U3A Welsh Group, Visit to Three Marches Castles

This excited group set out in anticipation on a fine April morning to visit the remains of three Welsh border castles known as the Castles of the Trilateral, namely that of Skenfrith, Grosmont and White Castle. All proved to be remarkably well preserved considering when they were built. Fortunately for us, a gentleman called Paul Remfry was joining us and it soon became apparent that he was a history expert specialising in the study of castle remains and having published numerous books on the subject.

Our first visit was Skenfrith Castle. Here we learnt that these castles, when first built, were generally small and built of stout timber. However in approx. 1160 and on the orders of King Henry II, Skenfrith was rebuilt in stone by engineer Ralph Grosmont and much later completed by Hubert Burgh. Shortly before completion the castle was badly flooded and sustained much damage. Rather than repair it, Hubert filled the interior with river gravel and built a new castle on top of the first one. Paul showed us the perfectly preserved hall of the first castle which was uncovered during excavations in 1950. Remarkably, the jambs of the doors and windows were in as good a condition as when they were first cut nearly 800 years ago. Even the original iron door hinges and window bars had survived from that time. This fortress was once surrounded by a 20ft.deep paved moat and survives today in as much the same state as it was left in 1538.

We then travelled on to Grosmont Castle which dates from approx. 1070. Although called a castle, it is thought that it was originally constructed as a hall and used as an administrative centre for a Barony at a time when the rule of the Normans in Wales was considered stable. However, following the Welsh Rebellion of 1134, Grosmont was turned into a fortress, again by Hubert Burgh, who was granted its ownership by Henry III in 1201 until Hubert fell out of favour in 1239. Henry then passed Grosmont to his 2nd son Prince Edmund, who proceeded to convert Grosmont into his main residence and which included the building of the Great Chimney, of which Grosmont is justifiably famous. Edmund extended the South-West tower making it into a 5 storeyed keep, the living quarters of which could only be reached by a dismountable wooded stairway. Furthermore he installed a giant false doorway which allowed access to the ground and first floor only; thereby in the event of attack, keeping himself and his family safe above. Evidence of these works is still apparent today.

Before leaving the village of Grosmont we visited the local church, built by Prince Edmund for his mother Queen Eleanor. Here we inspected a carved effigy of a 12th century Knight thought possibly to be Ralph Grosmont who is so strongly entwined with the history of all 3 royal castles.

There followed a truly delicious lunch at Part-y-Seal Tea Rooms situated on the outskirts of Grosmont-a delightful and unusual establishment run by, and greatly influenced by, a  charming Chinese family.
Then onwards to our last destination- White Castle (original name Llantilio Castle) - so called because its exterior was originally covered by a white rendering which is still visible in parts today. Compared with the two previous castles, this one was massive in its size and stature. The castle is pear shaped and sits on a mound completely surrounded by a deep moat. Here the outer bailey defences are largely intact - an unusual feature of surviving Norman castles in Wales, as usually these outer defences have long since disappeared. Within is a high curtain wall still of its original height and which connects the castle’s 6 large round towers. Original arrowloop openings can clearly be seen where archers would have manned the defences. Interestingly, the main weapon of use for the defence of a castle was the crossbow - not the longbow as portrayed in films.
The gatehouse of this impressive castle has many details remaining which rival most other Welsh castles. The workings could clearly be envisaged by looking at the channels, grooves and holes either side of the drawbridge area. The more adventurous of our group climbed to the top of the gatehouse tower and gained a vantage that afforded excellent views of the outer bailey, moat, inner ward and most of all, the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Although all three castles saw a brief revival of fortunes during the ‘Glyn Dwr uprising’ of the early 14th century, all were largely abandoned after that crisis had passed. Fortunately, all three remained for a time as local centres of administration, estate management and revenue collecting. The records show that monies were spent on upkeep and repairs through to the end of the Middle Ages, and this has no doubt contributed to the fine state of preservation of these three castles as can be seen today.

Many, many thanks go to Sandy Williams and Ilfa Jones who did such a sterling job in organising such an interesting and educational trip…..and many thanks go to Paul for bringing the history of these three castles alive…we were rivetted for the whole excursion.

                                                                                                             Sue Wheeler


 


Copyright©2009 Paul Martin Remfry


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