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 this line of the family died out in 1176.  The castle fell again to the Welsh in 1174 and was only regained 10 years later by King Henry II (1154-89).  In 1189 the castle was given to William Marshall (d.1219) in marriage with the daughter of Earl Richard Clare (d.1176).  William 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 during the Marshall rebellion.  With the death of the last Marshall earl in 1245 at Goodrich castle, Usk passed via an heiress to the Clare earls of Gloucester.

By 1289 the powerful north tower is said to have been built to serve as a treasury.  In the early fourteenth century it is stated that Elizabeth Burgh, nee Clare (d.1360), sister of the last Clare earl of Gloucester 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 the keep to provide 3 storeys of living accommodation. 

The masonry in the lower, south-east 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 barn.

The 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. 

The Garrison 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 north-east 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' square), Goodrich (29' square), Hyssington (27' square), Moreton Corbet (38'x33'), Peak (21'x19') and Wattlesborough (30' square).  

The south-west curtain wall
adjoining the garrison tower retains its wallwalk, while the south-east 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 north-east tower.

To the south-east is an outer bailey with walls on its south and east sides, as well as a corner tower to 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 3 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.

Why not join me at Usk and other British castles this October?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry