Monday, 6 February 2017

Usk Town - planted by the Normans

Usk Town
   This is a familiar view of Usk's Twyn Square, proudly flower-filled in the summer months, with the Norman castle visible in the background behind the trees. Monmouthshire is rich in castles of this period and round them grew settlements which drew a living from supplying the Marcher Lords and their followers with necessary goods and help for defence. Trade was brisk between towns which held markets on different days of the week with merchants travelling from one to the next, replenishing their supplies at ports on Saturdays.

Planting a town
   There is evidence that Usk was different in that it was deliberately planned and developed by the Normans (much as new towns have been in our day) rather than rising organically and spontaneously. The layout of this settlement did not follow the line of the Roman fort of the 1st century AD but was laid out from scratch by Richard Strongbow de Clare between December 1154 and May 1170. It is possible that the famous knight William Marshall extended it but it certainly reached its fullest extent within its defences between 1280 and 1295. The de Clares had a custom (intended to confuse later historians!) of naming alternate elder sons Richard or Gilbert and this has made it difficult to trace ownership of particular pieces of land.
    William I, after his conquest in 1066, appointed three close allies as lords over a portion of the Welsh Marches, the southern area being under the control of William fitzOsbern, builder of Chepstow Castle, who probably visited Caerleon. (Were ALL Norman men called William?) Their remit was to keep the unruly locals in check by whatever means they felt appropriate and they had a great deal of autonomy. Probably in 1149, aged 18, Richard succeeded him as Earl of Pembroke and, later and less prestigiously, as Lord of Striguil (Chepstow).  He devoted much energy to "a bold adventure in another country [Ireland]" but, in his spare time, he created the town of Usk.

   The date of the plantation of the town is probably close to that of the issuing of a charter setting up the Benedictine Priory in the mid 12th century as detailed above. The large block of Priory land fitted into the street plan of the town. The map attached to the excellent book Norman Usk by A. G. Mein shows burgage plots on both sides of Bridge Street and surrounding the old Market place in Twyn Square, the whole leading into Priory land between the church and Pook lane. These plots were standard-sized, with narrow frontages but with long extensions behind them and had a fixed annual rent of one shilling. They had a tendency to creep forwards encroaching on the street as temporary sales pitches on their fronts became permanent - the law seems to have failed to prevent this. A example is the western side of Twyn Square where the placing of the market forced travellers through it to spend their money at the illegal stalls. The temptation to inch forwards into prominence must have been overwhelming.

   A Medieval ditch was discovered by Professor Manning during his 1975 excavations of the cattle market and is still referred to as Clawdd Ddu (black ditch) and a pavement marker may be seen in Maryport Street at the far end. It ran up behind Mill Street and New Market Street, behind Bridge Street, beyond Four Ash and back behind the prison. It extended for a distance of 2200 yards enclosing an area of about 95 acres and was probably defensive although rather weakly fortified as there was only an earthen rampart with, perhaps, a wooden palisade.

Earlier and later
    In AD 75 most of the Second Augustan Roman Legion left Usk (Burrium) for Caerleon (Isca) largely because of flooding which, in particular, threatened their granaries, but their presence means that Usk has a long history of settlement. Even the centurion's knees must have suffered in our climate!
Tracks through Time tour by Jeremy Bosanquet
Other towns in later centuries had imposing Town Criers in scarlet robes and black tricorne hats resonantly and clearly intoning the latest news but Usk had Billo Wisham. He was small and shabbily dressed in an overlong, erstwhile black, coat and tweed check cap. His USP was indistinct pronunciation so that no-one was sure whether to attend a jumble sale, a concert, a carnival or merely to take precautions because the water was about to be turned off. He always ended with a prayer for the King.

This blog usually ends each post by encouraging the consumption of a large piece of CAKE after a visit to a site of historic interest and Usk offers many opportunities for wholesome calorific consumption - such as the delicious items in the Green Flute cafe, handily situated in the main car park (oops! but I know some of you travel in private motors) and open even when the Rural Life Museum is closed. When you have re-energised yourself you could visit Usk Castle, the memorial to Alfred Russel Wallace or the battle site of Pwll Melin where Owain Glyn Dwr's forces suffered a momentous defeat. Chepstow Castle can be reached by the 63 bus on a lovely scenic route. For details of buses, click here or use the link to timetables on the footer.
For more on Usk's founder, Richard Strongbow de Clare, click here.

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