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Longtown Castle

Herefordshire, England - The Welsh Marches

Map link for Longtown Castle

Text copyright 1997 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright 1998 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: the junction of the curtain wall and crosswall with the gatehouse in background.

The English border counties are full of some of the finest motte and bailey castles still in existence in Britain. The castles were the property of Norman lords who built the strongholds in an effort to maintain control over the unruly Welsh. One of these is Longtown Castle, a fascinating Marcher castle. Even though this motte and bailey fortification sits about 6 miles to the north-west of the very Welsh border castle at Grosmont, it is actually located in England. This juxtaposition of Welsh and English castles shows just how mixed up the Welsh Marches have been since the Norman Conquest. Town names and dialects also reflect the transitional nature of the Marches.

Nestled close to the foreboding Black Mountains, along the backroads of Herefordshire, Longtown Castle has survived the centuries with dignity. However, your initial view of the castle may be confusing, as well as intriguing. The minor road into the tiny medieval town actually cuts through the outer baileys of the site, a surprising effect when you realize you have just driven through the castle grounds! Slightly camouflaged behind a line of trees, the motte suddenly springs into view, looming high above your head. It is an exhilarating but equally threatening vision, one that certainly must have intimidated anyone contemplating an assault in the Middle Ages.

Longtown Castle was built in the 1180's by the Norman lord, Walter de Lacy, inside a rectangular earthen enclosure that may date to the Roman occupation of Britain. Fortified during the 12th century, the rectangular enclosure was bisected by another earthen wall, forming the two outer baileys of the castle which sat side-by-side to the south of the motte. In addition, a twin-towered gatehouse, protected with a portcullis, was added to the new outer curtain which enclosed the rectangular area. The gatehouse still exists, though extensively ruined.

 

Below: the gatehouse at Longtown Castle viewed from the south (left) and the motte and keep at Longtown viewed from the crosswall (right>

     

 

The enormous earthen motte is an impressive structure, rising some 35 feet into the air. Originally crowned by a timber tower, the massive mound most likely received its splendid round keep in the 13th century, when another Walter de Lacy had possession of the castle. Although unusual for England, round keeps were relatively popular in Wales, so it is not too surprising to find one here along the borders, even though Longtown is considered an English castle. (Welsh round keeps may be explored at Skenfrith, which is about 12 miles SE of Longtown; at Tretower, about the same distance to the SW; and at Bronllys, about 15 miles north of Tretower.)

Longtown's fine round keep (shown right) was defended by 15-foot thick walls, and was carefully constructed, its foundation sloping slightly outwards to minimize the possibility of collapse. This construction technique was obviously quite effective, for the keep remains virtually intact. Three lobate buttresses were also installed to avert collapse. They project outwards from the cylindrical walls of the tower, and give the keep its unusual shape. Longtown's keep rose two stories, the uppermost serving as the private apartments of the lord, and accessed via a spiral staircase built inside one of the buttresses. A latrine chute was thoughtfully included alongside another of the lobe buttresses.

 

Below: the remains of the interior of the keep at Longtown.

 

In all, Longtown Castle was a simple but formidable structure. To the south of the fortress, a small town was started, but never reached its full potential. Vestiges of the medieval borough are visible in the surrounding fields, merely parallel earthworks scarring the landscape. The castle and its town were abandoned in the 14th century, but saw a brief resurgence in the early 1400's. Then, the castle was refortified in response to Owain Glyndwr's unsuccessful attempt to reclaim Wales for the Welsh.

Before its final demise, Longtown Castle passed through the hands of several owners. After the de Lacys, the castle became the property of John de Verdon, one of Edward I's crusaders. It passed then to his granddaughter's husband, Bartholomew de Burghersh, during the reign of Edward III. Their son, Thomas, fought for Richard II, and, after the king lost the throne, Thomas lost his estates and the castle at Longtown. The last owners were the prestigious Nevilles, who held the castle long after it fell into ruin.

Fortunately, Longtown Castle is now under the care of English Heritage. It is freely accessible any reasonable time. Seek it out. You will be pleased that you did!

Longtown Castle is located about 20 miles southwest of Hereford. From Hereford, take the A465 to the intersection with the B4347. Follow the B4347 northwards about one mile, and then take the minor road west into Longtown. The village is signposted.

 

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.

 

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