Advent Calendar of Castles: December 18th: Chepstow Castle.

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Chepstow is the second of the Marcher castles on this list, it is also the second with real involvement from William Marshal. It sits on a sheer escarpment of carboniferous limestone on the banks of the River Wye. Chepstow is probably my favourite castle and I will write about it in substantially more detail at a later date. I have written about the extraordinary surviving medieval doors before and that post can be found here.

Chepstow, known then as Striguil, was begun originally as a Norman castle. It was constructed by William Fitz Osbern shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. He was responsible for the beginning of the construction of the castle, but it is unlikely that he had the time to oversee the construction of the Norman great tower before his death in 1071. The great tower is the only substantial surviving part of the Norman castle, though it was extended by the Marshals in the 13th century.

While it will never, of course, be certain it has been argued that the great tower was built under the auspices of William the Conqueror when Chepstow was in royal hands from the 1075 until 1115. The great tower is definitely a Norman building regardless of whether it was built by Fitz Osbern or William the Conqueror, and this makes it one of the oldest dateable surviving stone secular buildings in Britain. It was also impressively built in stone when most other castles were still wood and earth motte and bailey constructions.

Chepstow came into the hands of the Clare family at the start of the 12th century and by 1148 it was in the hands of Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. Strongbow was the founder of the Norman occupation of Ireland and more can be read about him here. When de Clare died in 1176 all his estates passed to his son Gilbert, who was underage, and when Gilbert died, without ever coming of age, to his daughter Isabel de Clare. Isabel married William Marshal in 1189 and all of her extensive estates came to him. Isabel de Clare was a fascinating woman in her own right and you can read more about her here.

Marshal rebuilt the curtain wall with two round towers and the main gate house. Under the Marshals over the years other parts of the castle were extended and modernized. Chepstow came into the hands of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk, by right of his mother who was Marshal’s daughter, in c.1245. The Bigods were responsible for the building of the new hall block inside the castle walls as well as a large new tower in the south east corner of the castle and significant parts of the high walls.

After the death of Roger Bigod in 1306 Chepstow was in royal hands again and after this it passed in and out of various families over the centuries. It was modified by the Tudors and during the Civil War the it fell twice to parliamentary canon before it was refortified. Its final outing on the main stage of history was when Bigod’s tower was used as a prison, albeit a relative comfortable one, for Henry Marten one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. He was held in the tower at the order of Charles II, who spared his life, for roughly 20 years until his death at Chepstow in 1680.

After the Civil War and the Restoration Chepstow slowly crumbled into a picturesque ruin. It came into Cadw hands in 1984.

There is much more to write about Chepstow, not the least the absolutely fascinating well, but that is for another time.

References:

Site visit 2012

Chepstow Castle: Its history and buildings 9781904396529

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/hmarten.html

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/chepstow-castle/?lang=en

The photos are all mine.

2 thoughts on “Advent Calendar of Castles: December 18th: Chepstow Castle.

    1. Its’s a tricky question to answer because the castle you see today is an amalgam of hundreds of years of additions and modifications. It’s even tricky with the original castle because no one is entirely sure who built what when. Simple motte and bailey wooden and earth castles could be erected very quickly in months, stone castles usually took years if not decades for a whole castle, but again most stone castles were built bit by bit rather than in one prolonged building spree. The exception are some of Edward I’s large stone castles in Wales which he had built from scratch in four years, but this took a lot of money and thousands of workmen on site at a time.

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