Friday, 3 June 2016

Raglan Castle

A Toff's Castle
   Raglan Castle is stunningly imposing but less as a belligerent military fortress than as a nobleman's vast home.  It is a fortified palace in the French style with its hexagonal towers. Built by a father-and-son team, it showed off their wealth and position and saw less warfare than a smaller one such as that in Usk. Because of the relatively late dates of construction, the period was comparatively peaceful. Henry Tudor, future King Henry VII, spent some of his childhood here.

Construction - military
   Building was begun in the 15th century by Sir William ap Thomas (knighted by Henry VI) and the castle marks a transitional stage between a military fortification and a palatial residence in keeping with the growing riches and power of the family. There was the 6-sided, 5-storey Twr Melyn Gwent (yellow tower of Gwent, probably so called because of the yellow lichen growing on it) with 10 foot thick walls and surrounded by a deep water-filled moat, which could be held if the rest of the site were taken in battle. The high quality carved masonry spoke of the family's affluence. There were circular gun loops in the Kitchen Tower; the battlements and Closet Tower have machicolations from which from which the enemy could be attacked from above.

Construction - domestic and other additions
  Sir William's son, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, built the superb gatehouse block and added the residential apartments of the Fountain Court.
   William Somerset contrived the showy second-floor long gallery which would have been heated and hung with panelling, portraits and tapestries and was ideal for the sumptuous social activities of the upper classes. The Fountain Court, which once had a fountain at the centre, the base of which can still be seen, contained a range of pleasing apartments, probably for visitors. These had fireplaces and handsome windows as glass was becoming cheaper and larger sheets were available in the 16th century, a fact that William Somerset welcomed to let in light to his probably gloomy home. The family had private accommodation, the high status of which was indicated by superbly carved masonry including heraldic badges round the windows.
   Later a moat walk was created with busts of Roman Emperors in niches decorated with shells, as was the fashion of the period, and elaborate gardens were laid out with ponds, orchards and deer. The bowling green is still there to be appreciated.


The Civil War
   Although the Wars of the Roses had been rumbling on, the main threat to Raglan Castle came with the Civil War. The Marquis of Worcester, Henry Somerset, (grandson of William Somerset), a Catholic aristocrat, with an income then of over £24,000 p.a., was one of the richest men in the kingdom and had a household of 500. He had poured nearly a million pounds into the coffers of King Charles' war effort and now bailed him out yet again and allowed him to stay there for 3 weeks. He was therefore a prime target and made preparations for defence: the Roundheads pounded the castle relentlessly under the charge of Colonel Thomas Morgan with 1500 troops. The Marquis was hit at dinner by a musket ball but passed the incident off with a quip about his head-piece although some of the women fainted. 
   Sir Thomas Fairfax, arriving on 7th August 1646 to lead the assault, brought up Roaring Meg, a kind of super-cannon intended to lob missiles over the walls, along with others, but they were never used. Finally, letters were exchanged and a bloodless outcome reached by its surrender on 19th August 1646, after - in total - a 10 week seige, the Marquis pleading for the safety of 2 young pigeons as he left. 
   Instructions were given for the castle to be completely destroyed but this did not happen. Men with pickaxes removed the top storey of the 5 of the Great Tower. Later it was decided to "slight" the castle, render it incapable of military use: this was done to parts by undermining (inserting wood and then firing it). All traces of aristocratic life were systematically smashed or ripped out. Even the fine books in the library were wrecked and the fish killed by breaking the walls of their enclosures.

Your visit
   I have skated the surface of this castle's fascinating history and shall return to its various aspects later, in particular to the character of the Marquis of Worcester who glows from the past in rich colour. You can spend hours here lolling on the grass enjoying the superb views as well as looking for traces of the past on the walls of the courtyards such as heraldic shields, intricate stonework edging and gargoyles. There were stonemasons' marks indicating how much work each man had done. There is a small but well-stocked shop with upmarket wall hangings (and toilets - you are a little way from the village.)

Chimneypiece in long gallery, late 16th century

   The walk from the bus stop in Raglan village takes about 15 minutes heading off behind the Beaufort and is quite pleasant apart from crossing the busy dual carriageway of the A449. Raglan is served by 2 buses, the 60 which can take you to Monmouth with its connections to Henry V since it was in the castle there that he was born. and the 83 from Monmouth to Abergavenny where a brutal massacre took place one Christmas in its castle.
   Or you could go in the other direction on the number 60 to Usk with its castle and the nearby battle of Pwll Melyn against Owain Glyndwr's forces or further onwards to Caerleon with its Roman remains.
  Opening times for Raglan Castle
  On the bus, on your way home, you will find your mind reliving all these images.

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