As you walk up towards the entrance to Chepstow Castle, you will see to your left this imposing tower. It used to be called Bigod's Tower since it was built by Roger Bigod III in the late 13th century to a D plan, projecting from the SE curtain wall and taking advantage of its naturally raised position.The original purpose was to provide a second, four-storeyed splendid residence that could be sealed off and defended. When Archdeacon William Coxe visited it in 1798 he was surprised to find "a comfortable suite of rooms" with lodgings for domestics.
These had been occupied by Henry Marten (1602 - 9th September 1680) who gave his name to the tower. He was imprisoned here, after a stormy and tumultuous life, for about 12 years from 7th December 1668 onwards as a regicide, being one of the most prominent of the 31 out of 59 Commissioners who signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649. Marten had always been a staunch republican whose extreme opinions frightened even his supporters. Coxe reports that he took out from a great iron chest at Westminster the crown, robes, sword and sceptre of Edward the Confessor (a king and a saint) and "with a scorn, greater than his lusts and the rest of his vices, he openly declared that there should be no further use of these toyes and trifles" - sacrilege indeed!
His public life
He was educated at Oxford and entered the Inns of Court: touring Europe in the 1620's he enjoyed the high living there but also encountered the thinking of French stoical philosophers. In his two periods as an MP he made an impression because of his severe republican outlook and was, in fact, expelled and imprisoned in the Tower of London for expressing his view that the royal family should be extirpated and the system of monarchy ended. When Ann Stagg of Southwark presented a women's petition in 1642 calling for political reform, he supported her. He was an enthusiastic committee man, serving on at least 46, but, since reading about committees is even more tedious than attending them, we will pass on to the exciting bits.
At first he did not take an active soldierly part in the Civil War (he and Cromwell did not get on) but later raised a private regiment to defend his own area and his principles, occasionally stealing horses but attracting followers because of his charismatic personality and radical ideas. He was a sophisticated man of the world, having been a spymaster for Parliament: one receipt shows that he was paid £500 for information and he designed the emblem and mottoes of the Commonwealth regime. In June 1660, he surrendered himself to the authorities as a regicide but behaved so courageously at his trial that he was spared the death penalty. He was at first imprisoned in Windsor Castle until Charles II ordered him to be moved further away to Chepstow because his proximity worried the king.
|Picture in National Portrait Gallery, London|
Henry Marten is one of those fascinating personalities who seems to have at least two sides to his character: the serious radical thinker and the reckless libertine. Throughout his life he expressed republican views, tended towards atheism and wanted representative government. He was much maligned for his loose conduct although some of the accusations have no foundation.
Married twice, the second time to Margaret Staunton, with 8 children in all, he had a long love affair with Mary Ward lasting 30 to 40 years. They lived together as man and wife: she ran the household when he was away and was allowed to visit him in prison. There is little evidence of other affairs although he was accused of being a whoremaster by Charles I: John Aubrey wrote that he was a "great lover of pretty girls to whom he was so liberal that he spent the greatest part of his estate on them." Certainly he squandered a huge inheritance and passed some time in prison for debt. It cost money, also, to maintain a regiment. Later, too late, he observed that it was important to be "snugge like a snail within our selves, that is our mindes, which nobody can touch," having clothes and house safe.
Some of that wealth went on clothes since he had a tendency to dandyism: in the portrait above by Sir Peter Lely, his dark cloak is embellished with fur trim and a jet pin and on 2nd December 1649 he paid Christopher Smith £17 8s 5d for a fancy cloak, a suit with taffeta inside and hose lined with calico. His rich diet included: dressed veal, goose, tongue, roast beef, capon, pork, mutton, mince pies and cheese washed down by, on average, 20 pints of beer a day to say nothing of wine and the dark rum supplied by his younger brother.
He was not a handsome man but he spoke well, had a knack with one-liners and could turn the House with one short but well-crafted contribution. John Lilburne spoke of his "sincerity, uprightness, boldness and gallantry". Certainly he kept Mary Ward loyal to him: there a touching evidence that she liked to think of herself as his wife as she doodled both variations of her name. It was the fact that he flaunted his relationship with her so openly that caused trouble.
This is the view from inside the castle grounds of Marten's Tower where his apartments were. He was not badly treated and could even go outside. Yet it was a pitiful end of a talented man, though one must remember the background: the execution of the king on January 30, 1649, a freezing day on which Charles I wore 2 heavy shirts so as not to be thought to shiver with fear and at which a terrible groan arose from the huge crowd at the actual beheading, drowning the shouts of the soldiers.
Marten choked on his supper on 9th Sept., 1680 and died: he had composed an epitaph for himself in the form of an acrostic in which the first letters of each line form his name, showing his wit and way with words. The last two lines read, ironically:
E xamples preach to th' eye, care then (mine says),
N ot how you end but how you spent your dayes.
He was buried beneath the floor at an entryway of the Priory and Parish Church of St. Mary.
I have written earlier about the castle itself and the pleasant area round the river. It is well worth walking part way across the 200-year-old bridge to see the mighty cliffs on which this fortification rests. Chepstow is served by several buses from the top of town and there is an excellent information centre in the car park by the castle where you can also find the toilets; "Go before you go" is my motto. You can travel a little further north to visit Tintern Abbey or continue on this 69 bus to Monmouth where Henry V was born in the castle and Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about King Arthur. Other possibilities are the the no 74 to take you to Caldicot Castle, the 75 to Caerwent Roman town and the 63 to Usk with its castle and the battle site of Pwll Melin as well as being the birthplace of Alfred Russel Wallace, evolutionary thinker.
For opening times for the castle click here.