Built in 1067 by William Fitz Osborne, one of William the Conqueror’s most important allies, Chepstow castle is the oldest surviving post roman stone fortification in Britain. Its original structure was made from stone, rather than an earth and wood structure like most castles, but this was done because of how important the location was considered to be, where it lay as a tactical stronghold between England and wales. Fitz Osborne had been instrumental in persuading the Norman Barons to support the invasion of England and he was rewarded with the title Earl of Hereford which included extensive lands in south wales including Chepstow. However, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his reign as he was killed in 1071 at the Battle of Cassel.
The main gatehouse and entrance to the castle is through the iconic twin round towers with plain arrow slits that sit at 3 different levels, the archway had portcullis slots and remains of murder holes. These round towers were less vulnerable as they had no blind corners.
As we take steps inside the castle itself, we are met with the famous oldest wooden door in Europe, all wood and all of 800 years old, until 1962 these doors hung in the main gateway, but now are resting safe in the onsite exhibition where you will also see the 4 main stages of development at Chepstow, the door is beautiful and ornate with so many different details, its no wonder why the door is so popular . what we enjoy about visiting Cadw sites are how much information they always give to help paint the story.
Fitz Osborne wanted a castle to control the main river crossing over the Wye, on the main route into Wales. He chose a narrow point overlooking the river for his fortress, and the geography of the site influenced the design of the castle over the next few centuries. The constricted site meant that Chepstow developed into a very long, narrow castle, with one ward leading to another along a vertical axis. His son, also named William, plotted against the crown and Chepstow became a royal estate. In 1189 Chepstow passed to William Marshall, one of the great knights of the medieval period and later Earl of Pembroke.
It is to Marshall that we owe much of the castle we see today; he extended and strengthened the Norman castle and enclosed it within strong stone walls punctuated with towers, in a design reminiscent of castles in the Holy Land, where he had been on Crusade. Marshal used his immense knowledge of warfare design and added fortifications to Chepstow Castle to not only modernise the existing structure, but to further protect it. He not only built the main gatehouse which still exists till this day but he also rebuilt the east curtain wall, adding dual towers that projected outwards to provide added defensive protection to the fortress’s unguarded side. The two towers were outfitted with arrow slits which would allow the inhabitants the opportunity to give covering fire to the units on the ground at the front curtain, a defensive feature that would become a new medieval standard in military castle design. But the Marshals weren’t done.
Around 1245, William’s sons took over and began enlarging Chepstow Castle’s layout––improving accommodation floors inside the hall, adding a new lower bailey with gatehouse, and constructing additional defensive measures to the keep, including a solid barbican ( it’s here that the buildings are having conservation work and have restricted access so we weren’t able to venture all the way around the castle today but being able to walk the upper bailey through the long gallery is still very impressive, if you peak out whilst walking the upper bailey you can see a stunning view of the wye river and how solid the castle is whilst being set high upon the sheer rock face and river cliff.
A great experience is seeing the great tower, it was the central hub of Chepstow and the keep, it was built of stone excavated from local quarries and some of the blocks were reused from the nearby roman ruins, you are able to walk the battlements along the middle bailey and see how grand and beautiful the brickwork is as well as the round towers. The great tower was was a very important domestic medieval building, it has an ornate main entrance as you enter through and you are wowed as you glance in, it was originally two storeys, with the upper storey being one long room. It became luxurious accommodation and the curtain wall to the north was heightened to for added protection. Now what remains is beautiful reminiscent of the various building stages and the stunning architecture including part of the arches built to divide the first floor room within the tower, the carving is said to be of the highest quality, much was spent and designed into making this accommodation elegant.
After being modified in the Tudor period, Chepstow saw action in the Civil War. It was held for the king in 1645 and again in 1648, but each time it was captured by Parliament. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the castle was used as a prison and military garrison. The most famous prisoner was Henry Martyn, a lawyer who had signed Charles I’s death warrant. Martyn was held for over 20 years in the tower to the left of the main entrance, a tower which now bears his name. The base of the tower has massive tapering spurs in stone to protect it from attack by miners. In front of this tower, on the inside, of course, is the castle’s well. No expense was spare in the craftsmanship and all the details are richly decorated in the tower. You are able to explore all the way up to the battlements of the tower for spectacular views and statues were placed on the battlements that were designed to impress.
In the 13th century a new hall block on the north side of the lower bailey was built, the range included a large vaulted wine cellar with elaborate unintentional moss that covers the ceilings that give such an interesting and photogenic look but its fantastic to see the vaulted ceilings left as they are. above here are service rooms, a large kitchen, domestic accommodation and of course the hall itself. Also we can sit and marvel at the weird and wonderful latrine built high over the river cliff, away from the kitchen and hall for privacy. These rooms are of course some of the most important, the cellars underneath the castle provided storage spaces as well as being a quick access to the river, with goods being hiked up from the boats on the river below. I think my favourite part was heading up the steps onto a private balcony; this overlooks the river and was regularly used by the lord and his family to soak in the stunning views. The views are very picture use, and you can see the birds nesting in and around. Today the castle remains beautiful, abandoned and romantic, but still such an extensive ruin, it’s worth the visit to explore such hidden gems and finding new and exciting features that you wouldn’t normally see just walking around, the day was perfect for learning more about Chepstow.
Till next time!