Friday, 15 July 2016

Caldicot Castle

The Site
   Caldicot Castle is somewhat unusually situated on the Gwent levels whereas many castles take advantage of a high position. The name Caldicot could mean "Cold cot", a rough shelter built by the Romans on a main road: the Roman town of Caerwent is 2 miles north (on the road called Via Julia in those times) and the garrison at Caerleon is 10 miles away. According to the Domesday Book of 1086 the town was held by Sheriff Durand and was recorded as being "in demesne [worked on lord's behalf  by villeins or serfs] three ploughs and 15 villeins, four serfs and one man at arms. All these have twelve ploughs. Here is a mill of ten shillings. All is worth £6." The site is near Harold Godwinson's former Saxon castle and has, despite first impressions, strategic value being near the Bristol Channel so that the comings and goings of ships could be tracked and transport of supplies easily managed.

First building 
   Dates and stages of building are quite difficult to establish but the green motte (mound) topped by a round stone keep was probably constructed around 1221 after Humphrey de Bohun, the "Good Earl", inherited the lordship. The motte would have helped to compensate for the flat site and some historians have argued that it would have had to be virtually demolished and rebuilt for the foundations of the keep to go so deeply into it. The keep was a formidable structure with 9 foot thick walls of local gritstone, 4 storeys and inner lavish accommodation, spiral staircases, elaborate architectural detail, hooded fireplaces, window seats and, that ultimate in comfort, a semi-circular latrine turret. In the basement is a vaulted dungeon. The exterior is faced with finely-cut smooth stone and the top was crowned with battlements.


  The castle changed hands many times and the various owners added different parts: as this information is lengthy and readily available, I will summarise it briefly. Sturdy curtain (connecting) walls were added with round towers encompassing the inner ward. The first gate-house was erected in the mid 13 th century and allowed rapid and covert movement into and away from the castle proper. During the 14th century it was modified and, in the 1340's, the Great Hall was constructed. Thomas de Woodstock did extensive and costly works in the late 1380's (he deserves a paragraph of his own!) The castle fell into a ruinous state between 1507 and 1830 when it was leased as an agricultural holding only but was admired by lovers of the picturesque with its covering of ivy. J. R. Cobb, a wealthy Victorian barrister,  bought it in 1885 to become a family residence and restored and altered it considerably: he was a castle buff who also owned Manorbier and Pembroke castles.

Thomas de Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester

He was the 14th and youngest child of Edward III and obtained the castle through marriage to Eleanor de Bohun. His building works, lasting from 1384 and 1389, included the Great Gateway on the south and the Woodstock Tower on the north. This tower was itemised in the building account for 1385: "50 ft high with battlements 6 ft high with a portcullis and vault for drawing the portcullis, with 3 chambers and stone windows, 3 fireplaces and 3 latrines to be made in the same chamber." His name and that of his wife "Alianore" were carved on the jambs of the postern gate but the latter stone is now in the guardroom.
   He was murdered in the English bastion at Calais in 1397 because of his complicity with the Lords Appellant, a band of peers who brought about the downfall of the young king's favourites. Richard II had Gloucester arrested for treason and killed, some say by smothering him with a mattress, others by strangling with a towel. Gloucester may have had pretensions to the throne earlier: almost certainly Thomas Mowbray had a hand in his murder. His memory is the subject of a dispute in the second scene of Shakespeare's Richard II between the Duchess of Gloucester and John of Gaunt in which she incites him to avenge the death. This account suggests a different method of killing as it speaks of the "butchers of his life" and "envy's hand and murder's bloody axe" but Shakespeare might have altered facts for dramatic potential since "murder's feather bed (or towel)" does not have quite the same ring!

The cannon
  This greets you as you enter the open grassy area and was used on Nelson's flagship, the 80 gun HMS Foudroyant (terrible, thundering) from 6 June 1799 till the end of June 1801. Joseph Cobb and his son bought the ship, which had also served in the Napoleonic wars, to save it from being dismantled abroad. Geoffrey, the son, wanted it to be a training ship and took it in a fund-raising trip round the coast but it was wrecked at Blackpool in a storm and this gun, amongst other items was salvaged. One of the minor ironies of history!
Your visit
  The castle is surrounded by 45 acres of country park where you can stroll and walk your dog (that pooch will soon be the most learned animal for miles around as it learns the difference between a machiolation and a murder hole - if there is any!)  Opening times are on its website. The castle is a short walk down the road opposite Caldicot Cross: Caldicot is on the 74 bus route from Newport to Chepstow where you can visit another magnificent castle or lounge by the river Wye and its beautiful bridge.

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