Built on the site of a former Roman Legionary fortress, Usk Castle was constructed in the late eleventh or early twelfth century and was later significantly enhanced by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. The Battle of Pwll Melyn (1405) was fought in close proximity where the castle's garrison sallied out and defeated the forces of Owain Glyndŵr.
The Romans first fortified Usk around AD 54 when they established a major Legionary fortress there as a base for the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). Known as Burrium the site was chosen due to the proximity to the River Usk, easing logistical factors, and it provided a convenient base for operations against the Silures tribe of South Wales. The fort occupied an area of around 47 acres and was configured in a standard 'playing card' arrangement with a command building surrounded by sufficient barracks, workshops and granaries for the 5,500 strong army. Occupation was short-lived however as in AD 68 the Legion was relocated to a new base in Wroxeter. When the Romans resumed operations against the Silures around AD 75 a new site, at Caerleon, was chosen due to its closer proximity to the sea.
The next invaders to establish a fort on the site were the Normans but the precise date they built Usk Castle is unclear. The first surviving written reference to the structure dates from 1138 but it was probably established in the late eleventh or early twelfth century by Robert FitzHamon, Earl of Gloucester who had also raised Newport Castle at the mouth of the river. By 1120 a town had also been established to serve the needs of the garrison. This was built within the earthworks of the former Legionary fortress and was within a rectangular enclosure protected by a ditch and earth rampart.
Usk Castle was attacked and captured by the Welsh in 1138 but was retaken by Gilbert Fitz Gilbert de Clare, first Earl of Pembroke. It was later strengthened by his son, Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke (Strongbow) with the Keep rebuilt in stone. Despite these upgrades it was captured by the Welsh again in 1174 and was not retaken by the Normans until 1184.
Richard died in 1176 leaving no male heir and his substantial estates were then inherited by his young daughter, Isabella de Clare. During her minority Usk Castle was retained by the Crown with the Pipe Rolls recording that Henry II spent a modest £10 to maintain the structure in 1185. Four years later Isabella married William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and it was he who embarked upon rebuilding Usk Castle. He raised the Garrison Tower and an adjacent Round Tower whilst the curtain wall was upgraded from a timber palisade to a stone wall. Further upgrades were made in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and his son, also called Gilbert. The latter was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) and thereafter his widow, Countess Matilda, made various upgrades to the domestic buildings at Usk.
Matilda died in 1320 and the castle then passed to her sister-in-law, Elizabeth de Burgh. She built a new gatehouse for the Outer Ward and put the defences of the castle in good order - no doubt due to her husband's participation in the Earl of Lancaster's 1321-22 rebellion against Edward II and his hated favourite, Hugh Despenser. The rebellion failed and Elizabeth was imprisoned during which time Usk Castle was held by Hugh Despenser. She reclaimed the castle in 1327 following the downfall of Edward II.
Usk was attacked in 1402 by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr. He had capitalised on anti-English feeling amongst the Welsh and declared himself Prince of Wales. The town was burnt although the castle seemingly held out. A further attack, aimed specifically at capturing the castle, was made in 1405. However the defenders, led by Lord Richard Grey of Codnor and Dafydd Gam, drove off the assault. They then sallied out and routed the Welsh at the Battle of Pwll Melyn just a few hundred metres from the castle.
Usk Castle became a property of the Duchy of Lancaster in the fifteenth century but, after the Glyndŵr revolt, there were no further major Welsh uprisings. Accordingly the fabric of the castle was allowed to decay with the exception of the Outer Gatehouse which was incorporated into a house in 1680. The rest of this once significant fortification now forms part of a private residence but is open to visitors for a small donation.
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Usk Castle is located within a private garden but is open to visitors at any reasonable time. There is also a public right of way that follows the path of the castle's troops as they pursued the Welsh during the Battle of Pwll Melyn (1405).
Keep. The Keep is an unusual structure in that its walls are just 1.5 metres thick. By contrast the curtain wall was in excess of 2 metres thick. It was probably built by Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and originally served as the gatehouse to the Inner Ward at this time.
Garrison Tower. So called because it allegedly was used as the troop's accommodation.
Inner Ward Gatehouse. Now a simple affair, the gateway was probably originally flanked by at least one tower.
North Tower. A 'D' shaped tower possibly added by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester during the thirteenth century.
Chapel and North Tower. The chapel was built by Elizabeth de Burgh during the fourteenth century.
Usk Castle is found directly off the A472 Monmouth Road. There is a dedicated car park for visitors directly adjacent to the castle and the public right of way towards the Pwll Melyn battlefield. Both are clearly sign-posted.
Pwll Melyn Plaque