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Abergavenny Castle

A Scheduled Monument in Abergavenny (Y Fenni), Monmouthshire (Sir Fynwy)

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.8197 / 51°49'10"N

Longitude: -3.0175 / 3°1'2"W

OS Eastings: 329964

OS Northings: 213941

OS Grid: SO299139

Mapcode National: GBR F5.WJ59

Mapcode Global: VH796.NJ4C

Entry Name: Abergavenny Castle

Scheduled Date: 7 July 1933

Source: Cadw

Source ID: 2970

Cadw Legacy ID: MM056

Schedule Class: Defence

Category: Castle

Period: Medieval

County: Monmouthshire (Sir Fynwy)

Community: Abergavenny (Y Fenni)

Built-Up Area: Abergavenny

Traditional County: Monmouthshire

Description

Historical summary

The monument comprises the remains of an important medieval baronial castle with stone buildings of the 13th to 15th centuries and later post medieval alterations associated with an early 19th century shooting box and a public park. It originated as an earth and timber motte and bailey utilising the same ridge as a Roman fort, and was probably established by Hamelin de Ballon in 1087 following the initial Norman incursions into the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Brycheiniog. Abergavenny formed the administrative centre of its own Marcher lordship encapsulating the lowlands of the middle Usk Valley and large tracts of mountainous terrain to the north and west. The castle was soon accompanied by the other key economic and religious elements of Norman colonisation to a scale befitting the status and aspirations of its founders in the form of a defended borough on the ridge along the ridge to the north, which was enclosed by stone walls and gates by the start of the 14th century, and a Benedictine priory outside of the walled area to the south-east.

Along with other lordships in south-east Wales Abergavenny passed into the hands of the powerful de Braose family who held the Earldom of Hereford for most of the 12th century until their dramatic fall at the hands of King John around 1210. The great hall (not the present structure) was the scene of the murder by William de Braose of Seisyll ap Dyfnwal of Gwent Uwchoed on Christmas Day 1175. The subsequent retaliation by Seisyll’s relatives saw Abergavenny besieged and burned in 1182, although none of the surviving buildings can be attributed to the subsequent rebuilding. Another episode of regional unrest saw the destruction of the castle by Richard Marshal, Earl of Pembroke in 1233 and it is likely that he wooden tower was replaced by a stone one of uncertain form either by or shortly after this date, the remains of which can be seen in a print of 1784 by Samuel Hooper, some fragmentary and shapeless foundations surviving beneath the museum.

The castle was extensively rebuilt by the Hastings family at some point after 1295, possibly in response to a visit by Edward I, most of the visible masonry dating from this period. The apparently simple gatehouse was extended outwards into the ditch in the early 15th century, probably by the Beauchamp family, shortly after – although not necessarily prompted by - damage to the town and castle by supporters of Owain Glyndŵr. The keep and most of the other buildings were damaged following the Civil War and were subsequently slighted or partially dismantled. The site was subsequently used as a quarry, the earliest maps and antiquarian views showing little more surviving masonry than at present. The embattled rectangular museum building on the lowered summit of the motte was built in 1818 as a shooting box for Lord Abergavenny. This resulted in the destruction of low upstanding masonry on the motte depicted in Samuel Hooper’s engraving of 1784 and the lowering and modification of the mound itself, the infilling of its defensive ditches and considerable levelling up of the bailey interior, the layout of the site south of the motte and the corresponding line of its southern defences being obscured. The monument was repaired in the 19th century and conserved by staff of the Ministry of Works in the mid 20th century, which whilst preventing the loss of further medieval fabric may have obscured some structural details. The walls have subsequently been repointed on various occasions by the local authority, most recently between 2015-7. Description

The initial motte and bailey occupied a prominent spur of land overlooking the confluence of the Rivers Usk and Gavenny, a little to the south of the Roman fort. It consisted of a large, ditched artificial earthen mound which will have supported a timber tower, with an adjacent ditched and palisaded bailey or court containing a hall, kitchen, workshops and other ancillary buildings. There may have been other associated enclosures, possibly to the S of the motte, but the layout of this area has been obscured by extensive landscaping. The motte survives in a reduced and mutilated state, now supporting the hunting lodge of 1818 that forms the Museum building, a northern wing of which has been cut down into the north-eastern arc of the mound. The presumed motte ditch has been completely backfilled and the southern and western sides of the mound cut by garden paths leading to the summit. The general outline of the large sub-oval bailey to the north is defined in part by the circuit of 13th century stone defences to the W / NW, an upstanding section of rampart containing more wall base to the north and heavily landscaped breaks of slope on the remaining sides. The exact line of the southern defences below the motte is unknown, the scheduled area being defined by a Victorian retaining wall.

