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History of White Castle

White Castle is most commonly known as one of ‘The Three Castles’ – the other two Castles being Skenfrith Castle and Grosmont Castle, all of which are located in the Monnow Valley. The three Castles are usually grouped together because for almost their entire history, they were part of a block territory under the control of a single lord.

It was William fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, who most probably started building the Castle’s earliest Norman earthworks in 1066. William was the first Norman lord to conquer central and eastern Monmouthshire, including the site used to build White Castle. His son, Roger de Breteuil, 2nd Earl of Hereford, rebelled against the crown in 1075, after which his lands and Castles were seized and reverted to the King, who divided this important territory in a politically strategic move. The three Castles were reunited under one single lord by King Stephen in the 1130s, and used as one defensive unit. In the 1180s, White Castle appears to have been the first of the ‘Three Castles’ to be rebuilt from the old Norman style consisting of earth and timber, into stone.

During the 12th century, White Castle was fortified by Ralph of Grosmont, who supervised such works for the King in Hereford. The towering curtain wall around the inner ward of the Castle was built between 1185 and 1187. In 1201, King John granted the lordship of the Castle to Hubert de Burgh, who completely overhauled its existing structure. William de Braose was briefly granted the control of the Castle in 1205, however when William fell out of favour and forced into ruin in 1207, Hubert de Burgh became the owner of the Castle once more. He was appointed further as Justiciar in 1215. Hubert had previously fought battles in France, where he learnt about the latest military architecture. Around 1230, he added the four round towers to the inner walls of White Castle. One pair of these formed the gatehouse. Later he also added two other D-shaped towers to the inner ward, and built the masonry outer ward. He also demolished the original square Norman tower keep.

Unlike the other two castles in the trio, it appears that White Castle was mainly a military outpost, rather than a home for a noble family. In 1254, the Castles were granted to King Henry II’s eldest son, Prince Edward. In the 1260s the Welsh ruler, Llwelyn ap Grufudd, led a Welsh rebellion, and to encounter this threat, the defences of White Castle were improved. A new twin towered gatehouse was built at the northern side of the ward, and the original southern gate was reduced to the status of postern gate. A curtain wall was built on the southern side and the entire Castle was surrounded by a deep water-filled moat. Llywelyn never attacked, and following his death in 1282, the military importance of the Castle was greatly reduced.

Lordship of the Castle passed to Edward’s younger brother Edmund, Earl of Lancaster. At this time, the White Castle, like the other two, was being used as a residence and centre for the local constabulary and authorities. White Castle passed down through the Earls of Lancaster until the death of Henry of Grosmont, and the marriage of his daughter to Henry of Bolingbroke, who deposed King Richard II in 1399, and became King Henry IV. At this point, the Castle fell once more under Royal possession.

In 1404, Owain Glyndwr, descendant of the Princes of Powys started his rebellion in earnest after he crowned himself Prince of Wales. It was during this time that White Castle briefly saw military action, after which it never played another major role in military affairs again. After the rebellion, King Henry VI carried some repairs to White Castle, however by 1528, the Castle was abandoned and in ruin. In 1825, the Duchy of Lancaster sold it to the Duke of Beaufort who in 1902 sold the lordship of the Manor and the Castle itself to Sir Henry Mather-Jackson, 3rd Baronet. The Castle ruin was given to the State in 1922, after which finally it was finally given to the National Trust. It is known that the German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess was a frequent visitor of the Castle between 1942 and 1945, while he was held on trial at the Maindiff Court Military Hospital. At present, the Castle is conserved and maintained by Cadw; the Welsh government’s historic environment service.