Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle is one of the first generation Norman castles in Wales, built in the wake of William the Conqueror's conquest of England and what parts of Wales and Scotland he could snatch. The Welsh didn't like being snatched, though, and thus William had to erect a number of castles in the borderlands, the Marches, as defense as well as base for further conquests.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Chepstow was the administrative centre of the Marcher lordship of Striguil. During those years, the castle had been expanded and altered, but the first keep still stands.

Outer Gatehouse and Marten's Tower (to the left)

King William gave the task of organising the border defenses to William FitzOsbern lord of Breteuil, his steward and now his chief military strategist. Like most of the noblemen in William's entourage, FitzOsbern also got lands in England and the title of Earl of Hereford. In 1067, he started the construction of Chepstow Castle, situated on a limestone cliff above the river Wye, and before his death in battle in 1071, he probably built the rectangular keep, the oldest secular stone building in Britain (albeit the date is not undisputed). Post Roman, I should add, because his masons used some Roman stones, probably taken from the ruins of nearby Caerwent. His son Roger plotted against King William and ended his days in prison; his estates were forfeited.

Remains of the Great Tower, seen from outside the castle

In 1115 King Henry granted Walter fitz Richard of Clare the lordship of Chepstow Castle. Walter didn't seem to have altered the castle in any way, but he is known as founder of nearby Tintern Abbey. The de Clare family held Chepstow until 1176 when it fell to Isabel, still a minor, and thus to the Crown. In 1189 Isabel married William Marshal Earl of Pembroke who became lord over the vast de Clare estates, including Chepstow Castle. Quite a career for a knight of fortune.

Southern curtain wall with one of the round towers

William brought the outmoded 11th century castle up to date. Well, he had the money and the experience to make Chepstow a formidable fortress. He rebuilt the east and south walls as proper curtain walls, and added a gatehouse with two round towers projecting outwards. Those had arrow slits from where the defenders could cover the area directly in front of the wall. No fun hauling siege ladders up when the air is full of pointy things. William had seen those new features, esp. the round towers that were to replace the former square design in France, and they would spread in Britain as well. A second line of defense was added between the lower and middle bailey, again with round towers, and it is to be assumed that William also added better accomodation than the old keep would have provided. In a last step, the curtain wall of the upper bailey was heightened and William constructed a square tower for himself and his family to live in. Since it was located in the uppermost corner of the castle, it would have provided some privacy.

The Middle Bailey

William died in 1219 and was succeeded by his five sons in turn. His sons further improved the defenses and also the comfort of the interior lodgings. There is proof for several grants of 'good oak' by the king; those timbers would have been used to refine the interior of buildings (addition of walls and floors, fe.). King Henry III visited Chepstow several times. The new bailey with its twin towered gatehouse is from their time as well, and they built a barbican at the upper end of the castle. The last son died in 1245, and the estates were divided among the surviving sisters. Chepstow fell to Maud, the eldest, who had married Hugh Bigod. Her son was Roger Bigod earl of Norfolk, who after her death, inherited Chepstow. He liked the place as hunting ground, but it would fall upon his nephew and heir, another Roger, to bring the castle to its greatest splendour.

Upper Gatehouse at the west barbican

Roger Bigod II held the title of earl of Norfolk and the position of Earl Mashal for more than thirty years (1270-1306), a span that fell into the reign of King Edward I. Roger constructed a maginificient new hall to represent his status as one of the most powerful magnates of his time. That building included a cellar, kitchen, accomodation rooms, and the hall itself. Bigod also added another tower (you can lose count of those in Norman castles) that would provide suitable rooms for a high ranking guest. This one was later called Marten's Tower because it was the long time prison of Henry Marten, one of the men who signed King Charles' I death warrant.

One of Bigod's towers in the foreground, the Great Tower in the background;
seen from the river side

But I'll leave more details about Roger Bigod and the further history of Chepstow to another post. To summarise, after Roger's death the castle fell to Edward I and a few months later to his son and successor Edward II. Edward seemed to have developed a liking for Chepstow. At some point he would grant it to Hugh Despenser, but that tale I'll leave to Hugh's faithful scribess who has written an interesting blogpost about Hugh and Chepstow.

When I traveled to Wales last spring, I met with Lady D. from Lady Despenser's Scribery, and we visited Chepstow Castle together. Two history geek girls + one big whopping castle = lots of fun. Lots of pictures, too.
Oh, I'm jealous! Great post & pix.
Wow, you and Lady D. got an excellent lot of pics between you, Gabriele! Nice to see one of you together as well:-)

I've just been reading Elizabeth Chadwick's "The Love Knot", in which Chepstow is featured, and Hugh and Maud are in my family tree.

Waah - wanna go there! However, your pics are the next best thing!
Wow, no pole vaulting into that castle. :) No wonder engineers had to come up with countermeasures to get into those places.
Thank you, Susan and Satima.

Constance, why do you always want to break into castles; are there pirates and Vikings in your family tre? :)
I haven't visited this castle and your photos have made me want to see it.
Wow! What a terrific piece! Thanks, d:)
Great pics, Gabriele. Especially love the shot of the ruined walls looming over the cliff's edge. Very dramatic. :)
Thank you, Shelley, Dayya and Kirsten.

Kirsten, you really should travel to Wales, it's not that far from Glasgow, and there are several cool places close together in the south: Caerwent, Caerleon, Chepstow, Tintern Abbey, Caerphilly Castle ....
Gabriele... Um, I was frightened by a portcullis as a child??

Hey, I'm half Scottish, half Roman, it's in my blood... :P
Those pics came out really well - despite the best efforts of the weather! Yes, we had a really good day there - and it was great to meet up with you.

Thanks for the mention too :-)
Lol Constance, in that case you should keep dachshunds, not corgies. They're better at digging mines. :)

Lady D, after all, the rain didn't really dare to pour where I was but only managed a wee drizzle - they had some pretty bad showers in Cardiff that day, only a few miles away. :)
Amazing castle, and some great photographs.
Thank you, Carla. Yep, those Normans built some impressive castles, and the Welsh get their revenge today because those biggies attract a fine share of tourists. ;)
Wonderful photos and accompanying narrative. I have many places to choose from for a visit.
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.