Castle of the Week 68 - Chepstow Castle
Majestically set high upon a cliff overlooking the River Wye, Chepstow Castle still guards one of the main river crossings from England into South Wales. Few castles in Britain tell the story of medieval fortification from beginning to end, as does this mighty stronghold. The castle was constructed in stages, each Lord strengthening and adding their touch to the fortress. As a result, Chepstow is constructed in a long rectangular, terraced fashion as opposed to a concentric layout. This unique construction is one reason that makes this castle special and stone construction can be attributed to its great military importance. Throughout the Middle Ages, Chepstow was the center of military and administrative power in the Marches (the countryside that lies adjacent to and spans the borders of England and Wales).
After the Norman Conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King William set about securing his lands. Although the Welsh kings had paid homage to the Saxons, the country retained a defiant and independent spirit. This posed a serious threat to the plans of William the Conqueror, and he quickly took steps to secure the Marches as a buffer zone between his newly acquired lands and the wild Welshmen. The king realized that simple earth and wooden fortifications would not be a sufficient deterrent to his enemies. Massive stone castles were needed to act as launching points for further Norman Conquest and a safe refuge for his army. He appointed William Fitz-Osbern, Earl of Hertford to undertake this monumental task.
Fitz-Osbern laid the foundations of the magnificent “Great Hall” in 1067, within one year of the Conquest. It is said to be the oldest surviving stone castle of its kind in England. The castle sits on the narrowest part of a long high cliff overlooking the River Wye. With the river on one side and a steep ravine on the other, the castle had great natural defenses. Fitz-Osbern also erected a curtain wall to surround the keep contouring the natural terrain. Directly down over the cliffs is the river harbor where supplies ferried up from Bristol could be hoisted up to the castle. This would have been much safer than delivering supplies by land where the Welsh raiders could ambush them.
At the end of the 12th century, Chepstow passed by marriage to William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. With experience in military architecture from the continent, he greatly strengthened the defenses of the castle. He rebuilt the east curtain wall adding two outward-projecting round towers. The arrow slits in the towers are some of the earliest examples of that revolutionary technology in England, which became a standard for medieval castles.
Around 1245, William Marshal’s sons continued improving the castle by adding the lower bailey which had an impressive twin towered gatehouse topped by a Meurtriere (murder hole). This was used to pour boiling pitch, water or hot sand on unsuspecting enemies and to douse any fires that attackers set while attempting to burn through the wooden gates. At the upper end of the castle, a strongly fortified barbican was constructed as a final defense in the event the castle was overrun.
Roger Bigod III, Earl of Norfolk took possession of Chepstow around 1270 and made some major renovations to the castle. The changes made included a great hall block on the north side of the lower bailey, elaborate kitchen, vaulted cellar, domestic accommodations, expansion of the keep to include a third story and of course, the spectacular “D” shaped tower in the south east corner of the castle. This magnificent tower is known as Marten’s Tower because Henry Marten, the Regicide, who signed the death warrant of the king, was imprisoned there for 20 years after the restoration of the monarchy. This tower was equipped for a nobleman of high rank with amenities to include lush apartments and a private chapel. A three-story gatehouse flanked by to square towers was also added to the barbican as a “back door” to the castle.
As a military stronghold in medieval times, the castle was virtually impregnable. However, with developments in military tactics and weaponry (most notably gunpowder), the castle lost its advantage. It was twice besieged by troops using cannons during the English Civil Wars, falling both times to the attackers. The breach was repaired and served as a military garrison for the Crown until around 1690. After that, the castle fell into disuse and neglect. It briefly served as a smithy and a glass factory in the early 1800’s. Wind, rain and vegetation took their toll over the next two hundred years. Though the roofs and wooden interiors are gone, Chepstow still stands as an exceptional piece of medieval architecture and a monument to days gone by.
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