Chepstow Castle and the Curse of the Marshals

With the current crisis ripping through all our lives, I know we’ll all be missing doing the things we love. It’ll come as no surprise to my readers then, that I have a huge castle-shaped hole in my life at the moment. So I’ve turned to looking back, reliving times when I was free to wander around some stunning medieval places, and it’s been a real source of comfort. For instance, I’ve been recalling our visit to Wye Valley Meadery last November for my Mead Quest, when I couldn’t resist dropping into one of my favourite castles just down the road. Not only is it big and beautiful, it houses some unique relics from its heyday, and it saw the fallout of a posthumous curse put on its most famous owner, the greatest knight England ever knew.

Chepstow castle outside

The approach to Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle is a true stunner. This massive stone fortress cuts a medieval dash, hugging the top of a limestone cliff along the River Wye, and it’s been a commanding feature of our landscape since the 11th Century. The Domesday Book tells us that the castle was built by William fitz Osbern, one of William the Conqueror’s oldest friends, on lands granted to him for his loyal support in the Norman invasion. As one of the first stone castles to be built in Britain, the initial layout consisted of two baileys arranged as upper and lower enclosures around a massive central keep. The castle’s lofty location took advantage of superb natural defences to secure fitz Osbern’s new territories, and it’s position was ideal for aggressive strikes against the unruly Welsh.

Great tower

The massive keep, or great tower, still dominates the castle today

Described as ‘the bravest of all Normans’, fitz Osbern was left in charge of the country as one of two vice-regents when the king returned to France in 1067. But the fearless baron wasn’t to enjoy his new castle and status for long because he was killed in battle in 1071, leaving his estates to his dodgy character of a son, Robert de Breteuil.

In an act that would horrify his father, Roger cooked up a plot with another earl to overthrow King William and divide the country between them, but he was captured and imprisoned, and his lands forfeited to the Crown. Thus, the fortunes of the fitz Osberns abruptly ended, and the castle remained in royal hands until Henry I awarded the lordship to the de Clare family in 1115. In 1185, the castle passed to Isabel, the daughter of Richard de Clare, also known as Strongbow, conqueror of the Irish province of Leinster. The fabulously wealthy heiress had been a ward of Henry II after Strongbow’s death, and the lucky girl was promised in marriage to the next king, Richard I’s faithful – and by all accounts gorgeous – knight, William Marshal. And through this marriage in 1189, Chepstow passed into the ownership of the greatest knight of England’s story.


Making an entrance: William Marshal’s groundbreaking gatehouse

View from the lower bailey

Looking across the castle from the lower bailey, with the great keep in the distance

William Marshal had the most extraordinary life, rising from relative obscurity through the medieval hierarchy to gain the title of earl of Pembroke before acting as regent of England for the last of the five English kings he served. But that’s another tale entirely. With his newly acquired lands and fortune, he set about building on a prodigious scale, and his grand designs included a makeover of Chepstow Castle. He added another fortified lower bailey and built an impressive gatehouse to a brand new, revolutionary design, so Chepstow boasts the first example of a twin round-tower gatehouse in Britain. When he’d completed the defences, William turned his attention to some fitting accommodation, adding a luxury tower in the upper bailey where he and Isabel could relax in private. The couple had five sons to secure the family line, and William’s glittering career continued until his long life came to an end in 1219. After his death, each of his sons in turn inherited Chepstow and enhanced the castle’s defences. But, as time revealed, a posthumous curse on their father pronounced by a bitter bishop was to work its devastating magic.

upper bailey best

Looking across the upper bailey to the back of Marshal’s luxury tower

Keep arches

The remains of two elaborate arches in the keep erected by the sons of William Marshal

Through his marriage to Isabel, William had inherited Strongbow’s territories in Ireland, but he had also seized two manors belonging to the Irish bishop of Fernes’ church, a deed that had earned him the scorn of the bishop and a sentence of excommunication. At the time, William had been unaffected by this holy ticking-off, but when he died, the thought of such a heroic figure being turned away from the pearly gates bothered the young King Henry III, for whom William had been both saviour and regent. Henry promised the bishop his lands would be returned if he would restore William’s soul, so the pair, together with the royal court, went to William’s tomb, where the bishop addressed the dead hero as though he were alive and standing in front of him. He said:

“William, if the possessions which you wrongfully deprived my church of be restored… I absolve you; if otherwise, I confirm the said sentence that, being enmeshed in your sins, you may remain in hell a condemned man forever”.

