Here to return to
A TOWN with the Saxon name of Chepstow grew up under the shadow of a castle built by the Normans on the Welsh bank of the Wye, and was called by them Ystreigl or Striguil. There was a time when the great merchants of Europe could talk of the lordship of Striguil as a great centre of commerce. It held one of the gates to Wales; it contained a large part of the Wye valley, and the Wye valley boasted Tintern, an abbey under the patronage of the successive lords of Striguil, where the wool trade was carefully fostered by the monks.
A book of history might not tell us more. First, the purely military outpost of the Normans is set up in 1067 as a bridgehead for further advances into Wales. The Norman scribe, true to the racial instinct for adaptation, copies down the barbarous Welsh name of the locality as it strikes his ear. Then the merchants come, and the English town of Chepstow (which means literally a place of trade, a market) grows great under the protection of the feudal magnates, outlives them, and finally extends its own name to the ruined walls of Striguil. It is the emergence of England, made possible by an infusion of Norman strength. The powerless dragon of Wessex goes down in defeat at Hastings, and a few centuries later the battle cry of Agincourt is “St. George for Merry England.” The point illustrated at Chepstow could be easily proved: that the battle of Hastings was the decisive blow for the English conquest of England; it was the final defeat of the Northmen.
The name of Striguil is probably derived from a Welsh verb meaning to wander, in reference to the winding course of the river. But a most interesting theory was once built up to show that the origin of the name lay in the Welsh Ystrad Iwl; that Chepstow was a Roman station to protect the river-crossing of the Strata Julia. Unfortunately there was never a Roman station at Chepstow, the Strata Julia was in another part of the country, and the Roman road to Caerleon and Caerwent passed over the Wye some little way up stream. The first military use of the site was undoubtedly made by William Fitz Osborn, Seneschal of Normandy, Earl of Hereford, who was made joint Justiciar of the kingdom with Odo of Bayeux, with instructions to build castles in suitable positions while William the Conqueror was visiting Normandy in 1067.
Chepstow (as the castle will be called to avoid confusion) was built upon an ideal river-side position which it would have been folly to neglect. The old bridge of the Roman road was near enough to be afforded military protection, and as the town grew up a new bridge was thrown across the Wye a little below the castle. The castle was built upon a long and narrow platform along the Wye. On one side sheer limestone cliffs rose from the waters of the river, and on the other side was a steep gully or ravine running parallel to the stream. The town, a walled enclosure, grew up by the side of the ravine, affording additional protection, if it was needed, from that direction. The walls of the town are fairly well preserved, and Chepstow is a rare example of a castle associated with the fortifications of a town but lying entirely outside the town walls; a disposition partly due to the nature of the site and partly to the fact that the castle was the original settlement. The platform of rock, some 250 yards in length, and in breadth varying from 30 to 70 yards, rises towards the centre where the original Norman castle was erected.
Chepstow is long and narrow, consisting of four adjacent wards, occupying the whole length of the tongue of land. On such a site the concentric form was impossible, but attack was only to be feared from east and west. The original castle probably took the form of a ward near the western end of the platform. A deep ditch was excavated from the ravine to the cliff on the west to protect an elongated enclosure with a massive and defensible hall at its eastern end. Probably there were also domestic quarters in wood, which have disappeared. The first addition, in the twelfth century, was a large ward to the east of this, and in the next hundred years a barbican was built at the western end of the castle, and the strongest ward of all, with living quarters, gatehouse, and a strong tower, was added in the east.
The strength of the castle is at once obvious to the visitor. The barbican, not a narrow passage but an enclosed courtyard, is fronted by a ditch, crossed by a drawbridge. Within the barbican, against the wall of the second court, is the old ditch of the Norman castle. The entrance of the barbican is protected by an imposing gatehouse with rectangular towers in two stories and the usual apparatus of gate and portcullis, battlement and loop. At the south-west angle is a round tower which was formerly connected with the enceinte of the town by a wall across the ravine of no great strength. Having taken the well-protected barbican by assault an enemy would find himself confronted by the ditch and drawbridge protecting the second cross wall.
The most imposing feature of the whole castle, and indeed one of the most remarkable buildings in any English castle, is the hall or keep at the end of this second ward from the western end. It is of the same class as the fine hall at Richmond, of early Norman work with twelfth and thirteenth century additions. Probably (and here as usual the experts differ) it was built immediately after the Conquest, to judge by the style of architecture, and the irregularities of its plan and construction. The ordinary visitor may leave on one side the alternative and equally attractive theories that a hall was converted into a keep and that a keep was converted into a hall. It may be considered a hall capable of defence like the similar buildings at Richmond and Durham.
