Chepstow Castle




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. However it is possible that he was responsible for building the great hall block seen above.  This rectangular hall keep is over one hundred feet long by forty feet 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, Goodrich and possibly St Briavels.

King Henry I (d.1135) granted Chepstow castle to the Clare family whose male line died 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 the castle passed through royal custody to the great Earl William Marshall 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.  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 held these wooden gates, the
oldest surviving 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.




At the opposite, northern 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 the prison of the regicide, Henry Marten.



 

Copyright©2010 Paul Martin Remfry


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