As you may know by now, I’ve got a bit of an obsession with castles. We hadn’t fed the habit for a while so this week we went to check out Skenfrith and Grosmont, just outside Abergavenny. Along with the White Castle, which we visited last month, these form the so-called ‘Three Castles’ of Monmouthshire which were built to defend the Welsh lands the Normans had acquired – or grabbed, if you prefer. It’s easy to understand the frenzy of castle building that went on – in a way the situation of these first invaders was a bit like that on Bear Grylls’s programme ‘The Island‘ where a group of people are dumped in a strange environment; the priorities are shelter, clean water, food and (in the case of the Normans, anyway) protection from the warlike natives. Once the keeps and stockades were in place, the troops had a place to rest safely, store goods and keep hostiles out. (Not sure about the clean water; they probably stuck to wine or ale. Food was dependent on what they could catch and kill – or take from locals.)
Many Norman fortresses started life as timber constructions, hurriedly erected on small hillocks or man-made mounds of earth and surrounded by enclosures – hence ‘motte and bailey’. You can see how hurriedly if you look at Duke William’s boys putting their backs into it to erect a castle at Hastings in one of the panels of the Bayeux Tapestry. There’s also evidence that they brought pre-fabricated forts with them, a bit like IKEA packages, to speed things up even more – as long as they could understand the instructions and weren’t missing a couple of vital screws.
Having taken the English crown, William needed to secure his borders. England hadn’t been easy but at least it was a country unified under one king. Wales and Scotland were very different kettles of fish, with numerous princes in Wales and a Scottish King north of Hadrian’s Wall (as well as the King of the Isles – the Hebrides, Western Isles and the Isle of Mann were a separate entity until the middle of the 13th century. Who knew?) Ireland was different too, with a multitude of kings – but at least there was another body of water holding them at bay. The immediate threat came from the Welsh, due to their proximity.
The essential thing for William was to fortify the boundaries of his new kingdom, and fast. He created three earldoms along Offa’s Dyke – taking a few territorial liberties along the way. The new Earls of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford were given carte blanche to do more or less what they wanted within their estates, as long as they kept back the Welsh savages. So began the great and terrible Marcher Lordships which would ultimately bring down the Welsh princes and lead to the annexation of Wales by England some two hundred years later.
Having crossed the Severn in 1067 William FitzOsbern, the first Earl of Hereford, set down a marker for what was to come by building Chepstow Castle. Incredibly although it’s the earliest, it is still in relatively good nick and is the oldest surviving stone castle in Great Britain – older than William’s White Tower in London. It’s one of my favourites, partly because of its position high above the River Wye.The stunning Chepstow Castle
As with many castles it was altered and extended – they didn’t need planning permission as such, certainly not in the Marches where the nobles ruled their territories absolutely with very little interference from the king. So as long as they had the money to pay for the materials and the space, they could build whatever they wanted. Because of the long, narrow site alongside and above the river at Chepstow, the complex developed as a chain of buildings and open areas, or wards.This accommodation block dates from the late 13th century
The castle was unassailable until the Civil War, when it fell twice to the Roundheads. Nothing lasts forever.
Wonderful as Chepstow Castle is, it’s time to move on and tell you about our most recent discoveries. The Three Castles were also originally constructed of wood – dates are uncertain but it’s thought that Grosmont was probably built by William FitzOsbern during his invasion of the area in 1070, or by his son Roger soon after, William having died in 1071. White was built at around the same time, and although no records give the date of Skenfrith it’s a safe bet that it also saw the light of day in the first decades after the conquest of England. The wooden structures have long gone (sadly of course, this means roofs, stairs, doors etc) but we are left with the impressive stone replacements.We do know that Skenfrith was rebuilt in stone in 1187, on the orders of Henry II.
The strategic importance – and vulnerability – of these bases is clear on the map where we can see how close they are to each other (they’re towards the top of the map). From Skenfrith to Grosmont is 5 miles; Grosmont to White Castle 6 miles; back to Skenfrith just over 6. Minutes by car, and probably a half hour or less by horseback – which meant that these garrisons were able to provide very effective support for each other. Unless they were all attacked at once of course – but that didn’t happen.
(The other castles shown are: Chepstow; Monmouth (1067-71), birthplace of Henry V in 1387; Caldicot (1086); Usk (pre 1120); St Briavel’s (pre 1129); Penhow (a fortified keep to house the knights from Chepstow); Pembridge (1135) and finally Raglan (mid 15th century), which was the last castle to be built in Wales and was more a place to live in pomp than a defensive site. I’ve just missed it off but there was a very important castle at Abergavenny, pre 1090)
White Castle is in some ways the one that looks most like you’d expect a castle to look – strong and forbidding, surrounded by a moat and with a pretty impressive double towered gatehouse. It’s an in-your-face military outpost suited to a position on a frontier where the peace was unstable at best, rather than a comfortable dwelling. It must have frightened the living daylights out of the locals.The gatehouse at White Castle
The inner bailey, White Castle
The photographs don’t do it justice but the place is impressive even now – the inner ward is a huge, empty space that would have once been filled with fighting men. The day we were there the weather was pretty bleak and atmospheric.Looking across towards Abergavenny and the Black Mountains
There’s a difference of opinion as to the origin of the name, one being that it was named for Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed, a local ruler of the time. The other is that the name was originally Llantilio Castle (the site is just over a mile from the village of Llantilio Crossenny), only being changed later when the stone walls were painted white. I think the second of these is more likely, but who knows? By the way, a close neighbour is the White Castle Vineyard, where you can spend a pretty good afternoon eating and drinking. Lizzie and her mates went there for her friend Sarah’s hen party at Easter and stuffed themselves silly.
