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History of Abergabenny Castle

Abergavenny is thought to have been originally fortified during the Bronze and Iron Ages. It is known to have become a Roman Fort called ‘Gobannium’ even before the Normans built their castle on it on the order of William the Conqueror. The Roman Fort had been constructed around 50AD at the junction between the rivers Usk and Gavenny. William the Conqueror died in 1087 and his son, William Rufus, gave the castle to Hamelin de Balun, a Norman Lord, who started building a simple structure of earth and timber in 1087. De Balun’s fort consisted of a wooden Keep with a palisaded top and bottom, surrounded by a ditch.

During the 1100s, a stone keep was built to replace the wooden structure. Abergavenny passed from the De Baluns to Brian Fitz Count, who granted the Lordship to the Earls of Hereford for their help against Stephen of Blois during the time of the Civil War between England and Normandy (1135 – 1154). During the 1160s, Henry Fitzmiles, the son of the 1st Earl of Hereford and Lord of Abergavenny, was killed in 1175 without having a male heir. His estate and lands passed on to his sister’s husband, William of Braose, who rebuilt parts of the Castle and constructed the curtain wall, parts of which can still be seen today. William de Braose was possibly the cruellest and most hated of all the Norman Marcher Lords. He was known to commit act of unwarranted cruelty and violence when dealing with the resentful Welsh population he was trying to subdue.

The same year Abergavenny Castle passed in the hands of William de Braose was also the year of the infamous ‘Massacre of Abergavenny’, whereupon de Braose took revenge for the murder of his wife’s brother Henry, who had been killed allegedly by another Marcher Lord, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal of Castell Arnallt. During Christmas of 1175, de Braose summoned Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, his son Geoffrey and a number of other Welsh leaders from Gwent to Abergavenny Castle as a supposed act of reconciliation and on the pretext of hearing a Royal proclamation, offering them hospitality. The Welsh Lords were asked to lay down their weapons in friendship at the door of the Castle upon arrival as a sign of trust and peaceful intentions. Once the guests were all assembled in the great hall, the doors were barred and every single man was killed. De Braose also dispatched men to murdered the Lords’ retainers, ravage his lands, kill Seisyll’s younger son Cadwaladr and capture his wife. Border warfare had always been violent, but such savagery and betrayal was horrifying especially as de Braose had broken the rules of hospitality. Although de Braose’s pretext for this massacre was the avenging of a member of family, many later maintained that he merely wanted to eliminate the Welsh leaders in the lands that surrounded his own in order to ensure more security for his position of power.

The massacre was not well-received by the English monarchy, who did not need any more trouble on the border. William de Braose was removed from power, and Abergavenny passed on to his son, also called William. This unfortunately, was not enough to stop the ill will between the Normans and the Welsh or to stop the warfare. The Welsh in fact had their revenge in 1182, when Hywel ap Iorwerth, Lord of Caerleon, attacked the Castle and burned it, taking de Braose’s wife and his men captive. De Braose himself was not in the Castle when this happened.

During the 12th century, control of the Castle passed back and forth between the Welsh and English, as the ‘Marches’ changed hands during years of turmoil. King John Plantagenet visited the Castle in 1215, while it was in Royal hands. William de Braose himself later became one of the chief suspects in the disappearance and suspected murder of Arthur of Brittany, King John’s strongest rival for the throne. He fell out of favour at court and eventually died penniless and in exile. In the spring of 1263 a major battle was fought at Abergavenny. Roger Mortimer of Wigmore together with his Royal troops, defeated and scattered around 10,000 Welsh forces under the command of Rhys Fychan. In 1273 the Castle was passed on to the Hastings family, who re-fortified it, also adding the western towers, which provided residential chambers. Two towers, one circular and one polygonal were built between 1295 and 1314 by John Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings. A new wall protecting Abergavenny town was also built between the late 13th century and the early 14th century.

In 1404, Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welsh ruler to hold the title of Prince of Wales, headed a rebellion during which the town of Abergavenny was sacked and burned. The Castle was also attacked and burned, even though it managed to fend off an infantry attack. The Castle later also saw action during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651). During the course of the war it had been garrisoned and remained undamaged, but as Royalist fortunes waned in 1645, and as enemy forces neared the Castle, King Charles I ordered it to be made uninhabitable, in order to prevent its useful occupation. Most of the castle buildings, including the stone keep, were destroyed, in order to make them unusable. Later on, it was even used as a quarry for local buildings.

The ruins started to attract visitors during the 18th century, when such things became in fashion. Walks were laid out within the castle walls and the Abergavenny Museum was built with the restructuring of the hunting lodge at the top of the motte.