Chepstow Castle dates from 1067 onwards and was clearly designed to reinforce the new conquest by its commending position, overseeing one of the most important routes into Wales. One of the difficulties for the amateur historian is that all the men connected with it were called William apart from the occasional Roger, Henry, Nicholas or Richard and a woman, mercifully not named Wilhemina.
William Fitz Osbern, one of William the Conqueror's staunch supporters, is credited by many historians with building the rectangular Great Tower. This is strategically positioned on the narrowest part of the high cliff ridge above the River Wye: Chepstow was the first stone castle to be built in Britain and was constructed by masons from Normandy.The Conqueror knew he had to subdue the unruly natives and created borderland Marcher Lordships encouraging expansion into Welsh Territory. The site's Welsh name "Striguil" means "bend in the river" and Archdeacon William Coxe (a man of few words - where 1 would do!) gives 7 spellings for this and quotes from the Domesday Book (1086): "Castellum de Estrighoiel fecit Wilhelmus Comes" (Earl William built the castle of Estriguil.)
The next stages
In 1189 Chepstow Castle passed by marriage to William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, known as the "flower of chivalry" who wed the de Clare heiress, Isabella, the "damsel of Striguil", daughter of Richard "Strongbow." He found that he now owned an outdated castle much in need of renovation: the main defences were added at this time, including Marshall's Tower. His 5 sons (one of whom was christened William and all of whom died young) strengthened the fortification and expanded the building with 2 outer cells, the Upper and Lower Baileys and west barbican. (I shall return to this fascinating character in a later post as he was active in the reigns of 4 Plantagenet kings: Henry I, Richard I, John and Henry III.)
Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk, transformed the domestic arrangements of the castle in the later 13th century. Following the visit of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor in December 1284, work began on what is now know as Marten's Tower, then called the "New Tower." This was intended to provide fine, luxurious accommodation for guests with a private chapel and Bigod may have hoped for a return of his royal guests.
Some wooden doors in the castle have been dated by dendochronology as 800 years old. This beautiful and complex door of unusual workmanship is stored off its hinges: ask at the desk to be told where it is.
The Civil War
Chepstow was held for the King in the first stage but was besieged and captured in October 1645: in the second stage, once more in Royalist hands, it was heavily bombarded and surrendered, the commander, Sir Nicholas Kemeys, being shot. An interesting event from the aftermath was the detention as a prisoner of Henry Marten, who had been a loose-living rake and republican for many decades and who signed the death warrant along with 58 others of King Charles I, thereby gaining notoriety as a regicide.
More modern times
After William Gilpin's 1782 account of his 1770 tour of the Wye Valley and its promotion of the picturesque, tourist numbers increased, all in search of the strong emotions evoked by ruins and ivy. Yet, at that time, Marten's Tower was still roofed and floored and in the 19th century visitors came in through the gatehouse and "thundered at the portal for admission with a cannonball suspended on a chain." William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist, came to the area in 1842 and reported his dinner as "the best salmon ever eaten." Knights have always had a Romantic allure and good food a different powerful attraction.
I have discussed the imprisonment of Henry Marten, regicide, after the Civil War, in a special post and you can read about William Marshall in my brief biography of him.
Disappointingly there is no cannon ball for you to swing: all you have to do now is buy your ticket (at the moment of writing there is a special discount on joining Cadw on site) and enjoy the ruins and the grounds. Toilets are situated in the car park - so go before you go! There is also an excellent information Centre, the Chepstow Museum and pleasant pottering by the River Wye.
The bus station, served by many buses, is at the top of town. The no 69 will take you to Tintern Abbey and on to Monmouth with its historical associations and the 63 to Usk and its castle and nearby battlefield.
For opening times for the castle click here.