The first castle in Abergavenny, at that time timber, was erected around 1087-1088 by the Norman Lord Hamelin de Ballon. In the 1170s, another owner of the castle, Henry Fitzmiles, Lord Abergavenny, was killed by the Welsh ruler of Gwent, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal. Without the male heir, Henry’s estate together with the castle, passed to his daughter Bertha’s husband, William de Braose, who rebuilt and expanded his new seat.
In 1175, during the Christmas season, De Braose summoned Seisyll and his son Geoffrey to Abergavenny, along with other lesser Welsh rulers of the Principality of Gwent, simulating a desire for reconciliation. Upon their arrival, however, he had all the guests killed in the great hall of the castle, and then took Seisyll’s seat, Castell Arnallt, where he murdered his wife. This act, as well as taking the lands of the murdered, resulted in the sanctions of the English Crown, which wanted to calm down the Welsh-English border. As a result William had to withdraw from political life and hand over his property to his son.
In 1182, Hywel ap Iorwerth, Lord of Caerleon, along with relatives of Seisyll, set fire to the stronghold at Abergavenny. De Braose was not at the castle at the time, but most of his crew were taken to prison. During the further Welsh – English struggles of the first half of the thirteenth century, the castle often passed from hand to hand. Eventually, in 1233, it was destroyed by Richard Marshal, earl of Pembroke and Welsh princes, during the revolt against Henry III. After this incident, it was rebuilt, and instead of a wooden one, a stone keep was erected.
Before the mid-thirteenth century, Abergavenny passed through the marriage of Eva de Braose to William de Cantilupe, and then in the second half of the thirteenth century to the Lords of Hastings. Representatives of this family carried out further extensions of the castle at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. When the last Lord Hastings died childless in 1389, the castle was taken by the Beauchmp family, but from the 15th century no lord lived permanently in Abergavenny.
In 1402, riots broke out in Abergavenny after the castle constable tried to hang three townspeople in front of the castle gate. Their supporters attacked the stronghold, freed the prisoners and imprisoned Lady Joan Beauchamp in the keep. Soon after, in 1404, the town was plundered during the Welsh rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, but the castle itself withstood the siege and was not captured, until the relief of Richard York and the Sheriff of Hereford arrive. It is known that a year later it had a very strong garrison consisting of 80 mounted armed men with their squires and 400 archers.
During the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, king Charles I ordered the slighting of the castle, because of fear of being occupated by the army of Parliament. Towards the end of the 18th century, when the ruins began to attract the first tourists on the wave of romanticism, Henry Nevill, the second Earl of Abergavenny, built a hunting lodge on the top of the hill in 1819, where originally was a medieval keep.
The original castle in Abergavenny was a typical wooden motte and bailey building, consisting of a tower surrounded by a palisade at the top of the mound (motte) and a fortified outer bailey on the north-eastern side. In the 12th century, an initially wooden building of great hall was added, and at the end of the 13th century, the castle was reinforced with a perimeter wall and two connected towers on the north-west side: cylindrical and polygonal one. They were located in the corner of a narrow inner ward about 20 x 45 meters, closed on the opposite (southern) side with a keep’s mound. From the west, the castle protected the main defensive wall, and in the east, a thinner transverse wall (about 1.6 meters thick), further delimiting the larger space of the outer bailey (the lower ward with a diagonal of about 60 meters). The wall protecting the most endangered part of the castle was also the thickest, in the section adjacent to the gate in the north, it was 2.3 meters thick. The whole was situated on a promontory, west of the Gavenny River, flowing south into the larger Usk riverbed. The town, fortified from the end of the 13th century, adjoined the castle from the north.
The keep on the hill was a cylindrical, since around 1233 stone tower, with an ogival entrance portal above the ground level, Gothic windows (probably pointed according to early modern sources) and arrowslits. The entrance was at the level of the first floor and there was a wooden staircase leading to it.
The complex of two northern towers from the beginning of the 14th century consisted of a cylindrical and quadrilateral part with the sides about 10 meters above the plinth. The four-sided tower housed four floors, all covered with wooden flat ceilings, except for the highest one, probably topped with an open roof truss. The lowest storey, connected to the courtyard, served as a pantry and warehouse. Above, there could be a guard room, connected by a pointed portal with a wall-walk in the crown of the town defensive wall, which ran north under the tower, surrounding Abergavenny, lying to the north-east of the castle. The second floor of the tower was occupied by an imposing residential and representative chamber, well lit by three large windows with side stone seats. Above, there was one more living room for the lord’s family or guests, and all floors were connected by a spiral staircase set in the thickness of the eastern wall. The layout of the round tower is unknown, it is only known that it was equipped with a latrine and a fireplace.
Around 1402, a new gatehouse was erected on the site of a simple gate pierced in the defensive wall in the northern part of the circuit. It had the form of a quadrilateral measuring 8 x 12 meters, protruding at a slight slant entirely in front of the defensive walls towards the ditch. It was equipped with a drawbridge, raised to a four-sided recess and a guard room on the first floor. The latter was heated by a fireplace, lit by a window pierced above the passage and connected to the wall-walk in the crown of the defensive wall. The gate passage started in a portal with an unusual ogival form (characteristic for the beginning of the 15th century), and inside it probably had a pit into which part of the drawbridge could fall when it was lifted. The absence of signs of wear on the openings in the wall indicates that the bridge was operated with ropes rather than iron chains. The outer defense zone of the castle was a dry moat. To get to the main part of the castle, you probably had to go through a second gate, embedded in the transverse wall.
The main, rectangular building of the castle (stone hall) was located in the corner of the outer ward, between the mound and the gatehouse, where one of the walls formed the main defensive wall, and the other (shorter) wall separated the two wards. The building was about 28 meters long and 8 meters wide. It consisted of a large chamber (great hall) upstairs and storage rooms below. In the main chamber, meals were served to the lord on the dais, and on the opposite side there was a spiral staircase leading to a kitchen, probably for fear of fire, located in a separate building. The hall was lit only by windows from the south, and perhaps its western part was originally separated with a partition to obtain a more private room. The next buildings of the outer bailey were probably in the south-eastern part of the courtyard, where a impressive vaulted cellar was discovered. In its vicinity there was a four-sided tower from the beginning of the 15th century.
Large fragments of defensive walls, ruins of a polygonal and round tower and relics of a gatehouse have survived to modern times. On the oldest part of the castle, that is on the mound from the 12th century, there is now a nineteenth-century building, built on medieval foundations. A local museum functions in it.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Salter M., The castles of Gwent, Glamorgan & Gower, Malvern 2002.