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Skenfrith Castle

Welsh Name: Ynysgynwraidd

11m NE of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, southeast Wales

Map link for Skenfrith Castle

Text copyright 1998 by Lise Hull
Photographs Copyright 2007 by Bill Damick

Skenfrith Castle is situated at the northeastern entrance into the tiny, picturesque village of the same name, adjacent to the River Monnow which severs the Welsh Marches from England. The pleasant approach into Skenfrith takes visitors through lush countryside before arriving at the compact but interesting village. At first glimpse, the castle seems surprisingly simple, but inside and out, the stronghold remains one of the finest in the Welsh Marches.

Initially the work of Norman William FitzOsbern, who had control of the Marches in the early 12th century, the first castle at Skenfrith was probably a motte and bailey. Sadly, nothing has survived. What we see today at Skenfrith Castle was constructed by another Norman lord, Hubert de Burgh, a structure composed of a four-sided curtain wall (with its towers) and the fascinating round keep which dominates the interior. Although Skenfrith seems small, when compared with its siblings, Grosmont and White Castles, it is equally impressive.

As you approach the castle's main entrance, you might notice that the ground seems squishy. This land marks the site of the original ditch, filled by water flowing from the River Monnow. Today, the best-preserved portion of Skenfrith's moat is located on the eastern face of the castle, farthest from the parking area, which can be reached from outside the castle. The moat is also accessible from inside the castle, through a curious feature known as the water gate.

Hubert de Burgh had a checkered career serving the Norman monarchy in Wales. Perhaps his greatest achievement (aside from the castles) was his success against French forces led by King Philip Augustus. After de Burgh's triumph, King Henry II granted de Burgh full rights to Skenfrith, White and Grosmont Castles. From 1219 to 1232 the Norman lord remodelled the earth and timber castle at Skenfrith into the enchanting site that survives today. Not surprisingly, de Burgh patterned his new castle at Skenfrith after ones he had encountered in France, which were dominated by round towers. Skenfrith's round keep is Hubert's great gift to us.

While the exterior of Skenfrith Castle seems fairly plain, the interior is an unexpected visual treat. Skenfrith's charm is its round keep, which immediately grasps your attention as you cross the footbridge and through the main gateway. Placed to tower above the curtain towers, the well-preserved keep not only housed the lord and his family, but also symbolized the power of the de Burgh's.

The rotund tower encourages visitors forward with an almost magical pull. Certainly, its allure would have been even more pronounced during the Middle Ages, when the keep gleamed with white plaster, speckles of which still exist. Originally, the massive cylinder stood three stories tall, and was once crowned with a simple roof. Primarily used as living quarters, the keep still contains remains of a spiral staircase, windows, a grand fireplace and a latrine. Around the roofline, putlog holes indicate a timber hoard or fighting platform once afforded protection for soldiers standing both on the platform and on the wall-walk.

Five other towers were built into the curtain wall, four at the corners and the fifth placed midway along the western wall. Three of the massive round corner towers have survived in fair condition. Between the towers, a wall-walk rimmed the curtain wall and, like the keep, supported timber hoarding.

The foundations of a long range of domestic buildings may also be explored in the inner ward. Only uncovered in the 1950's, the complex of buildings probably consisted of the hall and apartments overhead. Scattered within these rooms are remains of fine carving, fitting for a grand room like the hall. Masons marks are also visible. Across the inner ward alongside the water gate are the jumbled foundations of the kitchen block, including remnants of the main oven.

Despite its superficial simplicity, Skenfrith Castle possessed all the trappings expected of a Marcher lord like Hubert de Burgh. Thanks to CADW, it remains in outstanding condition. The present village, with its neat stone homes, pretty church, inn and mill that grew up around the castle, remains true to its medieval origins and offers a kind welcome to the Welsh Marches. Skenfrith Castle should be on every traveler's itinerary when exploring Wales.

 

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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