castle stands on a spur overlooking the River Usk and consists of three
wards built on the site of a Roman fort. In total the
fortress occupies an area about 700' by 500'. The
innermost ward, some 260' long by 175' across, is encased by
curtain walls with towers at intervals. The thirteenth century
north tower is D shaped with a large square-headed doorway.
On the first floor is a fireplace which shows that the tower was
residential. The adjoining banqueting hall is fourteenth century
with later additions. Along its south side is a
buttressed wall with two windows and a doorway, with a third window
above. The west wall has a further, large window and there is a
fireplace in the north wall at first floor level.
tower to the west is circular and located midway along the curtain
wall. This truly impressive tower, similar to some of those at Chepstow, stands to its full height of 4 storeys with a crenallated
parapet, and there are doors into it on either side from the curtain
wall. At a level corresponding to the top of the curtain wall
is a small passageway leading to a garderobe on the north side and a spiral
staircase on the south side.
The next tower in the enceinte is
also round and stands in the south corner to the same height as the
adjoining curtain walls. A doorway survives on the north
side. To the NE there is a large gateway with a pointed
arch. To the north of the gateway is another fireplace and grass
covered remains of rooms. At the west end of the enceinte is an
irregular rectangular tower that projects boldly outside the curtain
wall. This building could well be the oldest masonry on the
site and could have begun life as a roughly 35' slightly off-square keep. Similar small keeps under 40' exist in Wales at Carndochan
(35' square), Dolwyddelan I
(25' square) and White Castle (35' square): and in England at Bridgnorth
(39'x35'), Clitheroe (35' square), Clun (30' square), Farnham (37'
(29' square), Hyssington (27' square), Moreton Corbet
(38'x33'), Peveril (21'x19') and Wattlesborough
The adjoining SW curtain wall retains
its wallwalk, while the SE wall has a small 'room' inside the wall
at an upper level. The main entrance is by a simple unflanked
hole in the wall gateway between the keep and the D shaped NE tower.
To the SE is an outer bailey with walls on its SE side, a corner tower
on the south, and a rectangular gatehouse to the east. The west
defences are now only marked by a slope. The gatehouse is
square in plan, is three storeys high and has a doorway reached by
stone steps on the east side. There are round headed windows on
the south side.
To the north of the inner ward is a further rectangular ward which appears
to have never had masonry defences. The ditch separating this
from the masonry ward to the south is irregular and it is quite possible
that the first castle consisted of the single rectangular tower
surrounded by one large bailey that was subsequently divided into three.
A castle is apparently first recorded at Usk in 1138 when it was seized
by the Welsh kings of Gwent from the Clare family of Chepstow. The castle
was retaken by the Clares before they died out in 1176. The
castle fell again to the Welsh in 1174 and was only regained ten years
later by the king. In 1189 the castle was given to William
Marshal in marriage with the daughter of the last Clare. He
and his descendants are stated without evidence to have added greatly
to the castle and remodelled the keep into a residence. The
fortress saw heavy fighting in 1233-34 when Henry III attacked it
unsuccessfully. By 1289 the powerful north tower had been built
to serve as a treasury. In the early fourteenth century it is
stated that Elizabeth Burgh, sister of the last earl who was killed at
the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, built the large banqueting hall and
chapel against the north curtain wall as well as a chamber block
outside. She is also stated to have remodelled keep to
provide 3 storeys of living accommodation.
The masonry in the lower, SE ward is said to date to the late fourteenth or
early fifteenth century when the lordship passed to the Mortimers of
Wigmore. Owain Glyndwr burnt the town in 1402 and
1405, but the castle seems to have held out. In 1431 William
ap Thomas of Raglan was steward of the lordship and his son Sir William
Herbert remodelled the keep again to serve as a steward's
lodging. By the early sixteenth century the steward was
living in the gatehouse and the castle was beginning to
decay. By 1550 the fortress was said to be 'worth nothing'
and by 1556 Roger Williams of Usk had demolished the great hall and
Why not join me at Usk and other British castles this October? Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.
Paul Martin Remfry