-on . . . there are so many stories to uncover as you stroll through the cobbled streets. We hope our potted history gives you a flavour of the town’s rich heritage. For more in-depth information, we highly recommend a visit to Tenby’s award-winning museum on Castle Hill.

From Fishing Village to Fortress Town

With its natural sheltered harbour and dramatic cliff tops, it’s no surprise that Tenby attracted settlers as far back as the Iron Age. Later, in the early medieval period, it became a Viking fishing village; the name Tenby means ‘little fortress of the fish’.

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Tenby braced itself for another new era. By the early twelfth century west Wales had been overrun by the Normans, and Tenby was recognised as a town with strategic importance, well placed to defend itself against Welsh claims to the land. Tenby Castle was built by the mid-1100s, high on a hill overlooking the town.

Devastating attacks by the Welsh proved that the castle’s defences were inadequate, and in the late-1200s William de Valence, 1st Earl of Pembroke, ordered the construction of the Tenby town walls. Large sections of these imposing Grade 1-listed walls survive to this day. Chart House is inside the ancient town walls – you can walk to them in just a few minutes.

Tudor Tenby

During Tudor times Tenby was a busy and prosperous port. In the mid-1400s Jasper Tudor, uncle to Henry Tudor, ploughed money into the town, overseeing improvements to its defences.

Henry Tudor fled to Tenby during the Wars of the Roses and hid with his uncle in a dark underground chamber (believed to be beneath what is now Boots the Chemist on the High Street!). Henry was just 14 years old at the time. Smuggled out through underground passages – which still survive today – Henry boarded a ship and escaped to Brittany. He returned to England via Pembrokeshire in 1485 to become King Henry VII and founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Later in the Tudor era an unusual cargo arrived in Tenby harbour: the first shipment of oranges ever to be seen in Wales was brought in on a Portuguese ship, La Nossa Signora, in 1566.

You can discover more about Tenby’s astonishing Tudor history at the Tudor Merchant’s House on Quay Hill, one of many National Trust properties in the area.

Civil War and Marauding Pirates

The English Civil Wars raged during the mid-1600s, and Tenby was the site of several brutal battles between Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. Cromwell’s troops eventually seized the town in 1648 and the Royalists retreated.

Just two years later a devastating outbreak of plague ravaged the town’s population, killing at least 500.

Pirates and smugglers marauded the Pembrokeshire coast in the 1700s, and Tenby’s bays and beaches were a popular rendezvous for illicit trade. The ghost of American pirate John Paul Jones is said to haunt Caldey Island.

To hear more about pirates and ghosts, don’t miss the brilliant Tenby Walking Tours run by local Blue Badge tour guide Marion Davies.

Transformation into an Elegant Tourist Resort

The Georgian era saw a boom in tourism and Tenby was one of the original ‘staycation’ destinations. It was popularised as a spa town thanks in part to investment by businessman and politician Sir William Paxton, who saw the potential for ‘a fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society.’ Look out for the blue plaque on Laston House, Castle Square, which records the sea water baths built by Paxton in 1811.

It was during this time of Georgian prosperity that Chart House was built. We believe the town house would have been home to a wealthy businessman or local dignitary, perhaps connected with the shipping industry given its proximity to the beach and harbour.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, Tenby’s popularity continued to grow. In 1897 the Royal Victoria Pier was built, and quickly became a favourite calling place for steamers from nearby resorts. Sadly the pier was demolished by 1953, having fallen into disrepair during the Second World War. The RNLI lifeboat station now stands on the site of the original pier.

Tenby Today

So much of Tenby’s remarkable architecture and heritage has survived to the present day. Ancient defences, medieval timber-framed houses and beautiful Georgian terraces make this a breath-taking tourist destination. Couple this with the area’s natural coastal beauty and it’s no wonder that Tenby continues to flourish.

Chart House is the perfect base from which to explore all the quirks and charms of this unique location. We hope to welcome you very soon!


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