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Longtown Castle

HER no. 1036, OS grid ref: SO 3210 2920

The village of Longtown - as its name suggests - is a long, straggling village on a ridge of high ground between the valleys of the River Monnow and the Olchon Brook, in the far south-west of the county.

In the medieval period Longtown was known as Ewias Lacy, a new town built in the shadow of its castle.

In the north of Longtown village lies a rectangular enclosure of c. 3 acres with a motte at the north-west angle, on which the remains of a circular keep still stand.

Description of the site today

The castle consists of a round tower keep on top of the motte, a pentagonal inner bailey with an outer bailey 46m beyond it, and a large eastern bailey beyond the modern road, enclosed by a high rampart that is perhaps of Roman origin.

The ground slopes away from the motte on all sides except the north. The western half of the enclosure is divided roughly into two parts, of which the north one formed the inner bailey and the south one the outer bailey.

The inner or north bailey

A curtain wall bounds the inner bailey on the north-east, east and south sides, with an entrance gateway in the south wall; there was no wall to the west.

The general fortifications appear to be post-Conquest, but the area is also the site of an earlier Roman camp.

In the inner bailey are the remains of the keep and well. These remains, together with those of the south gateway, are all late 12th century to early 13th century. The keep, now in ruins, was once two storeys high.

It is possible that the inner bailey was an additional defensive outwork to the main castle. It is also possible that it was an area to shelter sheep and cattle in times of war. It is unlikely that the inner bailey contained any concentrated urban settlement, as the castle separated the borough of Longtown from this area.

The defences of the bailey are not known, but it is probable that they consisted of a timber palisade on top of an earthen bank. There may have been angle towers on the corners of the bailey as well as gatehouses at the entrance, but there has been no archaeological evidence as yet to support these theories. 

The position of the site on the edge of a ridge is very commanding, and would have been superb in terms of lookout and defence.

The motte and bailey are set in the south-west half of the square earthwork and comprise a rampart up to 20m wide and 3.5m high, with an outer ditch up to 10m wide and 1m deep. The ditch is extant on the north-east side but elsewhere it is fragmentary or missing.

The adaptation of the south-west half of the earthwork to a motte and bailey required the heightening of the outer slopes and the levelling of the inner slopes to saucer-like depressions within the two baileys, with the motte built up at the west corner to a height of 11m.

The outer or south bailey

Dividing the western bailey into two is a wall 1.8m thick and now about 4m high. A gateway passage 1.8m wide, with portcullis grooves, lies near the east end. The 3m thick walls flanking this passage have rounded outer ends, and therefore formed solid turrets.

Only fragments remain of the east and north-east walls of the inner bailey, and nothing at all of the west and north-west sides. Of the south bailey wall there are foundations on the south and a fragment on the east. The fragment on the east has been re-used in post-medieval buildings which now stand there.

There are no traces of buildings in the outer bailey, but there would have most probably have been a series of timber-framed structures designed for a variety of functions. The outer bailey may have contained the predecessor to the village that grew up around Longtown Castle. It may have also been used as a defensive enclosure for the villagers at times of crisis.

The keep

Circular keeps, like the one at Longtown, were unusual in Britain and the largest concentrations of such structures are in south-west Wales and the Southern Marches.

It has been suggested that the keep at Longtown was built as part of the novum castrum of the 1187 Pipe Rolls. Another suggestion is that it was built by Walter de Lacy when he was back in favour with the Crown between 1213 and 1223.

The keep measures 13.3m in diameter, above a high and deeply battered plinth. Spaced evenly around the interior of the keep were three semi-circular buttresses. One, now destroyed, strengthened the wall behind a spiral staircase and had the entrance next to it. Another contains a latrine opening off the topmost room (a private chamber), whilst the third backs onto a fireplace in the hall. 

The keep was two storeys high above an unlit undercroft, which was only reached by a trapdoor in the ground floor. The keep was built of local shaley rubble, roughly coursed, with ashlared dressings. The windows of the lower floor have been widened but appear to be in their original position.

The door to the keep would have been reached by an external timber stairway; the design of the doorway is not known.

A beam supported the ground and first floors across the diameter of the keep. Additional support was created by an upbrace rising from a lower corbel to each end of the beam. Wooden joists ran to the cross beam to the opposite side of the keep. Wooden boards were then fixed to these joists to create a floor.

The first floor was probably only a single chamber, presumably the Lord's solar, heated by a fireplace in the east wall. Leading off the room to the west is a small passage to a garderobe partly inside one of the three semi-circular buttresses.