The building occupies the end of the ward, leaving a narrow gallery on the side of the river, closed by gates at either end, to connect the second and third wards. The basement of the building was used for stores, and its walls are pierced with loops to command the gallery. The Norman aula in the upper story is now entered by a vice in the thickness of the wall. The fireplace must have been in the centre of the floor with an opening in the roof to allow of the escape of smoke. The hall shows its continued use, for the ornamentation is mostly Decorated. Norman windows have been blocked out and windows of the thirteenth century inserted in their stead, and a line of Decorated windows takes the place of a triforium in the Norman hall. At one end an arch has been built up dividing the hall into two unequal parts. This provided a solar for the lord and his friends, and the line of Decorated windows above the string course provided light for a broad wooden gallery running around the hall.
The third ward from the west has no outstanding features, except a watch tower in the southern curtain projecting towards the ravine. From the top of this tower signals could formerly be received from a similar tower on a high hill across the river. By this means ships entering the mouth of the Wye could be seen long before they reached Chepstow, where the lord had the right to exact toll from them. The other tower still stands on Twt Hill — which means look-out hill. There is a Twt Hill above Carnarvon, and the name remains in some English villages, such as Toot Baldon in Oxfordshire.
In the fourth or lower ward the thirteenth-century builders erected their most elaborate buildings and their strongest fortifications. The buildings have been allowed to fall into disrepair, and we can only see from their range and variety, from an occasional room or window, that they must once have been of considerable magnificence. They included a hall, an oratory, kitchens, and dwelling rooms, running along the cliff top over the Wye. The most interesting of the surviving portions is the vaulted cellar with a groined roof excavated below the hall. A door in the floor opens above a creek or recess in the cliff, and an iron ring shows that use was made of this unusual postern to draw up provisions, messages, and spies. The Royalists besieged in this castle are recorded to have let a boat down to the river in preparation for escape; but a Roundhead soldier swam across the Wye with a knife in his mouth, cut the rope, and brought away the boat.
The landward walls of this court are of immense thickness, even for their period. They are built up of an outer and an inner wall, with a filling of earth between, making a thickness of 20 ft. in places.
The splendid gatehouse is in the north-east angle of the ward near the river. Two drum towers of unequal size defended a gateway with two portcullises, and a projecting archway above commanded the space before the gate. Then, to protect the angle of the ward a strong tower of great strength was built, comparable with the Eagle tower at Carnarvon. It flanked the gatehouse on its left, and the ravine along the line of the south curtain, and to increase its flanking properties stone spurs were built up along its base in the form of demi-pyramids dying away in the face of the tower. Its name is the Marten’s tower — so-called because Henry Marten, one of the regicides, having been spared the death penalty, was condemned to an easy imprisonment there after the Restoration.
The entrance to Marten’s tower is from the ground level in the ward, protected by its own gate and portcullis. Besides an underground chamber there are three floors, containing one room each, connected by a spiral staircase in the wall. Where the ram part wall communicates with the tower there is another door and portcullis. Jutting from the tower and rising above the level of the ramparts there is a square projection containing a small oratory. Marten’s tower was primarily a flanking tower, but it also served as the nearest approach to a keep that was ever attained in the concentric type of castle.
Chepstow belonged to men who made their name in England, Wales, and Ireland. It soon passed out of the hands of the FitzOsborns. William was killed in Flanders, and his son, Roger of Breteuil, was deprived of his estates for conspiracy. The castle was granted to the founder of Tintern Abbey, Walter FitzRichard, of the family of Clare, and thence it descended to Gilbert and Richard Strongbow, the powerful Earls of Pembroke.
For a time Thomas de Brotherton, a son of Edward I, held the castle, regranting it for life to the younger Despenser. To this period may be assigned the reconstruction of the hall, and parts of the lower ward. Subsequently the castle passed through the hands of Mowbrays, Herberts, and Somersets. The Dukes of Beaufort are the present owners.
In the Civil Wars Chepstow was taken by assault, after a cannonade, by the Parliamentarians. A breach was made in the walls, and some forty of the garrison were slain, but it does not appear that very considerable damage was done to the old walls of the castle, which will last for many years to come.