The tower on the motte and the defences and buildings of the bailey were eventually replaced in stone although none of the upstanding walls can be dated to before the end of the 13th century, when it was rebuilt by the Hastings family. It is however likely that buried remains of earlier timber and masonry structures survive across the site. The main upstanding remains comprise a high stretch of almost featureless curtain wall and a very large great hall backing onto it linking a late medieval gatehouse to an impressive chamber block, consisting of a pair of impressive conjoined towers, one semi-octagonal, the other round. The southern third of the bailey seems to have been divided off from the rest of the enclosure by a cross wall, separating a higher status range of apartments along the western side of the site, including the surviving impressive conjoined corner towers and fragments of a possible second hall. Fragments of contemporary buildings on the line of the cross-wall can be seen incorporated into the Museum building at the eastern base of the motte.

The gatehouse faced into the medieval town along the spine of the ridge to the north. It seems to have begun as a simple opening in the curtain wall, reminiscent of that at nearby Skenfrith, to which was added a two storey rectangular structure projecting into the ditch, with a comfortable domestic chamber above the gate passage. The side walls are battered, with integral external buttresses, the surviving details indicating a 15th century date, including the springers and spandrels of a segmental gate arch, with a rectangular rebate for a drawbridge in front and a narrow dressed hole on its western side probably carrying a chain or rope for the bridge. A flight of stairs led from ground level at the rear of the gate to the first floor, which was carried on a broad offset. This chamber is likely to have housed the constable or another senior official and incorporated a round-backed fireplace and several large windows in the lateral walls; a four-centred door at the stair head led to the lower end of the adjacent first floor great hall. The passage itself is plain and there are no signs of a portcullis at either end, the junction with the original gate / curtain wall being difficult to identify due to successive modern repointing works. Visible from the exterior within a ragged and much-patched void at the junction of the gate and the curtain wall to the W is part of a relieving arch and a possible length of rebuilt drain outlet on the ground, indicating that a latrine serving the chamber over the gate stood at this angle. Thin toothing for a wall projecting from buttress than the N curtain wall, which seems to have stood further south at the rear of the gate.

The gatehouse is a relatively rare example of its period in Wales, its simple form recalling the slightly later South Gate at Raglan and contrasting with the complex twin-towered contemporary examples rebuilt by the Earl of Lancaster at Carmarthen and Kidwelly. The well-appointed first floor chamber and apparent lack of portcullis indicates the increasing precedence of comfort over defence, although it is possible that a portcullis slot could have been lost at the earlier inner end of the passage.

To the west of the gatehouse is the substantial great hall, backing onto the curtain wall, which stands almost to parapet height. The hall was at first floor level, the floor carried on a broad internal offset in the thickness of the curtain wall, over an undercroft probably used for storage. The inner wall, which will have contained the main entrance and large windows to the court is lost; it is also likely that the main fireplace to the hall will have been in this wall. The roof was carried on a series of large quarter round corbels with chamfered edges, several of which survive set into the rear face of the curtain. About half way along its length a short passage in the thickness of the curtain wall leads to a latrine lit by a small, plain rectangular opening. The hall otherwise shows no sign of sub-division, although a fragment of a possible fireplace in its eastern wall might suggest that this end may have been partitioned off, 19th and 20th century repairs having removed any slight evidence for this. Another doorway led to the upper floor of the gatehouse whilst the opposing western wall contained a doorway on each level communicating with the inner court. The lower doorway is relatively wide with chamfered jambs and large pyramidal stops of late 13th to early 14th century type and gave access from ground level of the inner court into the storage rooms below the hall. This end of the undercroft was lit by a well-preserved recessed pointed lancet of late 13th or 14th century form adjacent to the door, its shallow chamfered jambs and rere arch being similar to the surviving ones in the solar towers. A spiral stair adjacent to this doorway reached through another door with chamfered jambs leads up to the now lost first floor door giving access from what must have been the high end of the hall to the solar block. The hall / curtain appear to be of one build with the adjacent solar block, the few surviving details (corbels, chamfered door jambs, lancet in basement) being consistent with this in date.