Although this wasn’t quite what the young king had in mind, he nevertheless asked William’s son, William Marshal II, to return the Irish manors. Somewhat unwisely though, the young William refused, backed by his four brothers, at which point Henry gave up on any reconciliation as the bishop pronounced his curse:

“In one generation his name shall be destroyed and his sons shall be without share in that benediction of the Lord, ‘Increase and multiply!’ Some of them will die a lamentable death, and their inheritance will be scattered.”

All five sons inherited the lands and castles of their father, and all died without leaving heirs, just as the bishop had declared. William Marshal junior died in 1231 amid rumours of poisoning and the next, Richard, was murdered in Ireland in 1234. The third son, Gilbert, died in 1241 in a tournament accident, and four years later Walter Marshal died suddenly at Goodrich Castle, another of the family’s properties. Only 8 days later, the final brother, Anselm followed them all to the grave, dying here at Chepstow Castle. Thus, the bishop of Fernes’ curse was complete. The male line had died out, so the family’s great estates were “scattered” among the Marshal brothers’ five sisters and their descendents. Chepstow passed out of the family via Maud, to her husband, Hugh Bigod, third earl of Norfolk.

Me outside

The view along the castle from William Marshals own private drinks terrace…

A visit to this vast castle is a treat indeed, and you can sense the presence of its greatest owner as you approach the mighty gatehouse. Lining the clifftop, the three baileys offer much to explore, with towers, passages and rooms, and you can even go downstairs into William Marshal’s wine cellar. The Norman keep still dominates at the centre of the castle, raised on a huge plinth and constructed from a range of building materials including Roman tiles. Although it’s open to the elements today, there are still features that hint at the former grandeur of the great tower. Opposite the entrance, the medieval visitor would have seen an impressive arcade of Norman arched recesses, some of which still contain traces of the original 11th Century decoration. These are the oldest surviving examples of secular decoration in Britain.

Interior of keep

The interior of the keep. Those Norman recesses contain the oldest surviving secular decoration in Britain

wine cellar

Looking upstairs from the wine cellar

Sadly, little remains of William Marshal’s luxury accommodation in the upper bailey, but you can still sit in his window seat and enjoy the view. But the biggest treat at Chepstow is that you can actually knock on William Marshal’s front door.

inside Marshal's Tower

Looking down at what remains of Marshal’s tower from the window seat

Yes, at over 800 years old, the original castle doors of the great gatehouse are alive and well, on show for all to see. These truly amazing survivors have been dated by dendrochronology to the time of Marshal himself. Like the mighty gatehouse, the doors are revolutionary in their construction, using contemporary ship-building techniques to provide maximum protection in a siege. The use of seasoned and green wood allowed for flexing under attack and changing climactic conditions, while early mortise and tenon joints hold an elaborate wooden latticework to the back of the doors. Iron pins held the whole thing together, whilst the iron-clad front made the doors resistant to fire, which would have struck fear into any attacker and likely sent them packing. Now removed to a sheltered place within the castle for their protection, we can all enjoy these magnificent relics from an ancient time when castles were evolving with the ever-changing methods of warfare. These are the oldest surviving castle doors in Europe, and they were William Marshal’s own, so as you can probably imagine, I spent quite a while admiring them!

Me at the whole doors

Those mighty treasured castle doors

View down the river

The view along the River Wye as the castle stands vigil

A wander around Chepstow is a history lesson in itself, and is a must for anyone with even a vague interest in castles and the fascinating folk that built them and lived in them. And so the time came to make the short journey to the meadery and our arranged tour. It was a very special day, and when we got home, I opened a bottle of the delicious sparkling mead I’d acquired just down the road from the castle, and drank a heartfelt toast to William Marshal and his beautiful fortress, and the all stories they’ve given us.

Me at the door!

Keep smiling, and keep well…

26 thoughts on “Chepstow Castle and the Curse of the Marshals

  1. I can’t keep a door from rotting out longer than 7 or 8 years and that’s with a lot of repairs. I love old castles! This was s great read. it has been very quiet here. I think the worst has yet to hit our area, but it’s coming. I can feel it. I hope I’m alive when all this is over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marilyn! So glad you enjoyed it. It really is a wonderful example of an old castle, unspoiled by later updating, so a real medieval gem.

      Love the door comment! Its very true, they don’t make them like they used to, do they? Chepstow’s doors are pretty awesome, in the true sense of the word.

