Sunday, 4 December 2016
Monmouth Castle: a fascinating ruin
Monmouth Castle is a ruin as distinct from being ruinous. By this I mean that, unlike many partly decayed castles where the main outline is still visible, the visitor has to use a good deal of imagination to realise its original extent.
What have completely vanished are: the curtain wall, the gatehouse and great round keep (which, until the Civil War, was where the Great Castle House now stands) whereas what remains are the ruins of the Great Tower and Hall. The whole extent once took in a roughly circular area reaching as far as Agincourt Square.
In some ways it adds to the interest to try to visualise the imposing structure as it was - and had to be - in order to control a strategically important part of the Welsh Marches.
Its position and importance
Castell Trefynwy has a commanding situation on a steep bluff at the confluence of the rivers Wye and Monnow in a part of the country that gave trouble to the new conquerors. Early in 1067 William fitzOsbern, a staunch ally of William 1 and one who was a strongly positive voice in discussions of the proposed invasion, was created Earl of Hereford and constructed a line of forts along the Dore-Monnow-Wye line from Clifford in the north to Chepstow in the south. By 1100 the castle was effectively the caput or chief centre of an independent Marcher lordship; at the time of the Domesday survey William fitzBaderon held the custody of the castle.
On a few occasions during the Middle Ages, the castle and town were involved in events of more than local importance. During the reign of Henry III, Wales was torn in the conflict between the Crown and baronage and the castle was taken in 1233 by Richard Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, who defeated John of Monmouth, the king's lieutenant, in a pitched battle near the town. In 1264, when it was in the hands of Prince Edward, it was captured by Simon de Montfort who was in Monmouth with King Henry on 28th June. During Owain Glyn Dwr's rebellion, the Welsh slaughtered the opposition force in 1404, killing "the more part of the English" and pursuing the remnant to the town gates. The Civil War saw its profile raised again (see below.)
This building links with the Great Tower, a 2-storeyed rectangular 12th century keep, part of the original masonry castle and a smaller version of that at Chepstow with flat pilaster buttresses and round-headed windows. When remodelled in the mid-14th century it had a splendid first floor room and one can still see the long 2-light east window with remains of a traceried head and embrasure seats. It was almost certainly here that Prince Henry of Monmouth was born on 16th September 1387.
It is helpful to envisage this area and its relationship with the upper town as resembling a motte and its bailey.
The Civil War
Between the Middle Ages and the 17th century, Monmouth was an administrative centre and venue for the assizes. As early as 1443, the accounts record the cleaning of the rooms and towers of the castle in preparation for the coming to Monmouth of the Justices Itinerant of the duchy.
In the Civil War, Monmouthshire, through the influence of Raglan Castle, was a major contributor of men and money to the Crown. When it was captured by the Roundheads (I like nick-names too!) in September 1644, it was a significant event. It changed hands 3 times but the Royalist garrison finally yielded in October 1645 to an army 3000 strong: it had been mined and was found to contain 7 guns, 4 sling pieces, 300 muskets, 600 pikes and ample ammunition and provisions. With the surrender of Raglan Castle, all of South Wales and the Marches fell under Parliamentary control.
Most famous for ...
... being the birthplace of Henry of Monmouth, the future victorious King Henry V, of whom more - much more - in a later blog article and whose slightly disproportionate statue can be seen in a high niche in the Shire Hall. The shape of the front of this building is determined by the outer reaches of the bailey and I am told that remnants of the surrounding ditch can be found in the back gardens behind, though I was apprehended as I tried to climb a few walls to check this out for you. Monmouth has plenty of CAKE opportunities as you walk down to its unique fortified river bridge - again, more on this later as on Great Castle House. From the garden in the Priory, quite near the castle, you can see the attractive window where Geoffrey of Monmouth possibly wrote his imaginative history, popularising King Arthur for all times. You will probably want to combine your visit to the castle with a look around at these other sites, the Shire Hall and the church, or a walk up the River Wye.
Buses leave from the lower end of Monnow Street to Raglan Castle, Usk Castle, Caerleon Roman remains, Newport, Ross-on-Wye, Chepstow Castle, Tintern Abbey, Trellech hidden city and standing stones etc.
I have taken a brief look at Henry V already as well having written short biographies of William fitzOsbern and Owain Glyn Dwr.