Cross Wall and inner court. The western wall of the hall forms part of a relatively thin cross wall dividing the bailey into inner and outer courts, the inner containing the motte, solar block and a possible upper hall. A porch-like projection and part of a spiral stair of uncertain purpose survive to the south of hall, the line of the wall between this and the Museum building being preserved in part by a modern garden wall. To the NE of the museum and incorporated into the gable wall of its extension at the base of the motte are two parallel, thin walled fragments of medieval masonry, the higher one to the south being carried over its junction with the adjacent cross wall by a distinctive, almost triangular headed squinch or arch, very similar in form to late 13th century examples at Goodrich. This was a method of thickening the wall junction either for structural stability or to create additional space to incorporate perhaps a fireplace or even a stair to the now inaccessible rear. It is unclear what the remains of this formerly impressive structure represented other some form of two or three storey projection from a now lost range in the inner court.

Solar block. This impressive block of conjoined rounded and semi-polygonal towers was established after 1295 by Hastings, the bulk of the surviving masonry being dateable to this period by the consistent use of chamfered jambs with pyramidal stops and segmental arches. They formed a suite of high status accommodation for the Lord his retainers, achieved to a complex design and finished with a series of architectural motifs common to elite castles of the late 13th and early fourteenth centuries. Only the outer walls survive to a significant height, the semi-octagonal tower containing the principal accommodation with three stories of well appointed rooms above a basement. This tower was rectangular internally with a straight wall to the court, its outer angles being chamfered off and rising from short spur-buttresses to a compressed half-octagon. The spurs relatively low in proportion to the height of the tower but form one of a concentration of examples of this form in the southern Welsh marches and are consistent with the presumed date of construction date of around 1295. A broad chamfered and pyramidal stopped arch led from the court into the seemingly windowless basement, which is likely to have been a cellar. The first and second floor windows rooms were carried into the chamfered angles of the octagon on short vaults containing windows, each room being lit by large windows with stone seats in the substantial recesses formed by their segmental- headed rere-arches. The surviving window mouldings are almost all plain, narrow chamfers. A slight change in the coursing of the masonry indicates that the third floor may be a slightly later addition, although this probably represents a different building season as part of the same planned scheme rather than a significant change of plan.The tower was served by a stair at its junction with the north-west curtain wall and the hall (See above), lit by an unusual plain rectangular loop with sockets for bars in the angle between the tower and curtain wall. Short wall passages on three levels connected these rooms to the round tower and its suite of latrines, two of the passages being lit by small rectangular openings in the angle between the two towers, comparable to that on the stair. The vault of the first floor passage is supported by a rough pillar of masonry partly blocking the passage, probably added in the 19th century or even by the Ministry of Works. the enteral elevations of the tower and its window embrasures retain a considerable extent of original render.

Externally the rounded portion of the block appears to be a large round corner tower typical of the mid to later 13th century but its upper levels were relatively thinly walled and there seems to have been almost no projection into the court, this effectively being a narrow suite of chambers with a substantial internal latrine shaft within its eastern third, serving the chambers in both towers. There are no external signs of an outlet for the large cess pit at the base of this shaft, although a segmental headed outlet and drain are visible externally on the opposite (southern) side of the tower, directly below a first floor window embrasure, it being unclear what these were connected to. A small round-backed fireplace at second floor level is ventilated not by a conventional chimney piece at the wall head but exits the outer face of the tower through a small dressed rectangular opening, presumably to enable a continuous wall walk on the top of the tower, part of the flagged surface of which still survives. There are two other local examples of this, one near contemporary in the barbican to the motte at Crickhowell and a 12th century example within the shell keep at Tretower. The western and northern sides of the battered based of the round tower has four, equally distanced staggered lines of 3 vertically set ashlars, which appears to be a decorative motif, either inserted or heavily restored in the 19th or 20th century. A long diagonal crack in the outer face of the corridor linking the round and semi-octagonal towers seems to be a repaired structural failure rather than an indication of separate phasing, evidenced by a large patch of contrasting masonry above.

