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Caldicot Castle

5m SW of Chepstow, Monmouthshire, southeast Wales

Map link for Caldicot Castle

Text copyright 1996 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright 2009 by Steve Rowland

Perhaps one of Wales' best kept secrets, the castle at Caldicot sits on an ancient site. Restored to much of its original outstanding condition, it is a lovely place to spend the day. The castle contains all the elements of the typical medieval fortress, and has been lovingly cared for by its present owners, who have opened it to the public. One of the best ways to enjoy this marvelous structure is to make use of the self-guided cassette tour which allows you to explore the castle at your own pace. But however you travel around Caldicot Castle, you will find yourself transported back to the Middle Ages, and tracing the development of castle-building in Southeastern Wales.

Caldicot Castle was built on a site that had long been recognized for its strategic value. In fact, the Romans actively made use of the area in the early centuries AD, when Caldicot stood on the Via Julia roadway to Caerwent, the Roman town of Venta Silurum (ruins visible) just to the north. Caldicot's placement near the Bristol Channel allowed observation of the comings and goings of ship traffic and eased transport of supplies to the site. Its useful location was recognized by the Normans as early as 1086, and they built a motte with two baileys and a deep surrounding ditch to control this portion of south Wales.

 

 

Now one of the most impressive structures at Caldicot, the still resplendently green motte was crowned by a round stone keep, probably constructed around 1221 after Humphrey de Bohun, the "Good Earl" of Hereford, inherited the lordship of Caldicot. The de Bohuns kept control of the castle as hereditary constables until 1373, when it became the property of the Crown. With its nine foot thick walls made of local gritstone, the four storied keep was a formidable structure which would have withstood virtually any assault. Interestingly, the bottommost floor was embedded in the motte, and the main entry point into the great keep was reached by a set of steps climbing the hillside of the mound. Inside, architectural detail was elaborate and accommodations lavish, indicating that this keep was routinely used as a residence. Spiral staircases allowed access between the floors, and hooded fireplaces, windows with seats, and a semi-circular latrine turret all provided comfort for the dwellers. The otherwise solid turret contained a vaulted dungeon in the basement, a fairly nasty chamber reached only from a small trapdoor in the ceiling. The great keep's exterior is faced with finely-cut smooth stonework, and buttressed at the base with a splayed plinth. The top of the keep was once crowned with battlements, and putlog holes remain where timbers supported the hoard, a wooden fighting platform. Arrowslits penetrate the walls, enhancing the keep's defenses, and the well sits beneath one of the slits. Today our climb to the top of the keep rewards us with wonderful vistas of the countryside, and a bird's eye view of the layout of the castle.

 

 

 

The next phase of construction at Caldicot Castle took place immediately after the great keep was completed, and finalized the basic design that continues to dominate the stronghold. Intersecting the earthen hillside of the motte were sturdy curtain walls, interconnected by round corner towers and encompassing the inner ward. The towers at the southeast and southwest angles were powerful, albeit somewhat shorter and smaller than the keep, and were also protected with battlements and timber hoarding. The southeast tower contained an elaborate fireplace and a two-section window, and probably served as a secondary residence. In the 1400's, narrow latrine turrets were added in the adjoining curtain walls.

Midway between the great keep and the southwest tower, the castle's first gatehouse was erected in the mid-13th century. This West Postern Gate was a simple gateway which pierced the wall of yet another round tower and still stands to almost its full height. This postern gate would have allowed rapid and covert movement into and away from the castle proper. The early gatehouse was two- storied, and, like the other towers, once had hoarding, a splayed plinth at its base, a fireplace, and a latrine; one doorway opened to the wall-walk along the battlements. Like many gatehouses, this one at Caldicot was defended with a portcullis, a heavy gate, and murder holes. Its placement near the keep is reminiscent of the setup at Pembroke Castle in West Wales.

During the following century, significant modifications were made to Caldicot Castle. In the 1340's, the Great Hall was constructed along the interior wall adjacent to the southeast tower. Probably a timber building, all that remains are some decorative windows. In 1373, the last male de Bohun died and the castle passed to two daughters, Eleanor and Mary. Mary de Bohun married Edward III's grandson, the future Henry IV, and Eleanor wed Thomas de Woodstock, son of King Edward III and Duke of Gloucester, into whose royal hands Caldicot passed. In the late 1380's Woodstock began an extensive and costly building programme. On the north side, Thomas built the three-storied Woodstock Tower and Postern Gate, carving his name and his wife's ("Alianore") into the masonry. The rather plain battlemented tower contained a small window, a latrine and bath - very rare in medieval towers - and gave access to the adjacent wall-walk.

Unfortunately for Thomas Woodstock, his enjoyment of Caldicot Castle was to be brief. In 1397 he was smothered in Calais, and the castle was inherited by Thomas's daughter, Anne. Nevertheless, the Duke of Gloucester's greatest achievement at Caldicot Castle was the great gatehouse, now impressively restored to its former splendor on the southern face of the fortress. Defenses were elaborate, and included access across a drawbridge, two portcullises, two heavy gates, and three murder holes. On the upper floor was a grand apartment range, flanked by twin latrine towers, implying that the residential focal point of the castle had shifted from the keep to the main gatehouse, the developmental trend of the Middle Ages. The twin turrets are rectangular in shape and decorated with ornate windows and unusual sculpted heads, each one different - one may even depict the head of Edward II!

 

 

 

Anne Woodstock married Edmund, Earl of Stratford, and their son, Humphrey, who retained control of the castle, became the first Duke of Buckingham. Upon Buckingham's death during the War of the Roses, the stalwart fortress again became Crown property and then was passed into the hands of the Dukes of Stafford. Edward, the third duke, gained the mistrust of King Henry VIII and in 1521 was beheaded on suspicion of treason. Consequently, Caldicot Castle reverted to the king's control, only to be granted to the Duke of Lancaster, who allowed the site to be leased by several tenants until the mid-1800's.

The infamous antiquary, Mr. J.R. Cobb, bought Caldicot Castle in 1855, and set out to restore it to its earlier grandeur. Cobb was passionately enamored with castles, and was responsible for the rescue of at least two other Welsh castles, Manorbier and Pembroke, in West Wales. As at Manorbier, Cobb made Caldicot Castle his home for a time and devoted much energy to rejuvenating the structure. What we see today is an appropriate mix of the old and the restored, for most of the original stonework and design was left intact - at least to the greatest extent that was possible.

Caldicot Castle is a surprisingly pleasant find in the Welsh countryside, so close to the modernized, industrial sector of Wales, yet so isolated from it. The castle is now owned and operated by the local authority, and is open to the public for a fee, standard opening hours. The great gatehouse is now home to popular medieval banquets, a lavish and appropriate setting for such whimsical entertainment.

 

Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.

 

Additional Photographs of Caldicot Castle

 

 

 

 

 

Visit the official Caldicott Castle web site


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Copyright 2009 by Lise Hull, Steve Rowland and the Castles of Wales Website