Friday, 11 November 2016

White Castle and Hen Gwrt: atmospheric and isolated

White Castle: position and origin
   White Castle is one of the Three Castles, the others being Skenfrith and Grosmont, which form a triangle whose sides measure approximately 5 miles, at a strategic point between Herefordshire and Wales. They were brought under single ownership by King Stephen in 1138 and stayed that way until the early 20th century. White is about 1 mile from Llantilio Crossenny and is the largest, best preserved and loneliest of the three. Its name may derive from the white plaster which once covered it and of which traces can still be seen but the earliest known owner was Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed, whose first name in Welsh means "white." 
   Like Chepstow Castle, it may have been started by William FitzOsbern, originally built in earthwork and timber, and its purpose was always as a fortress rather than a residence. Such domestic buildings as existed (kitchen, pantry, buttery, latrine, chapel, apartment) were simple and of insufficiently high status for a great lord. It was so successful in this role that it was never attacked and never slighted: its history is devoid of major bloodshed and intriguing personalities as residents. Many monarchs had connections with it but its interest is largely architectural - it does appear the archetypal castle and, as such, is stunning.
   It is best approached on foot along Offa's Dyke path from the west where it appears at its most formidable. This is the direction from which any attack would have come and so it is no accident that its strength is most visible here. 

Construction and history
   There are three main areas and it is important to note that the orientation of the castle was changed at one point through 180 degrees so that you now enter from what was the rear into the large outer ward. This had its own curtain walls, towers and gatehouse and was big enough to contain a camp, secure from surprise attack, with animals as well as possible refugees. At the centre is the pear-shaped inner ward, surrounded by a wet moat with steep stone-revetted sides, containing the main defensive walls and towers and there is also a crescent-shaped hornwork. White is unusual amongst Norman Welsh castles in having its outer bailey largely intact and the moat, built on a hill and exceptionally deep, was an amazing engineering feat.
   There were 2 main building phases, about 100 years apart although the castle gives an impression of unity. At what is now the far end are the immensely thick foundations of the earliest stone part of the castle, a small squarish keep dating from the first half of the 12th century. Then came the pear-shaped curtain wall probably in the 1180's which is still almost at its full height except on the east side: parts of the wall-walk are visible. Hubert de Burgh, who was granted ownership of all 3 castles by King John in 1201, seems not to have made any changes and so the next great phase of fortification was under the Crown, probably by Lord Edward, later Edward I, who remodelled the castle extensively in the 1260's. It was his first castle in this country and a prelude to all his other huge fortresses in North Wales. In 1260 Llewelyn ap Gruffudd took Builth and 2 years later attacked Abergavenny: the constables of Monmouth and the Three Castles were ordered to garrison them "by every man and at whatever cost" and there was another scare at the time of the uprising of Owain Glyn Dwr in the very early 15th century.
   After King Edward I subjugated the Welsh, the castle fell into disuse but did function as an administrative centre. Overall we might note that it represents a later stage of castle planning with round rather than square towers for greater strength. Other up-to-date features were curtain walls with such towers projecting from them instead of plain walls and a twin-towered gatehouse. The arrow loops are also of a rare cross shape. There is no adjacent village or church - again an unusual feature. To me White Castle has a special atmosphere, partly because of its isolation and stern military feel.

This arrow loop would have afforded a good angle for shooting.
Later visitors
   The Elizabethan poet, Thomas Churchyard, wrote about the Three Castles and singled out White for praise:
        A Statlie seat, a lofty princlie place,
        Whose beauty gives the simple soyle some grace.
   By the time of James I all 3 castles were "ruynous and decayed tyme out of the memory of man" and Archdeacon Coxe noted in 1798 that the ward was used as "a place of pasture for horses and cows which take shelter in the ruined towers; and affords an occasional cover for hares, one of which I put up as I was passing the court." I take it he enjoyed his casserole that evening as he seems to have savoured everything!
   More riveting is the fact that Rudolph Hess (deputy leader of the Nazi party) was brought here on occasions from detention in an mental institution in Abergavenny. On 10th May 1941 he was visiting England in an attempt to negotiate a unilateral peace and piloted an aircraft on an unauthorised flight which crash-landed in Scotland. He was arrested and interned for the duration of WWII but was escorted to the grounds of White Castle to exercise under strict supervision and also, some say, to feed the swans in the moat.

Hen Gwrt moated site
    Hen Gwrt (Old Court) is just down the road from White Castle (in an angle of junction of B4233 and  the minor road to White). It is easy to miss behind its hedge because of the modest half-overgrown notice. In fact, I issue a rebuke to Cadw generally for the sign-posting of both these places which is semi-hidden and confusing. Yet this site is well worth seeking out as it is large and well-preserved and has the peaceful atmosphere that makes you want to have a picnic hamper full of elegant sandwiches, CAKE and chilled champagne at the ready.

  It is a rectangular grassy area (the slightly curved ends reminded me of the classic Roman playing-card shape of a site although it is nearly square) measuring 30 metres by 45 set within an appealing water-filled moat. Partial excavations in 1957 demonstrated a sequence of occupations starting in the 13th century, the moat being 14th century. Substantial buildings had been constructed with a wooden bridge across the area on the east. The first occupation was probably as the manor house of the bishops of Llandaff and it was later a hunting lodge for red and fallow deer but the stones were eventually robbed (to build Llantilio Court in 1775 now demolished) and the road then cut into the site. The rebellion of Owain Glyn Dwr may have contributed to its decline as did the Civil War.
   Tradition connects it with Dafydd Gam, kinsman of the Herberts of Raglan who owned the deer park, although this is unproven, which seems to me a pity since I like a strong character! He is mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry V as Davy Gam, esquire, amongst the 4 named dead after Agincourt, reputed as saving Henry's life. The name "Gam" is taken from a Welsh word meaning "lame/deformed" (from which "gammy leg" may be derived.) Some Welshmen regarded him as a traitor, "crooked David." Even better is that he was honoured in legend as having so many children that, if they stood with arms outstretched, they could reach from Llantilio Church to Hen Gwrt. Sometimes myth is so much spicier than the facts - and often contains some element of truth. 

Your visit
    My sharp-eyed readers will have noted that you cannot visit these sites by bus: you need a good friend with a car as I was fortunate enough to have. You may like to visit Chepstow Castle for comparison as built by the same person or Raglan Castle for contrast as that was primarily residential. There is also the stunning Goodrich Castle not too far away or Caldicot Castle - all of which are busable. 
For opening times of White Castle click here. When we went it looked shut but we opened the gate and went boldly in. 

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