The original castle in Usk was erected by Norman invaders at the end of the 11th or at the beginning of the 12th century. A settlement that served the needs of the garrison was next to it. It was built on the site of a former legionary fort protected by a ditch and an earth rampart. The exact date of construction of the castle is unknown, the stronghold was mentioned for the first time in documents only in 1138, in relation with its occupation by the Welsh. Usk was recaptured by Gilbert de Clare, the first Earl of Pembroke, and then reinforced by his son, Richard de Clare, the second Earl of Pembroke, who erected a stone keep. Despite this, the castle was again conquered by the Welsh in 1174 and remained in their hands for another ten years.
Richard died in 1176, leaving no male descendant. For this reason, his estate was inherited by a young daughter, Isabel de Clare. During her minority the castle was managed by the Crown, and king Henry II spent more than 10 pounds on its repair. Four years later, Isabel married William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, and he began a major rebuilding of Usk. He erected the Garrison Tower and the neighboring Round Tower and modernized the timber palisade on the stone defensive wall. Further improvements were made at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and his son, also known as Gilbert. The latter was killed in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, leaving the widow in Usk, countess Matilda, who managed the castle until her death in 1320. Then Usk passed into the hands of sister-in-law, Elizabeth de Burgh. She made numerous repairs, especially strengthened outer ward. This was certainly due to the participation of her husband, Roger Dammor, in the rebellion of Lancaster Earl against king Edward II and his hated favorite Hugh Despenser. In 1322, the rebellion was suppressed, Roger was killed, and Elizabeth was imprisoned. At that time, Usk became the property of Hugh Despenser. Elizabeth regained it in 1327 after the fall of Edward II.
At the beginning of the 15th century, the great uprising of the native people broke out in Wales. In 1402, the Usk Castle was besieged by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr, but remained unconquered, although the town was plundered and burnt. The next attack took place in 1405, but this time the defenders, commanded by Lord Richard Gray of Codnor and Dafydd Gam, repulsed the attack. Encouraged by victory, they left the stronghold and defeated the Welsh at the Battle of Pwll Melyn, just a few hundred meters from the castle. After the rebellion, Usk became part of the Lancaster Duchy, and after restoring stability in the country, there was no need for further renovation and modernization of the castle. It survived the English Civil War with minor damages, and was finally rebuilt in 1680 as a dwelling residence.
The castle was erected on a plan similar to the oval, on a hill overlooking the eastern bank of the Usk River. In the mid-twelfth century its only stone element was a four-sided tower in the south-eastern part of the site, sometimes described as a keep. It consists of two floors above the basement – the ground floor and to this day has two two-light, romanesque windows in the south wall. However, it probably played the role of a gate tower, not a keep, because in its eastern wall there is an arcade, which was later blocked. Probably the gatehouse originally had one room above the passage, and the second floor was added in the 13th century. The door was also added to connect the tower with the latrine in the south-west corner.
At the beginning of the 13th century, a stone defensive wall was erected in place of earlier, timber and earth fortifications. William Marshal also reinforced the castle with a cylindrical Garrison Tower in the south-western part of the circuit and the Round Tower located south of it. The Garrison Tower had four floors and defended the section from the town side. Originally, the entrance to it was on the level of the first floor, which was led by a timber staircase. The lower two floors were equipped with arrowslits, while the upper two with narrow, pointed windows. Internal communication was provided by a spiral staircase, through which one could get to the top defensive walkway, crowned with battlement. The last storey of the tower and the battlement were added at a later time, probably by Gilbert III de Clare. Another tower called the North Tower was erected, as the name suggests, on the north side and had a horseshoe shape.
In the years 1308-1309, a rectangular building was erected by the northern curtain, called the Countess’s Chamber. The next residential and economic buildings were erected during the reign of the widow of Glibert de Clare, Matilda. At that time a rectangular hall and a chapel on the north side of the castle emerged. Elizabeth de Burgh and her husband continued to work on the castle, erecting a bay window next to the countess’s chamber. A new south gatehouse and two drawbridges were built on the outer ward, and the moat was cleaned. The fortified outer ward protected the castle from the east and south. It had at least one corner, cylindrical tower on the south side and subsequent gates on the north and east side. Economic buildings, including stables, were located there.
The castle has survived to modern times in the form of a legible ruin. The entire defensive circuit of the upper castle has been preserved, with the exception of the southern tower. Also the gatehouse and the corner tower on the area of the former outer ward have been preserved. In a slightly worse condition, the northern residential buildings are visible, the castle chapel has not been preserved. The Usk stronghold is in private hands, but it is open to the public, during the summer there are outdoor events organized there.
Kenyon J., The medieval castles of Wales, Cardiff 2010.
Lindsay E., The castles of Wales, London 1998.
Website castlesfortsbattles.co.uk, Usk Castle.