Whereas the mighty castles of North Wales were built by Edward I to gain and maintain order in that part of the country, the more southern castles in the Welsh Marches were constructed after the Norman Conquest by order or agreement of William I to subdue the troublesome inhabitants of the region. The word March derives from the French “marche” or “border” (medieval Latin Marchia Wallie) and designates the area loosely round the border between England and Wales where Marcher lordships were established and where these men had considerable independent powers. The term “March of Wales” first appears in the Domesday book of 1086. Marcher lords such as William FitzOsbern, Roger de Montgomerie and Hugh d’Avranches were expected to contain and rule over their areas with a degree of autonomous power. Early castles were mostly wooden motte and bailey structures which were later replaced by stone for strength and invulnerability.
This imposing castle dates from 1067 onwards and was clearly designed to reinforce the new conquest by its commanding position and by its being the first one to be built in stone. Earl William FitzOsbern, one of the staunchest supporters of William I, is credited by many historians with the construction of the rectangular Great Tower at Striguil (Chepstow) and Archdeacon Coxe quotes from Domesday; “Castellum de Estrighoiel fecit Wilhelmus Comes”.
In 1189, the castle passed to William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, the “flower of chivalry” who married the de Clare heiress, Isabella, the daughter of Richard “Strongbow”. He and his 5 sons updated the outmoded castle and Roger Bigod transformed the domestic arrangements in the later 13th century, including the sumptuous tower which later held Henry Marten, regicide, as prisoner. The beautiful and complex doors, now stored on a staircase, have been dated by dendochronology as 800 years old.
White Castle (so named either because of the white plaster of which traces can still be seen or because the site was originally owned by Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed, whose first name means “white” in Welsh.) Again it may have been William FitzOsbern who started the building, and it forms a triangle, whose sides are approximately 5 miles long, with Grosmont and Skenfrith, but White is the largest and best preserved of these Three Castles. They were brought under single ownership by King Stephen in 1138 and stayed that way until the early 20th century.
White was never developed as a domestic residence and retains a military feel in its isolation. At one point it was re-orientated by 180 degrees so that the visitor now enters via the old rear – and safer – ward where the garrison camp plus animals and refugees could be housed. There are the ruins of the original small squarish stone keep but the stronger round towers projecting from the curtain walls and the twin-towered gate-house represent a more modern movement in castle design. It is unusual amongst Welsh Norman castles in having its outer bailey largely intact.
Rudolph Hess was brought here to exercise during his internment in WWII and a visitor may also like to know that there is a fascinating medieval moated site nearby called Hen Gwrt (Old Court) which was probably the manor house of the Bishops of Llandaff.
Raglan Castle is at the other extreme being largely a nobleman’s vast home with little military pretension, though the Twr Melyn Gwent (yellow tower of Gwent) could be held in case of battle. It is a 15th century fortified palace in the French style with its hexagonal towers and was built by a father-and-son team, Sir William ap Thomas (knighted by Henry VI) and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. It had a Fountain Court with domestic apartments, glass windows and fireplaces as well as a showy second-floor gallery which would have been heated and hung with panelling, portraits and tapestries. Later a moat walk was added with busts of Roman Emperors in niches fashionably decorated with shells along with elaborate gardens, ponds, orchards and deer. Being a comparatively late castle, it enjoyed relative peace and represents a transitional period between forts and manor houses.
During the Civil War the aristocratic Catholic and wealthy Marquis of Worcester, Henry Somerset, gave nearly a million pounds in financial support to King Charles and was therefore a prime target for Roundhead attack, being hit on the head at dinner by a musket ball. He joked about this but finally surrendered after the arrival of the mortar, Roaring Meg, and Sir Thomas Fairfax on 7th August 1646. There was a bloodless outcome after a 10-week siege and the Marquis left, pleading for the safety of his 2 young pet pigeons. Instructions were given for the castle to be completely destroyed but this did not happen and it was decided instead to slight it and render it incapable of any military function: it was undermined and all traces of aristocratic life such as books and fish in the ponds were eradicated.
Usk Castle, Goodrich and Caerphilly
Usk Castle was described by the ubiquitous Archdeacon Coxe who said that “no castle in Monmouthshire has been subject to more frequent assaults”, the main battle being the one at nearby Pwll Melyn (yellow pool) where the forces of Owain Glyndwr, led by his son, were decisively defeated in 1405. After that his rebellion lost strength and petered out. Usk Castle is comparatively small, family-owned and charming.
Goodrich Castle is another castle which was involved with strife throughout its history, being at a strategic position between Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth. Its site may have been part of an Iron Age hillfort, the smallish keep is early Norman, the barbican has a similar design to that of the Tower of London and the gate-house has one tower larger than the other and would have boasted portcullises, drawbridge and murder holes. There was a chapel and luxurious large domestic buildings of which the Solar is still impressive. Of particular interest is the powerful mortar, Roaring Meg, built nearby, which helped in the surrender of Royalist forces, as did – perhaps – the fact they were down to their last 30 barrels of beer and 4 of gunpowder.
Caerphilly Castle is also interesting for its weapons, replicas of Medieval siege engines: a trebuchet, a mangonel, a perrier and a ballista. They are housed in the ward of the largest castle in Wales, if you take the surrounding artificial lakes into account. It was built by “Red” Gilbert de Clare, a man of enormous wealth and fiery hair, rising at incredible speed between 11th April 1268 and 1271 to counteract the political and military threat posed by Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd to the Marcher lords of South-East Wales. Its function as a fortress was comparatively short-lived though it had a lasting influence on castle design as its concentric form was the precursor to that of the North Welsh castles of Edward I. It was connected with many outstanding royals and individuals, including the infamous Hugh le Despenser, the younger. His lavish efforts on the Great Hall are a visible statement of abundant hospitality and do not tax the imagination as much as the ruins of other castles.
There are several others in this vaguely defined area including Cardiff Castle which is fascinating but mostly Victorian apart from its Norman motte, Caldicot Castle and Ludlow Castle. With less to see nowadays but of historical interest are Monmouth Castle, birthplace of Henry V, and Abergavenny Castle, scene of the Christmas massacre by the villainous William de Braoze. There is a high concentration of castles in this area, tokens of the fighting spirit of the Welsh – the Romans had trouble in this region with the Silures but were perhaps more successful at controlling them from fewer fortresses because of their methods of integration.
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