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 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.
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.
William Marshall 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 or 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!
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.