There are doors – and then there are the mighty castle doors at Chepstow. These extraordinary survivals were truly revolutionary in their day.
They were sheathed in iron plates to prevent attackers burning or battering them down. On the reverse an elaborate lattice framework featured the earliest mortice-and-tenon joints known in Britain.
The doors were once thought to be 13th-century. But thanks to the science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, we now know they were constructed no later than the 1190s. That makes them the oldest castle doors in Europe.
Don’t be fooled by the exact replicas now hanging in the gatehouse. The originals are on display inside the castle, safe at last from the elements.
They were the work of William Marshal, one of the most remarkable men of the age. With only horse and armour to call his own the young knight-errant first began to make a reputation as a soldier and combatant in military tournaments.
Soon enough he attracted royal patrons – first Eleanor of Aquitaine and then her eldest son Price Henry. By now he was powerful enough to raise his own banner (half green, half gold with a red lion rampant) and had his own company of knights.
When Henry was dying in 1183 he commanded the faithful Marshal to take his cloak to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Returning from the Holy Land in 1186 Marshal joined the military household of King Henry II and saw constant action in France.
It was Henry’s son, Richard the Lionheart, who rewarded Marshal’s loyalty by giving him the rich de Clare heiress Isabel in marriage. This is where the incredible life story of William Marshal and the history of Chepstow Castle intertwine at last.
Isabel’s family had held Chepstow and other vast estates for most of the 12th century. Now Marshal’s transformation from poor but chivalrous knight was complete. He was one of the richest men in the kingdom.
There was one big problem – the castle had barely been touched for 100 years. But Marshal, skilled in the latest military techniques, was just the man to bring it bang up to date.
In fact he started a revolution. He built the very first twin-towered gatehouse in Britain, guarded by those mighty doors. And he didn’t stop there.
He built a second line of defence, raised the height of the Norman walls and erected a massive rectangular tower now known, not surprisingly, as Marshal’s Tower. He turned a tired old castle into a formidable but suitably comfortable fortress.
After all, this was the home of a great man. Marshal was one of those left in charge of the country when Richard the Lionheart went on crusade in 1190. He negotiated Magna Carta on behalf of King John and ruled as regent of England for the young King Henry III until his death in 1219.
His was an extraordinary life. His legacy is preserved in the stones of an equally extraordinary castle, towering over the River Wye at this crucial gateway to Wales.