Sunday 25 March 2012

The Coming of the Castle Builders

Before the Normans came to England, there were few castles to be found in that country, and those that existed had been mainly constructed by Norman advisors of Edward the Confessor.

The invaders brought the idea of their fortress style buildings with them and a grand example of the Norman castle can be seen today at Chepstow, on the Monmouthshire border. Though now a ruin, its weathered stones speak of an age of fortitude, few comforts and great danger.

Chepstow sits high above the banks of the river Wye in southeast Wales. Construction began at Chepstow in 1067, less than a year after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. The Conqueror’s castle builder was his loyal Norman lord, William FitzOsbern. FitzOsbern's fortresses were the vehicles from which the new king consolidated control of his newly conquered lands. Chepstow Castle became the key launching point for expeditions into Wales, expeditions that eventually subdued the rebellious population. I discuss FitzOsbern’s castle building prowess in Conquering Passion. He assists the hero, Ram de Montbryce, in the construction of Ellesmere Castle.

Chepstow's Great Hall, begun in 1067, is the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain. Because of this, the site has a special significance to British history. At other castles built during the Conqueror's reign, original Norman structures have long since disappeared, but at Chepstow it's still possible to see and touch the remains of FitzOsbern's first great building project in Wales.

The Normans weren't the first to recognize the strategic position of Chepstow. The arch above the main doorway to the hall is made from brick brought from a Roman fort that once stood nearby. The hall was always the heart of the castle, and originally stood alone. Over the years, the castle was enlarged by a series of builders. Today, the castle takes the shape of a long rectangle perched high above the river Wye.

Inside the hall, powerful men mapped out strategy with other Welsh "Marcher Lords," planning invasions to wrest control of Wales from groups of powerful princes still holding most of the country. My readers will remember Rhodri ap Owain, the Prince of Powwydd, from Conquering Passion. A new series is coming soon based on Rhodri’s life and family. The first two books, Defiant Passion and Falling, will be available digitally in about two weeks.

Besides William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, Chepstow's other famous lords include William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, and Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk. Depending on your perspective, these are some of the most important (or hated) men of Norman-Welsh history.

The Great Hall and dramatic cliff-side at Chepstow are the castle's two most interesting features. The rest of the castle is a typical Norman structure—a large gatehouse with high curtain walls connecting a series of tall towers. Because Chepstow was built in stages along the river Wye, the castle is constructed in a long, terraced fashion.

Chepstow's strategic position allowed defenders to supply the castle via the river during times of battle and siege, while defending it against attack.

At the end of the 12th century, Chepstow passed by marriage to William Marshal, a formidable soldier of fortune, and Earl of Pembroke. With considerable experience in military architecture in France, he set about bringing Fitz Osbern's castle up to date. He rebuilt the east curtain wall, with two round towers projecting outwards, in order to protect this vulnerable side. Arrow-slits in the towers were designed to give covering fire to the ground in front of the curtain, and this was one of the earliest examples of the new defensive mode which was to become characteristic of the medieval castle.

Before 1245, the sons of William Marshal greatly enlarged Chepstow's defences and improved the internal accommodation. They added a new lower bailey, with an impressive twin-towered gatehouse. At the upper end of the castle, a strongly defended barbican was constructed at this time. Marshal's sons also made additions to the Great Tower, or keep.

Between 1270-1300 Roger Bigod III, one of the greatest magnates of his day, built a splendid new hall block on the north side of the lower bailey. The range included a large, vaulted cellar, elaborate service rooms, a kitchen, domestic accommodation and, of course, the hall itself. There is also a latrine set spectacularly high over the river cliff, across the bailey, away from the noise of the hall and the kitchen smells.

Marten's Tower
Bigod built a huge new tower on the south-east corner. This was to provide a suite of accommodation worthy of a nobleman of high rank. It became known later as Marten's Tower, so named after a 17th century political prisoner incarcerated there for 20 years.
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  1. I love, love, love Chepstow. I first found a B&W picture in a big book on Medieval history. I made my husband go there when we went to BG. And I used it as a sort of template when I designed my own castle for one of my books. If you ever get the chance, go see it!

  2. Thanks for your comment Ann. It is an evocative place, isn't it.