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White Castle

Welsh Name: Llantilio or Castell Gwyn

7m E of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, southeast Wales

Map link for White Castle

   

hite Castle now stands on a low hill about a mile from the village of Llantilio Crossenny. The Welsh form of the name, Castell Gwyn, is said to derive from a local ruler of early Norman times, Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed, but the original name of the castle was Llantilio Castle, and the alternative - first recorded in the 13th century - refers to the white rendering which is still visible on parts of the exterior walls.

The earthworks of White Castle compromise three separate enclosures. In the center is the pear-shaped inner ward, surrounded by a wet moat with stone revetted sides, and containing the walls and towers of the main defences of the castle. To the south is a crescentic hornwork. On the north - the side from which visitors approach the castle - is an outer ward with its own stone curtain wall, towers, and a gatehouse surmounting the basic earthworks. Initially, this third area was part of a much larger outer enclosure which surrounded the entire eastern half of the castle. Some traces of its defensive bank can be seen on the ground, but it is much clearer when seen in an aerial photograph.

     

Originally, when the defences at White Castle were still of earth and timber, the site was entered from the south. The crescentic hornwork then covered the main approach to the castle. The outer ward, which may have been a defended enclosure where armies in the field could camp without fear of surprise attack, was tucked in to the rear. Usk Castle has the same earthwork plan and may date from the same period. In the 13th century, when most of the present stone defences were built, the whole castle was turned around 180 degrees. A new gatehouse was built facing on to the outer ward, which now became the approach to the castle, with the hornwork relegated to the rear.

Together with Grosmont and Skenfrith, these so-called "Three Castles" formed an important strategic triangle controlling this area of the southern March. All three were royal castles in the later 12th century, and in 1201 were granted to Hubert de Burgh by King John. Unlike the other two, however, White Castle was not rebuilt by de Burgh in the new defensive style of the early 13th century.

Today, the visitor enters the outer ward through the late 13th-century gate. Crossing the ward, a wooden bridge spans the deeply-sunk water filled moat. The twin towers of the inner gatehouse loom ahead, and from the top it is possible to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the castle and surrounding countryside. The high curtain wall can be dated to 1184-86, and the massive footings of a contemporary Norman keep can also be seen. In 1254, along with Grosmont and Skenfrith, the castle passed to the Lord Edward, the king's eldest son, and later Edward I. In 1267 it was transferred to his younger brother, Edmund, earl of Lancaster. At this time, the threatening power of Llywelyn the Last was at its height, and White Castle was dangerously near the frontier of his conquests. Thus, it was probably under Edward or Edmund that the gatehouse and circular towers were added as a strengthening of the defences. Indeed, overall the castle never really functioned as a nobleman's residence, and always appears to have been more a military work. Although the internal buildings include a chapel, hall and kitchen, these seem more appropriate to a garrison commander than a great lord. Nearby is the interesting medieval moated site of Hen Gwrt.

The Three Castles, Jeremy K. Knight, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Cardiff.

 

Jeff Thomas 1995

Right: Remains of the outer gatehouse

Nestled in a secluded spot of great beauty, White Castle was an unexpected surprise on our 1995 holiday to Wales. Forever linked with nearby Skenfrith and Grosmont as one of the "Three Castles," White is easily the most impressive of the three. The castle's massive defences are in sharp contrast to this beautiful section of mid-Wales. It seems a bit curious that this large Marcher fortress is not as well known as other castles in the region.

One of the great things about the castle is that the outer bailey defences are largely intact, and form an impressive stronghold in their own right. At most other Norman castles in Wales outer bailey defences have long since disappeared, which is why it is such a treat to examine the remains at White Castle. The walls of the outer bailey are constructed in stone, though it is likely the walls were originally of timber. There were towers at various points along the walls that were manned by archers, and the ward had its own gatehouse, the entrance to the castle complex today. Some of the original arrowloops of the wall-towers remain.

The castle is pear-shaped and sits on a mound completely surrounded by a deep-cut moat, while the outer bailey lies at the front of the castle outside the moat. A high curtain wall connects the castle's six large, round towers. The two front towers form the 13th-century gatehouse and the 12th-century curtain apparently survives to its original height. The gatehouse at White Castle rivals some of the most impressive Norman gatehouses in Wales, and it is apparent from the condition of the towers and walls, that this is one Welsh castle that was never purposely "slighted" after it was abandoned. If attackers had managed to overcome the defences of the outer bailey, they had little chance of taking the castle itself. Access to the castle was via a drawbridge over the moat, which surely would have been drawn up in times of attack. Today, much of the moat is still filled with water, giving visitors an idea of what one would have faced in attempting to storm this formidable fortress.

After entering the castle via the drawbridge and examining the impressive remains of the interior of the gatehouse towers, you are greeted by the surprisingly large inner ward or courtyard. Although the remains of the inner ward buildings are slight, enough deatil remains to give visitors an idea of the construction of the interior buildings. White Castle also allows visitors the opportunity to climb to the top of its gatehouse tower, a vantage that affords excellent views of the outer bailey, moat, inner ward and the beautiful surrounding countryside. It is certainly the best place to survey the castle's position, and gives one a much better idea of the overall defensive plan of the castle. One cannot fail to be impressed by this view.

Although the castle saw a brief revival of fortunes during the Glyn Dwr uprising of the early 14th century, White Castle, like Grosmont and Skenfrith, was largely abandoned after that crisis passed. Fortunately all three castles remained for a time as local centers of administration, estate management, and revenue collecting. The records show that monies were spent for the repair and upkeep of the castle through the end of the Middle Ages, and this has, no doubt, contributed to the castle's fine state of preservation.

Looking at all the positive elements of White Castle then, this is surly one of Wales' best overlooked gems. The impressive outer defences with its moat, the massive castle with its nearly complete set of walls, and the beautiful surrounding countryside come together to create a most memorable Welsh castle experience!

 

Additional essay & photographs for White Castle

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas