The construction of the castle began Earl of Hereford, William FitzOsbern, on the order of king William the Conqueror around 1067. The stronghold, originally called Striguil, was to secure the south-western part of the border and suppress the threat from the Welsh. FitzOsbern also built a number of other castles along the River Wye (Monmouth, Hereford), thanks to which this important route provided the Normans with total control and maneuverability throughout the region. The Great Tower – the keep of Chepstow castle, was completed until 1090 and as one of the few from the very beginning, it was built of stone, not wood. Although most of the stones were excavated from local quarries, some of the blocks were reused from the Roman ruins at Caerwent.
William FitzOsbern died in 1071 in the battle of Cassel, and his son, Roger de Breteuil, who inherited extensive property, lost everything when he took part in the attempt to coup against king William in 1075. Chepstow, along with other FitzOsbern castles, was taken over by the Crown, until in the early twelfth century it was ruled by the de Clare family. Further development of the castle was associated with William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke from 1189, who, after marriage with daughter and heiress of Richard de Clare, became lord of Chepstow. William expanded and enlarged the stronghold, drawing on knowledge gained in France and crusades. He fortified the central ward (middle bailey), erected the main gate on the northeastern side, and rebuilt the fortifications of the upper bailey. Further work on the expansion of the keep was undertaken by the sons of William Marshall: William, Richard, Gilbert and Walter, in the period up to 1245.
The male’s Marshall family line ended in 1245, and their vast estates were divided among different descendants. Chepstow passed to William’s eldest daughter, Maud, who married Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk. Their son and grandson, both named Roger Bigod, took the earl’s title and ruled Chepstow until 1306. During this period, new buildings were erected in the lower ward, serving as the main residence of the Bigod family. Roger Bigod also built a new tower, later known as the “Marten’s Tower”, and rebuilt the keep (Great Tower) around 1300.
Roger Bigod the younger, died childless in 1306, and the castle returned to the English Crown. It remained a royal property until 1324, when Edward II granted it to his unpopular favorite, Hugh Despenser. However, only two years later, Edward’s authority was overthrown by a successful coup d’état led by queen Isabel and Roger Mortimer. Edward II and Despenser retreated to the Chepstow castle, but did not risk a siege and escaped. Both were finally captured, Despenser was executed and the king overthrown and imprisoned.
From the fourteenth century, and especially after the end of the wars between England and Wales at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the military significance of the castle was reduced. Still in 1403, it was garrisoned by twenty men at arms and sixty archers in response to Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, but its great size and limited strategic importance contributed to the fact that it was not attacked by the Welsh. In 1468, Chepstow was part of the estate granted to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and in 1508 it became the property of Sir Charles Somerset, the later Earl of Worcester who rebuilt the castle in Tudor-style, into a more comfortable residence.
In the 17th century, during the English Civil War, the castle was occupied by royalist troops. They dominated in Wales at the beginning of the conflict, but in 1645 parliamentary forces under the command of Thomas Morgan besieged Chepstow. After the castle was fired, the garrison gave up. The stronghold escaped slighting, but in 1648 it was again occupied by royalists of Nicholas Kemeys. The forces of Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell again shelled the stronghold causing significant damages. The garrison gave up and Kemeys was executed. After the war, the castle was garrisoned and was maintained as a barracks and political prison. The prisoner in Chepstow was, among others, Henry Marten, one of the commissioners who signed the death sentence on king Charles I, held until his own death in 1680. In 1682, the castle became the property of duke Beaufort, the garrison was withdrawn three years later and the buildings were partially demolished, rented to tenants or left to their fate. The first repair work was undertaken at the beginning of the 20th century.
Chepstow Castle was founded on a narrow ridge between the limestone cliff above the Wye River and the valley on the land side. Its oldest part was the so-called Great Tower, or an oblong, rectangular, stone building with a keep function. In the first phase attributable to years 1067-1115, it was a two-level structure, the lower floor of which was accessible through a timber staircase from the east, and the upper level with the main, ceremonial chamber, through timber stairs from the north. The lighting of the lower floor was provided only by three small openings, located from the safer side facing the river. The small windows also had an east façade, south and west hadn’t any. In the years 1219-1245, the upper floor was rebuilt piercing five new, gothic windows and private chambers on the west side were arranged. This part was also raised by the next floor, supported on a single pillar with beautifully decorated arches. In the years 1293-1300 Roger Bigod raised the remaining, eastern part of the keep, and from the side of the river he erected the so-called gallery, or an indoor porch running along the donjon.
Two baileys adjoined the Great Tower: the west, also called the upper bailey and the eastern one, which later became the middle bailey. Between 1189 and 1245, the middle bailey was reinforced with two towers on the eastern side: cylindrical and shaped on a horseshoe plan, followed by another horseshoe tower from the southern side. On the upper bailey, around 1215, a four-sided tower was built, named Marshal’s Tower after the founder. It housed a private room on the first floor and a kitchen in the ground level. It was probably topped with hoarding, it also had connection with the sidewalk of defenders from the north and east. In the 1230s, the western side of the fortifications was extended by a barbican, reinforced with a tower in the south-western corner. It was probably open from the side of the ward and four-level. Around 1298, the simple gate of the barbican in the form of ordinary door, was replaced with a four-sided gatehouse tower.
The easternmost part of the stronghold was the lower bailey. Already around 1189, it received a massive gate consisting of two towers flanking the passage between them. It was one of the earliest gates of this type in Wales and England. It was protected by two portcullis, iron-studded door, arrowslits and murder holes in the passage ceiling, hoarding crowning the top of the gate and later rectangular foregate.
In the years 1270-1300, at the lower bailey, Roger Bigod erected a new range, adjacent to the northern curtain wall. The Great Hall building on the west end served ceremonial and representative functions, guests were wecome here, meals were served and feasts were arranged. Next, there was a wine storage room with a rib vault and the main entrance to the Great Hall through a sophisticated porch, extended towards the ward. The north-eastern part of the building complex was occupied by a large kitchen with beautiful, large, gothic windows. Its size indicated the hospitality and splendor that the castle lord of the time wanted to offer. In this part of the castle there was also a pantry, a buttery, a service corridor for the servants carrying meals, a sewage and a hole through which one could draw supplies straight from ships on the river.
Another construction project of Roger Bigod in the years 1288-1293 was the so-called Marten’s Tower. It was erected in the eastern corner of the lower bailey, probably in place of the earlier, smaller tower. On three floors, it housed private rooms and a chapel, possibly intended to host the king in the event of a visit. All three entrances to it were equipped with portcullises, thanks to which it could be an independent defensive work. The tower also had cellars. From the outside, it was reinforced with spurs, and its crowning was a battlement. Large windows facing the ward and fireplaces are later additions.
Chepstow Castle is one of the best known and best preserved castles in Wales, it is also thanks to many years of researches best recognized, as evidenced by numerous reconstructions of individual phases of its development. The castle is open to visitors. Since 1984, it has been under the care of Cadw, a Welsh government agency responsible for protecting, preserving and promoting the heritage of Wales. The castle often hosts occasional and outdoor events.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Chepstow castle and Chepstow town walls.