Strongbow is probably the most famous figure from medieval Irish history, however he wasn’t born in Ireland. As the Lord of Strigoil, he spent most of his life in Wales with Chepstow Castle (then known as Strigoil) as his seat of power.A few weeks ago I visited the castle to see where the Norman Invasion of Ireland was planned. If you want to listen to the story of the Norman conquest of Ireland check my podcast series here.
Today Chepstow is a massive series of ruins sprawling for several hundred metres over cliffs on a site which dominates the river Wye below.
Built over several centuries by the Lords of Stirgoil, it was home to some of the most influential Norman nobles in Irish history aside from Strongbow himself. The 13th century, Lord of Leinster William Marshall and several members of the Bigod family, who were Earls of Norfolk and Lords of Carlow lived at the castle. However in terms of Irish history the most resident of them all was Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare known in Irish history as Strongbow.
Constructed in stages over three centuries, Chepstow known as Stirgoil through the medieval period was an immense fortification by the 14th century composed of four distinct baileys. The northern approaches to the castle are protected by this massive barbican, a stone enclosure built outside the approaches to the castle.
The main entrance to Chepstow was from the south. As the castle was extended along the Wye in the late 12th century, the twin towered gatehouse on the right of this picture was added. Built by William Marshall, Strongbow’s son in law and heir, it was the main gate into the complex.
A century later, Roger Bigod, the earl of Norfolk dramatically transformed the interior of the castle by constructing a series of buildings stretching along the cliffs over the Wye including kitchens, a great hall and private chambers. Goods were hauled up to these chambers by a pully and winch system into this storage room below from the river Wye.
The most important part of Chepstow castle in terms of Irish history is the earliest buildings on the site situated in middle of the complex. Built in the late 11th century the earliest surviving construction is the remains of the tower below. This immense construction was the main fortification on the site when Strongbow, was the Lord of Stirgoil in mid 12th century. The tower is a massive building measuring 36 metres by 14 metres at its base. While the 21st century entrance is at ground level, in the 12th century access was through the first floor door evident in this picture, presumably accessed by a wooden platform.
The arch around the door is decorated with tiles taken from a roman site a few miles away.
The remains of an arch spring which supported one side of a twin arch is a reminder of past splender. This double arch would have a great hall on the first floor.
An interesting feature of the great hall is the lack of windows on the landward side, presumably a defensive measure, there were no garderobes medieval toilet chutes either. While it is quite difficult to re-imagine what this great hall would have been like in the summer of 1170 when Strongbow prepared his invasion of Ireland, Chepstow castle contains an unusual artefact that dates from the late 12th century.
These gates below have incredibly survived the last eight centuries and may well have defended the entrance to Chepstow (or Stirgoil as it was known) when Strongbow left in August 1170 destined for Milford Haven from where he departed for Ireland.
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