At the western end of the village, the site on which Clifford Castle stands is large and - including the outermost defences - covers an area in excess of 4 acres.
Clifford Castle was a castle of the Norman invasion, of which there were many on the Welsh border. It is strategically built at the point where the River Wye enters Herefordshire from Wales; in fact the name Clifford means "ford by a cliff" (Bruce Coplestone-Crow, Herefordshire Place-Names, British Archaeological Reports British Series 214, 1989, p. 54).
The castle is situated on a very steep natural spur above the south bank of the River Wye, cut across with two deep ditches with soil thrown up between them to form a motte 55m in diameter. This motte has a height of 5m above natural ground level and 8m above the base of the ditches.
Clifford Castle was most likely built in two separate stages. The first castle appears to have been built on a spur running east to west above the River Wye. Ditches were cut through the spur at various points and the earth was used to create ramparts. This created a triangular site with a hornwork at the point, then the motte and finally the bailey in the larger end section. The bailey is connected to the motte by a causeway to the east. Surrounding the mound and the hornwork on the south are the remains of a 75m long ditch, approximately 9m wide with a flat bottom which is 1m deep.
Further out from the ditch is a curious pair of earthworks with a ditch or track in between them. These banks curve round to the western end of the site where one bank joins the apex of the hornwork and the other curves out, disappearing under the modern railway cutting. It is possible that these banks denote the outer defences of the town associated with the castle.
The motte area covers about half an acre, and upon the motte stand the surviving ruins of the west side of the castle. These ruins form an irregular polygonal court with a gatehouse to the north-east. The gatehouse has two D-shaped flanking towers, of which the walls now only exist to less than half their original height. These two towers would only have been large enough to consist of one room, but they were probably two storeys high. There is a hall on the north-west front and round towers at the other three angles.
Surmounted by a shell keep with walls up to 2m thick and 8m high, earth causeways link the summit to the bailey situated to the east. Only half of the bailey was included in the stone defences, and remains of the barbican gate (c. 2m) survive in the centre with projecting portions of the curtain wall to the north and south. The other half of the bailey was protected by an earthen rampart, of which parts remain.
The keep on the motte is thought to be of two phases. The earliest section on the north was revealed by the disturbance to the site caused by the construction of the railway track. The foundations of this wall rest on three levels of stepped plinth. This section of early walling ends abruptly on the east where the later second stage takes the corner and leads to the gatehouse. The earlier section of the keep is most likely the work of fitz Osbern and his engineers.
The second stage of the keep would have included the reduction of the motte and the digging of a ditch across it. A studded shell keep was then built upon the remains of the earlier keep. This second building phase is thought to date from the 13th century, however Paul Remfry (in his M.Phil thesis) has suggested a date of between 1075 and 1162, by comparing it to Tosny castle in Normandy which was owned by the same family as Clifford at this time.
Paul Remfry has backed up his theory with the evidence that the towers of the keep are not of a later date to the curtain wall and that the whole structure appears to be of one build. These towers are also not positioned on the corners, as would be expected if they were of 13th century design.
The gatehouse on the motte faces east. It is flanked by two D-shaped towers and leads onto the courtyard. The gatehouse and passage in the bailey were designed to split it into two parts, an inner and outer ward. The gatehouse in itself is unusual, with an inner and outer archway with a portcullis groove between them. The two towers of the gatehouse are joined to the archway by a joint, which indicates that they are of later date. Indeed, looking at the mortar of these towers it is more like concrete in its make up, which suggests that the towers may be of Victorian date.
The towers of the curtain wall would appear to have been the residential area of the castle, however there is no sign of a kitchen and the only fireplaces are in the hall on the north side. The north-west tower, or Rosamund's tower, contains two garderobe chutes.
It is impossible to tell now from which angle the bailey was entered. The entrance used today on the east of the site is obviously of modern origin. In the centre of the bailey area is what appears to be a gatehouse structure, which would have split the bailey into two parts. The gatehouse has two circular towers, each with a first floor chamber with a diameter of 9ft. The purpose of the structure may have been to act as a barbican for the motte.
1069-1071: Clifford Castle is one of five castles mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and was built by William fitz Osbern, on wasteland formerly held by Browning, between 1069-1071.
The castle lay in England but was not subject to any Hundred (county division) or customary dues. It appears to have been the beginning of a Marcher Lordship, as the land and its owner owed allegiance to the king but were separate from the rest of the kingdom.