      I’m glad to hear your corner of the world hasn’t been hit yet. We’re on lockdown here, and life has been pretty much turned on its head. But hopefully, as you’re in a very rural location it won’t get much of a hold near you. I think its big town that have been hit the worst. Stay safe and look after yourself, and thanks for reading. 🙂 ❤


  2. It’s good to see you back Ali. Your account, as always, is tip-top with loads of ifo I didn’t know about – and I’ve certainly not heard about dendrochronology before :-).
    Those doors are fantastic aren’t they? and remind me not to upset any Bishops I come across from now on. They seemed to be a constant source of trouble in the past if you ask me.
    A fabulous castle alongside the lovely Wye Valley and a bottle of mead at the end of it. Sounds like your perfect day 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Malc, as always, for the lovely comments. Doing this post has reminded me of why I started the blog, and its made all the better to know someone has learned a bit and enjoyed the process.

      Yes, the castle doors are amazing, and it’s awe-inspiring to be able to touch the intricate fabric of William Marshal’s world. They’re well worth the journey alone.

      I’ve learned from my studies that the church was a formidable force in all respects, so upsetting them could be a really bad move. This story has a particular eerie resonance for me, especially as the last brother died at Chepstow, so that’s where the curse was completed. Sends shivers down the spine! Still, it really was a great day, and to round it off with some lovely mead made it perfect indeed. Thanks for reading, Malc, and I’ll be in touch again soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating and very enjoyable read as ever Alli.

    If we all act with a bit of restraint and common sense in these unprecedented times I’m sure we will once again be able to walk through green fields and on castle ramparts and you’ll be able to fill the castle shaped hole in your life.

    Good to see the carpenters who made the doors drew on ship building skills and techniques.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Graham. Glad you enjoyed Chepstow. 🙂

      I certainly hope it won’t be too long before my castle-shaped hole can be filled. I certainly miss ’em.

      I had a feeling you might pick up on the ship-building skills and techniques! A clever lot. They really knew what they were doing back then, and they certainly don’t make them like they used to! 🙂


      • Indeed, shipwrights were/are a clever lot. If something doesn’t quite fit on your door the worst that can happen is you get a draft when the wind blows, if it doesn’t fit on a vessel you sink! But as you know I’m a big fan of traditional skills; wooden boat building, swordsmithing, bowyering etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Funnily enough, I’m a big fan of traditional skills too – the best way to make things by far. Just wait ’til you see my sword, and my longbow! 🙂

        They must have really wanted a solid job done with the doors if they used shipbuilding technology then! I think the results would impress you, especially as they’re over 800 years old. They built them to last, that’s for sure.


  4. It was great to see one of your posts in my feed this morning! Great pictures! And a good lesson in the history. Why is there always so much drama around these families!?! Makes for great stories, that is for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn! I’m trying to emerge from my sojourn in the blogging desert this year, and I’m hoping to pick up a bit more over the coming months. It’s hard with us all in lockdown over here, and studying has become one of the biggest challenges, but I’m sure we’ll all get through somehow.

      In the meantime, I’m so pleased you enjoyed Chepstow and the Marshal’s fortunes. There certainly was a lot of drama around these families. I reckon it’s because it was all about loyalties to those who could help you and plots to overthrow those in authority you didn’t like or had smited you in some way. 🙂 The whole structure of society was different in the middle ages, and family and patronage ties led to all kinds of plots, intrigues and betrayals as well as friendship and loyalty. A heady mix indeed. And absolutely, it does make for some fantastic stories. That’s one of the reasons I love the Middle Ages so much! Thanks for reading and it’s good to be back in touch. Take care and all the best to you and yours. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Alli for sharing those amazing photos and history about your visit to Chepstow Castle and the Curse of the Marshals. I remember when I visited Ireland I was totally taken seeing the ruins of castles and churches. I also often see them when I watch Escape To The Country on the TV.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ally, and I’m glad you enjoyed Chepstow and its stories. Ireland is pretty good for ruins and castles too and it’s a beautiful country. In fact, William Marshal had extensive lands in Ireland too – including the two manors he pinched from the bishop! I hope to get over there some day and have a good look round them myself.
      Goodness, Escape to the Country – do you really get that over there?


      • Wow, I had no idea! Fantastic! It is indeed a great programme, and I watch it regularly too, and have a little dream every now and then of going on an episode when they search for a castle for me! 😉


  6. Welcome back and hope your studies are going okay!

    You can’t imagine a bishop being so vengeful and grumpy can you? but I suppose that’s how things were back then.

    Your explanation of the door construction was pretty interesting – you do go into depth!

    You keep well too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Carol, it’s nice to be back. 🙂
      Oh yes, it didn’t do to get on the wrong side of the supremely powerful church in those days, and there were some particularly prickly religious figures around in the Middle Ages. I always thought this particular story was more than a little eerie, though…
      Glad you appreciated the door description, I hoped to do them justice, as they’ve worn exceptionally well for their age!
      All the best. 🙂


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