Clifford castle stands on an eastward flowing section of the River Wye near to the current boundary between England and Wales. The castle was founded by Earl William Fitz Osbern in the period between his being made earl of Hereford soon after Christmas 1066 and his death at the battle of Cassel in Flanders on 22 February 1071. In that time it is likely that his engineers found the natural knoll lying alongside the steep drop to the River Wye near a ford. This gave the site its later name, the cliff by the ford or Clifford. Fitz Osbern's men scarped and ditched the knoll they found into what is today a motte with a secondary platform to the West. The land of Clifford was at that time waste, but under the earls of Hereford and their successors this waste was brought to blossom with castle, borough and church. After Earl William's death, his son, Earl Roger, held the castle for four years until his revolt in 1075. Then, on Roger’s imprisonment, the castle passed to his father's brother-in-law, Ralph Tosny (d.1102), and he and his descendants held the castle until the wars of Stephen and Matilda between 1138 and 1154. 

During the years of Tosny lordship the castle was transformed into a great stone structure of which there are some remains today. The caput of the family was the castle of Conches in Normandy. Here the Tosny's built a great shell keep with five round towers in the enceinte. A similar structure remains at Clifford and the implication is that both structures are the work of the house of Tosny. With the wars of Stephen and Matilda the Tosny's hold on Clifford castle weakened. Roger Tosny's steward, Walter Fitz Richard, had for a long time been calling himself Walter Clifford and had married Margaret Isobel Tosny, Roger's sister. In 1144 he still acknowledged Roger as his overlord of Clifford, but by the end of the war he had made himself de facto lord of Clifford and refused to return castle and lordship to their rightful owners. During the reign of King Henry II, Walter Clifford cleverly introduced his daughter, renowned as the Fair Rosamund for her beauty, to the king. Soon the two became lovers and Walter's powerful daughter ensured that he never lost control of Clifford to its rightful owners.

In 1233 Walter Clifford’s grandson, another Walter Clifford, rebelled against King Henry III rather than return the castle to the Tosnys. This led to the castle’s only known siege by Henry III. After just a few days the castle surrendered to the king under the threat of death for the garrison. Walter himself had retreated into Wales and attempted to persuade his father-in-law, Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, to join him in rebellion. On failing to achieve this aim Walter met the king at Shrewsbury and made his peace. Within a month Walter was back in the Welsh Marches leading a royal army against Prince Llywelyn who had finally thrown his power behind the rebels! Such were the convoluted twists and turns of thirteenth century politics! 

Twenty years later the king served a writ on the now ancient Walter Clifford, ordering him to observe the king’s command in his Marcher barony. This was in breach of Walter’s Marcher privileges and in a fit of pique he made the royal messenger eat the writ, seal and all. In those days the king’s seal would have consisted of a dinner plate sized piece of wax! Once more a king of England marched against a baron of Clifford, but this time the septuagenarian lord of Clifford surrendered without a fight, losing all his hard won gains of independence. Walter died, having regained the king’s favour, in 1263. 

In 1271 Walter’s widowed daughter and heiress Matilda was kidnapped from her home by the young John Giffard of Brimpsfield. In terror she managed to get a letter to the king telling of her abduction and rape. Once more Henry III took to the field, this time for the honour of the baroness of Clifford. However, before he had proceeded far he received another letter from Matilda saying everything was all right now and she had married her abductor! The marriage was subsequently blessed by the birth of two daughters before Matilda’s death in 1284. By 1311 the castle had passed into the hands of the Mortimers and from that time forth was left to gently decay as just one more castle in the hands of that powerful family.

Clifford castle now consists of a great motte as constructed by the men of William Fitz Osbern back in the late 1060's. This was later sub-divided and the eastern part was crowned by an ovoid shell keep with five D shaped towers in its circuit. Two of these formed a small twin towered gatehouse.  The north wall of the keep appears to overlie part of William Fitz Osbern’s original hall. To the east of the motte is the castle bailey. Most of the walls of this structure have disappeared, but centrally are the remains of a great twin-towered gatehouse possibly of the mid thirteenth century. 

Various English examples of great gatehouses bearing similarities to the  two at Clifford are at Beeston, Bungay, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington.  In Wales they exist at Caerphilly, Carmarthen, Chepstow, Criccieth, Degannwy, Dinas Bran, Llanstephan, Llawhaden, Neath, Oystermouth, Powis, Rhuddlan, Tinboeth and White Castle.  In Scotland they can be found at Kildrummy and Urquhart and finally elsewhere in Ireland at Carrickfergus, Castle Roche, Limerick and Roscommon.  

To the west of the castle is a broken earthwork dam which would have flooded the valley to the south of the castle. With the River Wye to the north the fortress would have been surrounded by water on all sides except for the east. As such it would have been a very difficult fortress to take by storm. Half a mile to the south are the remains of the castle borough with the church of Clifford. Within lies a wooden monument which possibly represents Simon Clifford, the son of the first Walter Clifford and brother of Fair Rosamund.

Paul Remfry

Order Clifford Castle, 1066 to 1299  (ISBN 1899376534) for £9.95 through the PayPal basket below.

Copyright©1994-2007 Paul Martin Remfry