Chepstow Castle is the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain. Located above cliffs on the River Wye, construction began in 1067 under the instruction of the Norman Lord William FitzOsbern. Originally known as Striguil, it was the southernmost of a chain of castles built in the Welsh Marches, and with its attached lordship took the name of the adjoining market town in about the 14th century.
In the 12th century the castle was used in the conquest of Gwent, the first independent Welsh kingdom to be conquered by the Normans. It was subsequently held by two of the most powerful Anglo-Norman magnates of medieval England, William Marshal and Richard de Clare. However, by the 16th century its military importance had waned and parts of its structure were converted into domestic ranges. Although re-garrisoned during and after the English Civil War, by the 1700s it had fallen into decay. With the later growth of tourism, the castle became a popular visitor destination.
Chepstow Castle is situated on a narrow ridge between the limestone river cliff and a valley. Its full extent is best appreciated from the opposite bank of the River Wye. The castle has four baileys, added in turn through its history. Despite this, it is not a defensively strong castle, having neither a strong keep nor a concentric layout. The multiple baileys instead show its construction history, which is generally considered in four major phases. The Great Tower was probably completed by about 1090. It was constructed in stone from the first, marking its importance as a stronghold on the border between England and Wales.
FitzOsbern also founded a priory nearby, and the associated market town and port of Chepstow developed over the next few centuries. The castle and the associated Marcher lordship were generally known as Striguil until the late 14th century, and as Chepstow thereafter.
Further fortifications were added by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, starting in the 1190s. Marshal extended and modernised the castle, drawing on his knowledge of warfare gained in France and the Crusades. He built the present main gatehouse, strengthened the defences of the Middle Bailey with round towers, and, before his death in 1219, may also have rebuilt the Upper Bailey defences.
In 1270, the castle was inherited by Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk. Bigod was also responsible for building Chepstow's town wall, the 'Port Wall', around 1274–78. Soon afterwards, Bigod had built a new tower (later known as 'Marten's Tower'), which now dominates the landward approach to the castle, and also remodelled the Great Tower.
From the 14th century, and in particular the end of the wars between England and Wales in the early 15th century, its defensive importance declined. In 1312 it passed into the control of Thomas de Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk, and later his daughter Margaret. It was garrisoned in response to the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr in 1403 with twenty men-at-arms and sixty archers but its great size, limited strategic importance, geographical location and the size of its garrison all probably contributed to Glyndŵr's forces avoiding attacking it, although they did successfully attack Newport Castle.
In 1468, the castle was part of the estates granted by the Earl of Norfolk to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke in exchange for lands in the east of England. In 1508, it passed to Sir Charles Somerset, later the Earl of Worcester, who remodelled the buildings extensively as private accommodation. From the 16th century, after the abolition of the Marcher lords' autonomous powers by King Henry VIII through the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, and Chepstow's incorporation as part of the new county of Monmouthshire, the castle became more designed for occupation as a great house.
The castle saw action again during the English Civil War, when it was in the front line between Royalist Monmouthshire and Parliamentarian Gloucestershire. It was held by the Royalists and besieged in both 1645 and in 1648, eventually falling to the Parliamentarian forces on 25 May 1648. A memorial to Sir Nicholas Kemeys, who led the Royalist defence during the Second Civil war and was killed in combat after refusing to surrender after the castle's fall, lies within the keep.
After the war, the castle was garrisoned and maintained as an artillery fort and barracks. It was also used as a political prison.
In 1682, the castle came into the ownership of the Duke of Beaufort. The garrison was disbanded in 1685, and the buildings were partly dismantled, leased to tenants and left to decay. By the 1840s, tourism was continuing to grow, particularly with day trips on steam ships from Bristol.
Chepstow Castle is open to the public, and since 1984 has been in the care of Cadw, the Welsh government body with the responsibility for protecting, conserving and promoting the built heritage of Wales. There are special events held often in the castle and visitors are now able to walk along the battlements and into Marten's Tower.References:
Built around AD 90 to entertain the legionaries stationed at the fort of Caerleon (Isca), the impressive amphitheatre was the Roman equivalent of today’s multiplex cinema. Wooden benches provided seating for up to 6,000 spectators, who would gather to watch bloodthirsty displays featuring gladiatorial combat and exotic wild animals.
Long after the Romans left, the amphitheatre took on a new life in Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the somewhat imaginative 12th-century scholar, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Arthur was crowned in Caerleon and that the ruined amphitheatre was actually the remains of King Arthur’s Round Table.
Today it is the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain.