Striguil, Cas Gwent.....
Everyone has a name for it - the Normans Striguil, the Welsh Cas Gwent. But it is still the same Chepstow Castle. The same Chepstow that checked even the bravest warriors and the same Chepstow that encouraged the lowliest defender. Ask anyone from when it was still garrisoned and they would all know all about it. It's significance trascends nationality.
Chepstow Castle is located in the current town of Chepstow, Monmouthshire and is the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain. The name Chepstow comes from the Saxon Chepe (meaning 'market') and stowe (a 'meeting place'). Located on a limestone cliff overlooking the River Wye, it was long valued for its ability to control the waterway, one of the main crossings from southern England into Wales. Its position above the river also made resupply much easier during a siege, and it was near impossible to scale the rock-face. Chepstow was both a focal point for raids further inland into Wales and key to the region's defence. It was enlarged and improved several times, until advancements in artillery made such defensive structures largely irrelevant.
The thing about Chepstow that has always impressed me is its presence, its strength. It's perched on a hillock that dominates the surrounding country. On one side is the river and the crossing, which would have been very exposed to longbow and fire. On the other side, the land dips down before rising again. Imagine charging down that hill and then seeing the wall of the Great Hall towering above you. It would make anyone pause and wonder what they were doing there. But it's also so compact - Chepstow doesn't even have a single complete curtain wall. Yet with masterful planning, anything short of a massive army (or cannon) couldn't get in. English (or should I say French?) engineering at its best!
William Fitz-Osbern, 1067-
Construction was started in 1067 by William Fitz-Osbern, a year after the Battle of Hastings, when he laid the foundations for the Great Hall. The castle's importance could be seen through the fact that it was built with stone, when most fortifications of that age were Motte and Bailey, using wood and earth. William the Conquerer wanted to cement his control of his new kingdom and had given a part of the Welsh Marches to Fitz-Osbern. A stone castle was just what the new Marcher lord needed to help control the local Welsh princes. With it he was able to subdue Gwent. However it was lost to the King after his son Roger led an unsuccessul rebellion in 1075.
In this period the castle consisted of the central Great Hall, or keep, surrounded by a stone curtain wall. However, interestingly on the south side the curtain wall was formed by the Great Hall itself. Either it was deemed unnecessary (as there would be no way to scale the wall there), or it was due to the topography, as the land dips sharply down before rising up again. Extending the curtain wall in the dip would have exposed the defenders to fire from the opposite slope.
William Marshal the Elder, c.1200
With the close of the 12th century, Chepstow received a new master, William Marshal. He was a formidable soldier and Earl of Pembroke. Obtaining the castle through marriage, he decided to upgrade its defences, having great knowledge of military architecture from France.
The east curtain wall was rebuilt with two round towers projecting outwards. This side had been vulnerable and as it served as the only entrance, needed strengthening. The entrance was moved closer to the cliff to make it more difficult for an attacking force to storm the castle. In this period the arrow-slits in the towers were designed to give covering fire to the ground in front of the curtain, a new type of defensive architecture that became characteristic of Medieval castles. That this is one of the earliest examples of the adoption of this technique adds to Chepstow's importance.
The younger Marshalls, 1219-1245
William Marshall's sons even further strengthened the fortifications, giving Chepstow most of the physical prescence it has today.
A new lower bailey was added to the rear of the castle, with an impressive twin-towered gatehouse. At the other end, a strongly defended barbican was constructed to protect the main entrance, as well as another tower along the curtain wall. A small tower was built on the curtain wall near to the keep, which was improved too. Other improvements to the living quarters were made throughout the castle.
Roger Bigod III, 1270-1300
Roger Bigod was one of the great nobles of his time and oversaw the final stage of significant construction. Though he made some defensive improvements, a lot of the work focused on the living quarters. He had a splendid new hall block on the north side of the lower bailey built, with a kitchen, servant accomodation and service rooms.
The barbican was strengthened, and Marten's Tower was built at the south-east corner of the lower bailey. There had been a smaller tower there previously but this new one was much stronger, with thicker buttresses and walls. It also included a chapel. The keep also had another floor added.
The Civil War and onwards
Though some modifications were made in the Tudor Period, the castle's importance began to decline. It was held by the Royalists in the English Civil War but twice fell to Parliament cannon. With the arrival of gunpowder to the battlefield, some attempts had been made to strength the walls with earth mounds. However this was not enough and after 1690 it was abandonned by the military.
It was received into the State's care in 1953 and since then, work has been done to secure the castle's structure. Much of the original stonework is intact and it is a very impressive monument to English military engineering. Some parts of it are off-limits, such as towers which have broken staircases. However most of it is still accessible.
, follow the M5
and then cross the Severn Bridge
on the M48
. The turnoff for Chepstow is junction 2, the first on the other side. Go into the town and follow signs to the castle - not that you will have to, as the town is quite small and the castle very obvious!
Parking is available just in front of the castle itself.
26 Mar to 25 May: 09.30 - 17.00 daily
26 May to 30 Sept: 09.30 - 18.00 daily
1 Oct to 28 Oct: 09.30 - 17.00 daily
29 Oct to 31Mar: 09.30 - 16.00 Mon to Sat; 11.00 - 16.00
(Last admission is half an hour before closing)
Adult price: £3.00
Child price: £2.00
(Please note the entrance fees seem to keep going up so take a fair bit of cash with you just in case!)
Bridge Street, Chepstow
Monmouthshire, NP6 5EZ
Telephone: 01291 624065
Written for wertperch's Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK