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Abergavenny Castle

South of the town centre, Monmouthshire, southeast Wales

Photographs copyright © 1998 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

(new photographs needed!)

Location map link for Abergavenny Castle

Elisabeth Whittle 1992

Enough remains of this castle to show that it must have been impressive indeed, with very high walls which the 16th-century historian Leland said were "likely not to fall." Alas, most of them have, the victims of Civil War slighting and for general plunder. From its early beginnings this was an important castle, the headquarters of the Norman lordship of Abergavenny, used for accommodation by kings if they were in the locality. It stands on a spur above the river Usk, in a good position to secure the valley and prevent Welsh incursions into the lowlands.

The approach to the castle is through the gatehouse, which is the youngest part, added about 1400, possibly in response to the threat from Owain Glyndwr. It had a long narrow passageway, originally vaulted and with rooms above which must have been comfortable, judging from the large fireplace on the south side.

To the right of the gatehouse is an impressive stretch of curtain wall standing almost to its full height and retaining most of its facing stone. It's the main remnant of the castle of the second half of the 12th century, built when William de Braose held the lordship. This was a turbulent time, and the castle was the scene of two particularly treacherous incidents. In 1175 William de Braose murdered Seisyllt ap Dyfnwal, lord of Castell Arnallt, a Welsh stronghold a few miles to the south-east, here on Christmas Day. In retaliation the Welsh lord of Caerleon, Hywel ap Iorwerth, burnt the castle in 1182 and went on to destroy Dingestow Castle (now reduced to a grassy mound). William Camden, the 16th-century antiquary, said that Abergavenny Castle "has been oftner stain'd with the infamy of treachery, than any other castle in Wales." Only fragments of the rest of the curtain wall remain, mainly on the east side where the stub of a rectangular projecting tower is visible. Built into a later cottage, now part of a museum, is the fragment of a tower, and on the north side the curtain wall is much reduced and was landscaped into a rock garden in the late 19th century.

Within the walls, the circular mound, on which a rather incongruous Victorian "keep" of 1819 sits, is the oldest part of the castle. It is the motte thrown up by Hamelin de Ballon, Norman conqueror of this area, before 1090. Early in the 12th century de Ballon founded the Benedictine priory of Abergavenny. Soon afterwards a stone keep was built on the motte, and the present building probably stands on its foundations. During the 12th century the hall, which was between the gatehouse and the tall ruined towers to the west, remained a timber building.

There was much building during the 13th and 14th centuries when the castle was held by the Hastings family. The most prominent remains from this period are the towers in the west corner, one circular and one semi-circular. Only their outer walls survive, but these stand to four storeys high in some places. The octagonal tower has large window openings, mostly now without their dressed stone surrounds, and the base of a spiral staircase. Attached to the eastern end of the towers is a cross-wall which divided the castle ward into two. Its northern end was one wall of the hall block, and has a doorway which led into the rooms below the hall. The hall stood where the present ground is sunken, and was a large and rectangular room at first-floor level. Its inner wall has completely gone. In the middle of the lawn is an underground room, thought to have been a dungeon.

Jeff Thomas 1996

Although the description above mentions the castle's notorious lord, William de Braose, it's worth mentioning further that de Braose was quite possibly the cruelest and most hated of all the great Norman Marcher Lords. Practically all the Marcher Lords were forced to deal with a rebellious and resentful Welsh population in violent ways in order to protect their newly-awarded "kingdoms," but de Braose time and time again seems to have gone out of his way to commit acts of cruelty that went beyond his contemporaries. Although some would say his family eventually got what they deserved, the extinction of the male line and a forfeiture of all lands, de Braose stands out as an example of what the native Welsh population were up against, and why they rebelled so ferociously against the Norman invaders.

Gerald of Wales alludes to the horrible event in the history of Abergavenny Castle described above, during his famous journey through Wales of 1188, but refuses to mention the incident specifically, saying least (the story) serves to encourage other equally infamous men. Here Gerald is referring to the Massacre of Abergavenny in 1175. Henry, the third son of Milo FitzWalter, earl of Hereford, was killed by Seisyll ap Dyfnwal in 1175. William the fourth son did not live to succeed. Mahel, the fifth son, was killed a little later in 1175 in Bronllys Castle, when a stone fell on his head during a fire. There was no other male heir, and Brecknockshire and Upper Gwent passed to William de Braose through his mother Bertha, a daughter of Milo FitzWalter. William de Braose decided to avenge the death of his uncle Henry. On the pretext he summoned Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, his son Geoffrey and a number of other Welshmen from Gwent to Abergavenny Castle, and there they were all murdered out of hand. At the same time de Braose's retainers ravaged Seisyll's lands, killed his son Cadwaladr and captured his wife. This is just one incident in the cruel career of de Braose.

The castle was one of many that passed back and forth between Marcher and native control in the turbulent years of the 12th century. Gerald also mentions Abergavenny in a later passage following it's recapture from the Welsh by English forces. As the Welsh were besieging the castle "two (Norman) men-at-arms were rushing across a bridge to take refuge in the tower which had been built on a great mound of earth. The Welsh shot at them from behind, and with the arrows which sped from their bows they actually penetrated the oak doorway of the tower, which was almost as think as a man's palm. As a permanent reminder of the strength of their impact, the arrows have been left sticking in the door just where their iron heads struck." Gerald notes that the men of Gwent "are more skilled with the bow and arrow than those who come from other parts of Wales."

Below: the gatehouse entrance to the castle & view of the SW Tower


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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas