Everybody in Pembrokeshire, and not a few beyond it, knows roughly what the Landsker is. In case you are one of those outside of Pembrokeshire who doesn't know what it is, it is or was the 'border line' running from Newgale in the west, through the fortifications at Roch, Wiston, Llawhaden and Narberth to Amroth in the east (actually the eastern limit is marked by Laugharne and its castle, in present-day Carmarthenshire).
A 'border line' is exactly what it once was. It was meant to separate the 'Englishry' of South Pembrokeshire from the generally less fertile 'Welshry' of the north. Landsker , thought to be a word of Norse origin, is usually translated as 'border', 'frontier' or 'divide', but in fact its original meaning is obscure. The 'sker' part of the word might in fact mean 'free from injury, harm, or molestation' or 'that part of the country under foreign control'.
There is no denying that North Pembrokeshire and South Pembrokeshire are different in character. Though the conflicts that marked the divide from 1100 to 1600 or even later are a thing of the past, there are certainly more Welsh-speakers in the north of the County than the south, and the landscapes of the more gentle south appear different to even the most casual visitor from those of the north.
So it is worth looking more closely at this divide and the reasons for it. Before the eleventh century, the county of Pembrokeshire and in fact the whole of Wales was free of settlers from abroad, save for the odd incursion of the Goidelic Celts from Ireland, the landing of a few Viking ships (particularly in North Pembrokeshire) and a raid or two across Offa's Dyke. Then, as everybody knows, the Normans landed in Pevensey Bay in 1066 and began their bloody conquest of what was to become England. Wales, however, was left largely alone - at first.
Even in later years there was no attempt at national conquest of Wales. Efforts were left largely in the hands of the freebooting border barons - the Marcher Lords - and in the eleventh century these concentrated their attentions on North Wales. The recognised ruler of South Wales or Deheubarth was Rhys ap Tewdwr. But Rhys died in 1093, and this was the signal for the Marcher Lords to extend their domains in South Wales.
Seeing the internecine fighting that had flared up among the Welsh princes after Rhys's death, Earl Roger of Shrewsbury moved westwards with conquest in mind. He extended his reach westwards from Montgomery - Montgomery Castle is named after the family lordship in Normandy - into south-west Wales. This he then entrusted to his youngest son, Arnulf.
Arnulf quickly built Pembroke Castle as his military base in Wales. At that time it was not much more than a rough stockade, not the formidable edifice we see today. Even the wooden motte-and-bailey construction probably was not erected to start with, and work was not started on the castle that we know today until near the end of the twelfth century, when William Marshall was in control of it. It was as well that Arnulf did build quickly. In the very next year of 1094 there was a revolt through the whole of Wales, and even the castle of Montgomery fell.
Pembroke Castle, though, did not. This was thanks to its superb defensive position on a promontory jutting out to sea, and to the resourceful leadership of its Constable, Gerald of Windsor. Pembroke Castle was to remain attached to the English Crown for ever after, even in the troubled times of 1215 under King John, when again it was the only castle in Wales to do so.
Arnulf must have felt just a little too secure in his new realm because he joined forces with his brother, Robert of Montgomery (Robert de Bellême) to rebel against the new king, Henry I, who had come to the throne on the death of his brother, William Rufus, as the new century dawned. This revolt was unsuccessful and short-lived. Arnulf was slain ingloriously, and Robert became his brother's prisoner for 28 years. It brought mixed blessings for Gerald. Siding with the King against Arnulf in the rebellion, he was allowed to build Carew Castle for himself afterwards. But it was nowhere near as defensible as Pembroke and it fell to Owain Cadwgan in 1109. Owain stormed the castle to seek - and receive - the favours of Gerald's wife, the famous beauty Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr.
The death of Arnulf in 1108 coincided with the event that has arguably most marked Pembrokeshire as 'different' in history. Encouraged by Gerald of Windsor, a large body of Flemings settled in Pembroke and in the countryside around as agriculturists and traders, almost entirely displacing the original native inhabitants. The area was organised as an English County, complete with a sheriff who rendered his account to the English exchequer. The area became Flemish- rather than Welsh- or English-speaking, so at that time it was a 'Little Flanders beyond Wales' rather than anything else. Later in the twelfth century, indeed, during the time of time of the devastating civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the colony was for all practical purposes independent from England.
The Welsh names of settlements were replaced by the family names of the new settlers - Johnston, Jameston, Reynoldston and so on (including some that have now disappeared, like Jordanston and Granston). Some words still in common use in South Pembrokeshire, like drang, a passage or narrow alley, and caffled - entangled - may have their origin in the Flemish language. Some other expressions like skew-whiff are not confined to Pembrokeshire but are probably more often used in the south of the County and derive directly from the Old Norman - in this case from eskiuer, oblique or slanting. Strangely enough this is from the same Norse root as one of the other meanings of sker - a sickle.
The wooden fortifications were eventually replaced by stone structures, and the Landsker became firmly established. The castles of Pembroke and Haverfordwest (just south of the Landsker) may be the most dominant buildings today, but castles like Roch and Llawhaden are actually on the line and are well worth a visit.
The reasons why the Landsker came into being may now be past, but few would argue that the character of the County is not subtly different in the north and south of the old frontier. Enjoy the difference.