The solar block with its conjoined towers was clearly built as much for display and domestic comfort as defence, giving an impression of great height and bulk but being relatively thinly walled. Whilst its layout is highly unusual and rather awkward, the almost uniform, mouldings indicates that they appear to have been built together and the dramatic effect of a cluster towers may have been the intention. As such it forms part of a loosely associated regional group; a contemporary pair of conjoined towers (one rounded, one rectangular, both residential) can be seen at nearby Crickhowell, these also being a major domestic addition to an existing castle. A third pair adjoining the hall at Brecon were much smaller in scale and served as a stair block to an internal building. The architectural details and motifs with which the Abergavenny towers were finished (octagonal form, spur buttresses, the angle light to the stair, mural passages, excessive provision of latrines) are typical of high status royal and Marcher castles of this period.

Western range and curtain wall. The stub of the west curtain wall extends south from the rounded solar tower. Projecting from its outer face is a shallow rectangular turret with a stone pent roof containing two levels of latrines, one accessed from ground level, the other via a short first floor passage from the round tower. These discharge into a single pit, the near triangular-headed outlet at its base being exposed. Beyond the turret the curtain wall has been completely destroyed above ground, its ragged edge retaining the northern side of a large first floor window with a finely dressed rere arch. The former line of the curtain wall extends approximately 15m to the S as a scarp with a levelled platform to the rear indicating the continuation of this range. A straight section of walling at the SW side of this platform towards the motte seems to have formed the inner wall of the same building. Its large windows, access to latrines and location within the inner court suggest that this was either a range of high status lodgings or even a second private hall serving the Lord and his retainers or guests.

Bailey.

The outer court of the bailey is now grassed over and other than the undercroft to the rear of the Mill Street Tower is devoid of features, although it will have contained the main ancillary structures associated with the castle. It has been heavily landscaped, test pits excavated across the area having indicated substantial modern infill, the present level of the undercroft indicating potential depths of burial and that the substantial remains of successive medieval buildings are likely to survive beneath this infill and demolition deposits.

The stump of the curtain wall along the northern rampart survives in a heavily rebuilt state, the north eastern angle of the bailey overlooking the former southern gate of the town wall now being defined by two sites of a thin walled late medieval building with numerous putlog holes in its outer face. Just to the north of this a very large shelf in the natural slope beyond the park wall may represent the base of a substantial corner tower. The E / SE curtain wall survives below the present ground level as a massive battered and buttressed revetment of several periods, terminating in the rectangular base of the Mill Street Tower, of which again only the modified base survives with a small upstanding fragment of a structure at courtyard level to the west. The line of the remainder of the circuit is unknown; it could either have been closed off by a wing wall ascending to the motte or continued to form a second bailey at the point of the spur.

The fine undercroft of 14th century date is likely to have provided additional storage space to the adjacent tower rather than being a dungeon as is assumed in some guidebooks. The complex stair arrangement to its entrance is likely to indicate further lost structures at a higher level within this area of the bailey.

Summary

The monument is of national importance for its potential to enhance our knowledge of medieval defensive and domestic architecture at the upper end of the social spectrum. Whilst its masonry buildings are incomplete, the upstanding structures are well-preserved and incorporate a number of diagnostic and regionally distinctive architectural features of a specific period at the turn of the 14th century. The conjoined corner towers are of particular significance as a good example of a complex architectural showpiece of a major marcher lord, built in the immediate aftermath of Edward I’s final conquest of Gwynedd. The site retains significant archaeological potential, with a strong probability of the presence of both structural evidence and intact associated deposits, artefactual and environmental deposits, which may provide further evidence of the development and layout of the monument, construction techniques, material culture, diet and the broader contemporary environment. The castle forms a prominent landmark in modern Abergavenny an and important relict feature of the medieval landscape, sharing group value with other surviving elements of the medieval town including the street layout, Priory, St John’s Church and town wall remains.

The scheduled area comprises the remains described and areas around them within which related evidence may be expected to survive.

Source: Cadw

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