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White Castle (Castell Gwyn)

White Castle is a medieval stronghold situated one mile north of the village of Llantilio Crosseny in the county of Monmouthshire in Wales. It was built with the aim of protecting one of the main routes through the border region between England and South Wales, that is, the route along the River Monnow Valley, which due to its position on relatively open land, provided a break between the river cliffs of the Wye Valley to the east, and the hills around Abergavenny to the west. Originally, the Castle was called Llantilio Castle, however in the thirteenth century it started to be called ‘White’ Castle, in relation to the whitewash put on its stone walls. The Welsh version of the name, ‘Castle Gwyn’, is said to derive from an early Norman Welsh ruler, Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed.

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. (more)

Today

Originally, White Castle consisted of two earthworks; a pear-shaped inner ward surrounded by a water-filled moat, and a crescent shaped outer bailey on the southern side, known as the hornwork. There was also a large area enclosed by a defensive bank, to the north. This was used for the camping of armies in case of an attack. The earliest buildings of the Castle were built out of wood. The stone Keep in fact was added after the stewardship of Ralph of Grosmont in 1186. The architecture of White Castle was altered significantly by Hubert de Burgh, who shifted the orientation of the Castle by building a twin-towered gatehouse on the northern side, instead of continuing to use the southern hornwork. He also built residences within the inner ward, amongst which were a chapel, a kitchen, a great hall, and a brew-house. The northern enclosure was built into an outer bailey with four projecting towers and a gatehouse for defence.

Today, White Castle is a partial ruin. The stone walls and towers of the inner and outer ward still stand, but the inner floors are missing, as are portions of the upper level of the walls. A modern wooden bridge spans the moat, and a stairwell has been restored within one tower of the inner gatehouse, in order to allow tourists access to the top of the tower and the beautiful majestic views of the surrounding countryside.

The defences of the outer bailey are mostly intact and show that the Castle was indeed an effective stronghold. There were towers at various points around the Castle, which were manned by archers – in fact some of the original arrow-loops of the wall-towers are still evident today. The Castle sits on a defensible mound and its six towers are connected by a high curtain wall. The gatehouse rivals some of the most impressive Norman gatehouses in Wales, and it is apparent from the condition of the towers and walls that this Welsh Castle was never purposely ‘slighted’ or abandoned. Although the remains of the inner ward are not conspicuous, enough still remains to give visitors an idea of the purpose of each room. There are also a number of information boards around the site which are quite informative. The free parking area is very close to the entrance, however be warned, there are no public toilets in the vicinity and no food facilities.

White Castle is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open from 10.00am – 5.00pm from Wednesdays to Sundays up until November

Text: Melisande Aquilina