On top of the keep there would have been a high conical roof. The battlements are now lost but the wall walk, which would have been approached by the spiral staircase, survives.
Below the wall walk are three carefully made square-sectioned holes through the masonry. These holes would have been for beams for a platform with sides and a roof, which ran around the outside of the keep. This platform would have been for protection in times of attack.

The castle enjoyed prosperity in the late 13th century and early 14th century when it was in the hands of the De Verdon family, but the lack of male heirs in the family and several outbreaks of the Black Death compounded its gradual decline.

In the 15th century it became the property of the Nevilles, Lords of Abergavenny, but by this time it was probably in ruins.

The castle earthworks nearest the keep were once the site of the gallows - the last victim of them was William Jones, a wife poisoner who was executed in 1790 at Hereford and his body brought back to Longtown to hang.

History of the castle

It is believed that the castle is built on a Roman fort associated with a Roman road from Abergavenny to another fort at Clyro. It is also believed that the Romans may have left enough materials for William fitz Osbern to construct a basic fortress (Rev. C.J. Robinson, The Castles of Herefordshire and their Lords, undated, p. 97)). However, excavation has not been undertaken to prove or disprove this theory.

1140s or 1150s: The castle was probably built by Hugh de Lacy, and is likely to be the novelli castri ("new castle") mentioned in the Pipe Rolls of 1187, when £37 was spent on it and the older Pont Hendre, which is less than 1 mile south of Longtown.

1189: Hugh's son Walter inherits Longtown Castle. He is thought to have erected a stone keep and bailey curtain.

1233: The castle, along with those at Hay, Monmouth, St. Briavels and Abergavenny, became an important part of the wars between the royal house and Richard Marshal and Llewelyn. Henry III visited Longtown and ordered supplies of food and materials, and an increase in the garrisons. 

1234: John Fitz-Geoffrey acquired the castle when he married Walter's son's widow.

1241: The castle passed to John de Verdon by his marriage to Walter's daughter Margaret.

1242/3: The castle is valued at £20.

1271: Tolls for the borough of Longtown are first recorded in this year. They amounted to £21. 2s. Dependent forests are also mentioned for this year.

1299: The castle is occasionally referred to as a trouble area; a complaint by the Priory of Llanthony refers to cattle rustling. In 1324 a record of complaints includes the plundering of goods, breaking into houses and fish poaching, as well as cattle rustling.

1310: In this year 100 burgages are recorded as belonging to the estates of Longtown Castle.

1317: The sheriff of Hereford was ordered to garrison the castle with 30 men.

1316: John and Margaret de Verdon's grandson Theobald de Verdon died, and Longtown passed by the marriage of his second daughter Elizabeth to Bartholomew de Berghersh.

1327: A castle close and three mills were recorded as being associated with the castle.

1328: The castle was valued at £44 12s.

1360: There is mention of a constable and porter at the castle in this year. Later the positions of stewards and foresters are recorded, but these jobs show more interest with matters of the estate than with the castle itself.

1369: Bartholomew's son died and the castle passed by marriage through the families of the Despencers, Beauchamps and Nevilles.

1403: Henry IV ordered the re-fortification of the castle against Owain Glyn Dwr.

1415: The castle was valued at £40.

1452: The last known mention of the castle occurs in this year.

1460: Although the castle was no longer mentioned in records there was still an interest in the estates of Longtown Castle. In this year Henry Griffith was named as the steward and Richard Cecile as the master forester.

1540: The borough is first named as Longtown.

The castle does not appear to have played a major part in the Civil War, although cannon balls found near the keep in 1865 may be evidence of unrecorded action.

1984: The castle was taken into the care of English Heritage.

Excavation and finds

In 1978 an excavation was undertaken within the tower at Longtown Castle. The excavations primarily revealed an additional room underneath the main chamber of the tower.

A deep layer of segmented slate and clay formed the floor of this newly-discovered room. Slate fragments had been laid directly into clay, with another layer of red and brown clay with fewer slate fragments on top.

A wall face marked an entrance to the basement, which would once have been at the foot of the spiral stairs of the tower. The wall was of rough stonework with some external plastering; there was also a corbel attached to the wall that would have helped to support the floor above.

The floor of the basement had sunk slightly into the motte, giving the floor a curved appearance. Fortunately this subsidence has not been sufficient to adversely affect the tower.

No material that could aid the dating of the tower and its structures was found.