As I said at the top, we didn’t visit the other castles that day but saved that treat for this week. First of all we drove across to Skenfrith, a name which sounds as though it comes from Watership Down. But its Welsh name is Ynysgynwraidd which I guess is a bit of a mouthful if you’re not familiar with the language. Ynys means island and it’s probable that cynwraidd is the name of a long forgotten Welsh chieftain.
Skenfrith is my personal favourite of the three, partly because of the surroundings but also because of the compact, simple outlay – it’s almost like a toy fort small boys would build. It’s situated just yards from the River Monnow, which looked surprisingly deep and fast flowing . Though maybe not so surprising when you read the information boards and learn that there was a medieval wharf excavated here, which was used to supply the castle. The river joins the Wye at Monmouth, which itself merges with the Severn at Chepstow before draining into the Bristol Channel. A brilliant site for an inland castle, with quick, easy access to major military centres downstream.Skenfrith Castle from the banks of the Monnow
The stone slabs on the other side of the river are part of the medieval wharf
Looking through the gateway to the river
The round keep at Skenfrith Castle
Skenfrith and Grosmont are even more interesting because of the churches, each within a stone’s throw of their castles. Religion was crucially important to the Normans – it’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that if their first priority was the acquisition of land and wealth, their allegiance to the Church was a close second. The Conquest had had the backing of the Pope, after all. And so many landowners, once secure, set about building, enlarging or enriching churches. Some of them also robbed those local churches and send the booty back to abbeys at home in Normandy or elsewhere in France.
St Bridget’s church in Skenfrith was consecrated in 1207 and is still in use today. It’s pretty from the outside and has some fascinating stuff inside.St Bridget’s, Skenfrith
The interior of St Bridget’s
Embroidery from a 14th century cope displayed on the wall
My favourite item was this tomb, of John Morgan and his wife. Morgan was the last governor of the Three Castles and died in 1557. His wife Anne died in 1564; the sides of the tomb are carved with four unknown women on one side and four kneeling men on the other, thought to be the couple’s four sons. Maybe the women are daughters-in-law?The tomb of John and Anne Morgan
The front of the tomb showing four kneeling men
Also in the church was this record of the Lords of Skenfrith, showing some pretty famous names. I’ve no idea how old this is – it may have been done last year as a school project!
Lovely as Skenfrith was, it was time to move on to Grosmont, just a few miles along the road. The castle is clearly visible behind the houses on the main street but isn’t signposted – as though they’re trying to keep it a secret – so once we’d parked the car in the centre of the village we had to peer over a few fences and down one or two lanes to find our way in. It was definitely worth it.The outer walls of Grosmont Castle and the moat
One of the towers at Grosmont Castle
It’s easy to see at a glance that Grosmont isn’t in the same style as the formidable White Castle or the simple, functional Skenfrith. This place was built to be an administrative centre and is almost palatial in comparison to the other two. For one thing it has a lot more windows!
King Henry III came to Grosmont in 1233 to put down a Welsh rebellion, and Henry V used the castle in the early years of the 15th century in the wars against Owain Glyndŵr. It’s likely that both men used the church of St Nicholas. By 1538 records show that the castle was abandoned and in a state of decay.One of the halls at Grosmont, and behind it the chimney stack added in the 14th century
Looking out of Grosmont’s main gate, across the moat. The stone foundations beneath the tree are probably the foundations of the stables
And so to the church of St Nicholas in Grosmont. From the outside it looked much bigger than St Bridget’s but inside was divided into two – one part which has been renovated and is in use for services; and the medieval part with its striking roof, which has been dated to the first half of the 13th century. This part of the building is a great, empty space that the locals clearly make the good use of – there was a notice on the wall announcing that archery classes in the nave were about to start again after a short break!
Looking towards the back of the medieval nave
We’re constantly being reminded of anniversaries these days – last year was 70 years since the end of World War II, 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo and 800 years since Magna Carta. This year is the Queen’s 90th birthday; 400 years since the death of Shakespeare and 950 years since the Norman Conquest. It’s almost a thousand years since these castles were raised. It doesn’t mean much if I think of it that way so I do this instead – I imagine a day 800 years ago today…
…the Three Castles are all functioning as part of the Marcher war machine, ruthlessly subjugating the local population. They are in close communication and there’s constant movement of people between all three, and also between the churches of St Bridget and St Nicholas. Attendance at services is a daily habit, particularly for the nobles, which is why the churches have been built so close at hand. The languages heard in this area are mostly Welsh and French, or Latin. Llywelyn the Great is at the height of his power in North Wales; his father-in-law, King John is on the English throne (but not for much longer). Magna Carta was sealed last year and for a short while it was thought that most royal abuses had been dealt with, but then the charter was almost immediately annulled by the Pope at John’s request. England is on the verge of civil war as a result, and an invasion by France is a definite possibility. The Pope is a busy man as he’s also planning the Fifth Crusade.
So – local government being a pain in the neck for the common man/woman/child…the laws of the land being manipulated by powerful individuals to benefit their own pockets and agenda…relations with Europe not looking too good…war in the Middle East…
Some things never change.
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