After settling problems caused by Welsh attacks, William fitz Osbern left England and returned to Normandy, only to be slain in a battle in Flanders. His lands, including Clifford, then passed to his son Roger de Breteuil. Roger granted the monks of nearby St Mary's the freedom to buy and sell within any of his lands without restraint. In 1078 Roger forfeited all his lands after being involved in a conspiracy against the king. Clifford Castle was held as a castellany and then as an Honour held direct from the Crown.
In the Domesday Survey Clifford is recorded as containing 16 burgesses, 13 smallholders, 5 Welshmen, 6 male and 4 female slaves. There was also a mill, which paid 3 measures of corn and 4 ploughmen with only 3 ploughs. The total value was £8 and 5s, which was a significant amount for a holding on the Welsh border.
1075: By this year the castle had been granted to Ralph Tosny of Normandy, as a base for operations into Wales. Ralph Tosny was still very active in Normandy and in his absence Clifford was rented to Gilbert, Sheriff of Hereford for 60 shillings.
Late 1130s: After marrying Margaret de Tosny, Walter fitz Richard assumed control of the de Tosny manors and with them control of the castle. Walter changed his name after succeeding to the property of Clifford and was later known as Walter de Clifford. Walter de Clifford's eldest daughter was the "fair Rosamund" who was apparently the lover of Henry II (1154-1189). They met when Henry stayed at Clifford Castle during his campaigns in Wales. When Henry had to go away he placed Rosamund in a safe house at the centre of a maze at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The centre could only be found by following an almost invisible silver thread around the maze. However, Henry's wife Queen Eleanor heard about Henry's lover and found the thread leading to Rosamund's safe house. When she found the fair maiden, Eleanor forced her to drink fatal poison.
1170s and 1180s: During this period the Marches suffered setbacks, with the result that Clifford Castle and the northern bank of the Wye were said to now mark the boundary between England and Wales.
1221: Walter de Clifford II, Rosamund's brother, succeeded to Clifford in this year.Walter had been a staunch supporter of King John throughout his reign but later joined with Sir Richard Marshal, Earl of Pembroke in his dispute at the favouritism of Henry III. The king, as fickle as ever, first confiscated Walter's estates but later restored them to him in 1234.
1250: Walter received licence to marry his only daughter Matilda to her cousin William Longspee, who died in a tournament in 1256. This left Walter without any male heir and his daughter then became the sole heiress.
1260s: The castle was kept in reasonable condition and remained in the Clifford family until this period, when Matilda Clifford, widow of the Earl of Salisbury, became Baroness of Clifford.
During the Barons' War of the 1260s, John Giffard of Brimpsfield apparently used Clifford as a base. He abducted, raped and forcibly married Matilda. He was fined but Matilda accepted her situation and stayed with John in her Marches estate. John Giffard is said to have been a prominent figure in the opposition to Simon de Montfort, and he was one of the men who helped Prince Edward escape from Hereford Castle in 1265.
1280: John Giffard was granted licence by the king to hunt wolves with dogs and nets in all the forests of England (Rymer's Faedera ii, 58).
1299: John Giffard died. Clifford was granted by the Crown to the Mortimers of Wigmore.
1381: It is rumoured that Richard II and his uncle John of Gaunt stayed at Clifford Castle, but once the Welsh were conquered the castle was of no further importance and began to deteriorate.
Early 15th century: The castle was garrisoned against Owain Glyn Dwr, who stirred up an uprising of the Welsh and ravaged the lands right up to the fortress.
Excavations carried out between 1925 and 1928 by the owner of Clifford Castle (O. Trumper) revealed the base of towers flanking the entrance, with possible evidence for a portcullis, guardroom, southern tower and part of the curtain wall.
Further excavations in 1928 revealed a building with an inner bailey and annexe building on the east side on top of the mound.
Finds from 1925 include a Roman brooch, boar tusk and wolf vertebra.
Excavations in 1950 revealed the foundations of a tower on the motte, together with part of the curtain wall. Pottery, a bullet mould and iron nails were also found.
As a result of excavations of the barbican in 1951, a full plan was recorded together with the curtain walls. In 1952-3, a completed excavation of the barbican block and roadway uncovered pottery and iron, including arrowheads, a knife, a key and a bridle bit.