Skenfrith Castle is a medieval castle located in Monmouthshire, Wales. The castle is the centre of the village of Skenfrith, located on the banks of the river Monnow, just five miles to the north of the town of Monmouth. The first defences were built shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, although the remains of the castle that stand today date from the early thirteenth century.
Grouped with White Castle and Grosmont Castle, Skenfrith is one of the "Three Castles" or Trilateral Castles built in the Monnow Valley as part of the Norman conquest of South Wales.
Building of Skenfrith Castle
The remains of the castle as it stands today date entirely from Hubert de Burgh's work, when he totally rebuilt the castle between 1219-23. Excavation has shown that the castle sits on an artificial gravel platform, up to twelve-feet thick. Evidence suggests that a defensive ditch would have surrounded the site, with timber walls. This early castle probably dates back to just after the Norman Conquest.
Ralph of Grosmont is recorded as having spent 43 pounds on Skenfrith Castle in the Pipe Roll of 1186-87. In the same excavation that discovered the early Norman defensive ditch, a twelfth-century stone wall was found, which suggests that Ralph was building in stone. A well carved decorative capital of red sandstone from the same period suggests a building of high quality, possibly a keep or hall. The location of the stonework, close to the early earthen defences of the castle, suggests that a such a keep or hall would have stood alongside the perimeter of the castle, just as is the case of the hall at Grosmont castle, which was built in the same period.
Hubert de Burgh leveled these early defences, and no visible trace of them can be found. His new castle was built in the style of a concentric castle (which was quite cutting-edge for the time), albeit on a very modest scale. The castle consisted of a round keep with three floors, surrounded by a curtain wall with a round tower at each corner. Around the wall would have been a moat with a stone revetment, as seen at White Castle. The moat was filled with water from a connection to the River Monnow, which passes just to the eastern side of the castle. The entrance to the castle was in the northern wall - today it is simply a gap, but an engraving by the Buck brothers in 1732 shows the remains of a simple arch of stone in the center of the wall. Along the eastern wall a flight of steps leads down to a lower archway which probably served as a water gate, giving access to the moat. Next to the south-east corner tower is a blocked archway which may have been a postern gate to the rear of the castle.
The curtain walls have a sloping batter (the wall slopes down to be thicker at the base than along the top) for extra defence, and would have included a wall walk all the way around the inner edge. Support holes in the curtain wall, just below the level of the wall walk, were to support a timber hourding, or fighting gallery, which projected out from the wall and protected the defenders atop the wall. Each corner tower was built with a solid circular basement, presumably accessed by a wooden ladder from the upper levels. The towers would have been entered on the first floor via a wooden staircase from the outside. There were no windows, just arrow slits, suggesting that the towers were purely for defence, not residence.
Within the bailey there was a two-story hall block running along the inside of the western wall. The ground level was filled in with gravel in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, when the level of the castle's interior was raised in an effort to combat winter flooding. A later room was added along the northern wall, forming these buildings into an 'L' shaped block. Given this room's size and east-west orientation, this may have been the castle chapel. The upper floor was divided into three rooms, and the fine quality fireplaces and stonework suggests domestic apartments, and possibly a Great Hall. On the southern end of this block of buildings was a square tank which was the castle reservoir.
Across the bailey, along the eastern wall between the south-east tower and the water gate would have been the kitchens. The lightly built foundations suggest that the buildings were timber, built up against the curtain wall, with stone fireplaces, hearths, and ovens.
The main residence for the lord of the castle would have been in the round tower-keep which sits at the middle of the inner bailey. Entrance to the keep would have been, like the corner towers, through a doorway above the ground level, reached by a wooden stairway from the bailey. The bottom level is again a basement, while the upper two floors would have contained apartments. A turret projects from the western side of the keep, this would have held the spiral staircase that gave access to the upper levels. The well-appointed apartments included large windows, hooded fireplaces, and a private latrine. The keep was topped by a circular wooden hourding, similar to the one that surmounted the curtain wall.
Very little alteration has been made to the castle over the centuries. The level of the castle was raised, as was mentioned earlier, and at some point earth was piled around the bottom of the keep, giving it the impression of being set atop a mound. A door was also cut into the keep at ground level, bypassing the first floor entrance. Along the western wall, an external tower was added. This tower is solid to the level of the wall walk, and was probably added in the thirteenth century.
Visiting the Castle
Skenfrith is located on the B4521, five miles north of Monmouth, and is an open site, which may be visited free of charge at any reasonable time of day. The moat has been filled in, and the castle is now surrounded by a grassy lawn in the center of the small village of Skenfrith. Three of the four corner towers still stand, as does the curtain wall up to the level of the wall walk. The round keep is intact, and the foundations of the hall block along the western wall have been excavated as well.