According to the Domesday Book of 1086 Chepstow was one of the castles built by Earl William Fitz Osbern (d.1071).  What form the castle took in his lifetime is open to debate. It is often assumed that he was responsible for building the great hall block seen above.  This rectangular hall keep is over 100' long by 40' deep.  There were probably also contemporary curtain walls forming baileys to east and west.  The original tower was two storeys high above a half basement, with pilaster buttresses and an entrance at first floor level to the south.  From within this a stairway, built into the thickness of the wall, ran up to the lost battlements.  Much Roman tile is used in the fabric of the structure and this was certainly the first masonry built on the site.  Another possibility is that this hall was built by King Henry I to meet the princes of Wales at, but this theory is unprovable. What is certain is that the hall keep has parallels with nearby castle keeps, such as Monmouth, Grosmont, Goodrich and possibly St Briavels.  A rarely explored possiblity is that the tower actually predates the Norman Conquest.  Obviously there is no archaeological data to help sort out this conundrum.

King Henry I (d.1135) granted Chepstow castle to the Clare family whose male line died out in 1176.  The most famous member of the family was Earl Richard Clare of Chepstow.  He, like his father, Gilbert, is currently and wrongly known by the anachronistic nickname, Strongbow.  In 1139 Earl Gilbert had married his sister, Rose Clare, to Baderon Monmouth (d.1170) and in some manner obtained control of Goodrich castle.  On Earl Richard's death both castles passed through royal custody to the great Earl William Marshall of Pembroke.  He held Chepstow castle from 1189 until his death in 1219.  In 1202 he reunited the honour with Goodrich castle.  

William and his sons are said to be responsible for much of the current masonry at the castle, but, as ever with such claims, there is no proof.  Traditionally Fitz Osbern is supposed to have built the great hall keep which still dominates the castle.  Tradition also has it that the castle then remained unaltered until 1189, when William Marshal brought it up to date as a castle of the first rank.  This ‘history' is based on the supposition that both Williams were great men and therefore must have both built great castles.  The illogic of such a statement is obvious.  Beyond the Domesday Book entry there is no evidence at all that either man did anything at Striguil and the knowledge that William Fitz Osbern had so little time to build the keep must throw even the interpretation of this Domesday evidence into question.  Further, why would William Marshall spend a fortune on a rather out of the way castle, even if it was the head of his second and least powerful earldom?  In reality we have little idea of the dates of the castle masonry, other than nothing major was built at the castle between 1176 and 1189 when the fortress was in royal hands.  Further, dendrochronological dating shows that the castle outer gates were not constructed until soon after 1151.  This would suggest that the bulk of the castle was completed under the Clare earls of Striguil (1138-76), rather than the later Earl Marshalls of Pembroke (1189-1245). 

The castle boasts a twin towered gatehouse, as seen below, which once held these mid twelfth century wooden gates - the
oldest known surviving castle gates in the country.  If the gates do date back to the Clare tenure, then it suggests the surrounding gateway did too.  That said the gatehouse as seen today is a composite affair of many ages.

Regardless of its compositon, twin towered gatehouses have invariably been claimed as structures of the thirteenth century.  The evidence of Chepstow and Pevensey is now beginning to challenge this assumpton.  The foundatin date of Criccieth in the 1180s may also challenge this.  Various English twin towered gatehouses survive at Beeston, Bungay, Clifford, Dover, Longtown, Pembridge, St Briavels, the Tower of London and Whittington.  In Wales they exist at Caerphilly, Carmarthen, Criccieth, Degannwy, Dinas Bran, 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.  
At the opposite, north end of the castle, is another powerful gatehouse and barbican which is also of several building phases.  Within the rear of this gatehouse is a window similar to those found in the keep at Goodrich castle.  Both these fortresses were held by the Clares and then the Crown in the twelfth century.

Within the lower ward are the domestic buildings of the Bigods and the powerful Marten Tower, which was the prison of the regicide, Henry Marten.

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


Copyright©2010 Paul Martin Remfry