Chepstow castle has many associated claims, from being the first stone built castle in Britain/Wales to being the proud owner of the oldest gate door in Europe and thought to have the first double towered gatehouse in Britain, built by the legendary William Marshall. As a result of this long legacy and being one of those few castles which witnessed the entire castle building period from the 11th century right through to the post medieval period, Chepstow is arguably one of the most important pieces of medieval heritage in Europe. The question is why was it built here in the first place? This has been perhaps the most debated part of the castle’s rich history and revolves around two of the most important men of the conquest period; William Fitz Osbern and William the Conqueror. Both have been claimed to have constructed the Great Tower, the structure of which reveals what the purpose of this castle may have originally been.
Recent evidence suggested that Fitz Osbern founded the castle, we see recordings in the Doomsday book suggesting a castle was founded by Fitz Osbern at Chepstow, but it is not clear that this is out of stone. The short time frame between his accession and death in 1071 is not thought to provide the time frame required to build such a structure. There is also a lack of evidence of other building in stone in Wales or England. His son, Roger of Breteuil, would soon rebel against William in 1075 forfeiting his lands to the crown including the lordship of Striguil (Chepstow). The lack of evidence from this period suggests he did not build the first stone castle either. It leaves us with William the Conqueror, who appears to be the potential founder of the Great Tower, possibly around the time of his great pilgrimage to St David’s (1) in the early 1080’s. This was a tour displaying his power and prestige as the greatest and most powerful monarch to the welsh lords and princes who resided in South Wales. As part of the lasting legacy alongside the foundation of castles such as Cardiff. Chepstow would have acted as a meeting point between William and Welsh nobles as they come to recognise him as some kind of overarching ruler at crown-wearing events. This is where William and future kings could display their power and prestige in a carefully orchestrated environment (1). This is evident in the form of the tower and also the void of domestic features a keep for living in would have had. We shall explore this now, as we have here a building designed for grand ceremonial events designed to impress and put in place Welsh lords.
The Great Tower was an essential part of carefully orchestrated events creating an environment designed to awe visitors. The Great Tower construction was designed for these events; this began with the exterior. The eastern end is dominated by one of the great pieces of Romanesque architecture, set above the main entrance to the tower, this distinctive chevron piece is a display of Norman identity, an architectural form new to this area, synonymous with William the Conqueror and the Normans.
We then have the orange banding formed from reused roman tile. This conscious use of roman tile is at its heart a political statement, emulating Roman architecture links the Normans to this past, perhaps claiming some of continuity through it, perhaps even legacy. Roman material is found across this area of Wales, and may well have still been visible in Chepstow itself and definitely visible at Caerwent and Caerleon. It is thought at Caerleon that only with the reuse of roman building material (from the legionary bath complex) it was possible to build Caerleon castle and church (2), that the structure was demolished which means there may have even been a standing structure only a short distance away. This would have almost certainly been known about by locals. To build this new tower with reused tile in such a distinctive manner, echoing Roman architecture alongside the Romanesque architecture which is of just a cultural standpoint, linking to the past, we see a carefully constricted façade oozing with political statement and intent, designed to embellish the status and image of the English King.
We then have complexities of actually entering the Great Hall, the only room above the stores. If we look again at the main entrance in the eastern end this elaborate construct had a function beyond the physical statement it made; it was also a stage, where someone such as William could have looked down upon people approaching, again a display of power and prestige, a piece of theatre with the backdrop of the politically resonating romanesque architecture. We see this function elsewhere and has been suggested at castles such as Dolbadarn (Gwynedd) and Exeter, where large windows which compromise defence have been created to look over main approaches, allowing a certain action to be performed where the Lord/King can look down on people and even make speeches from, creating a perception of accessibility and grandeur but also one which creates inaccessibility by being above the masses.
To actually enter the Great Tower there are two possible routes, through the main entrance on the eastern side, the most elaborately decorated approach, and the secondary entrance on the northern side via a wooden structure, sandwiched between the Great Tower and the cliff side of the River Wye. These two potential routes served to further offer status upon visitors entering the tower, one interpretation put forward has been that the eastern front may have been reserved for William, maybe even just for him to show himself to the masses beneath, or occasionally descend through a temporary staircase (1). The staircase may well have been more permanent on the other hand, perhaps allowing two courses of entry into the tower, a function seen in later castles such as Bodiam and Raglan, where alternative routes were loaded with meaning and status (3). Here at Chepstow these alternative routes provided that opportunity, individuals who went through the eastern main entrance were travelling through elaborate architecture, a sign of status, the northern entrance was less glamorous. This ability to control the movement of guests was a further conscious display of power by the King rewarding some and placing others at their perceived status, a easy way to control status, showing who is in charge and who has the power to change your status and therefore your future success.
We are now finally inside the great hall which is just as elaborate and full of symbolism as the external façade. To travel up from the eastern entrance we must negotiate a staircase in the wall to the floor of the hall, which forces entry from the south eastern corner. Restricting your view, further adding to the carefully controlled environment of the Great Tower. The alternative route through the northern wall is less complex, appearing opposite but to the side of the main central niche, perhaps again a carefully placed entrance to put them in the periphery upon entry, in a room with limited lighting due to the fact the majority of windows were on the northern side. The internal architecture is some of the best preserved 11th century material anywhere. The south and eastern sides are dominated by niches, creating an almost colonnaded appearance, some of which still have 11th century plaster applied by the hands of people who lived almost 1000 years ago. These niches would frame people sitting in them, with the central large one possibly designed for the king, a sign of his status as above all, furthering this theatrical display of political power and that continued desire to link the Normans to the past, legitimising their position claiming dominance over the Welsh. As the Romans had many years before, whilst also putting their foot down on the associated links of Roman ancestry of the Welsh.
The Great Tower was not a display of simple military power. It was much more than that, the tower was a complex structure full of motive and choreographed purpose. A building designed to dominate the landscape of Chepstow, a bulwark of the English Crown, firmly placed on the edge of Wales, across the Wye displaying the power and status of the new English monarchy. This is a carefully constructed display of domestic and political power not the blunt instrument of conflict, which has been the unfortunate label stuck to castles for many years. It is only now being gradually worn away, revealing the true complexity of these buildings as structures of multiple meanings and complexity.
All photos by author
- Turner R, Jones-Jenkins C and Priestley S, 2006, The Norman Great Tower, in, Turner R and Johnson A (ed), 2006, Chepstow Castle: Its History and Buildings, Logaston Press, Little Logaston
- Knight J, 2003, Caerleon Roman Fortress, Cadw, Cardiff
- Johnson M, 2002, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance, Routledge, London and New York