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THE STRANGE LEGEND OF USK CASTLE

In a tiny town in Wales, a ruined castle stands on rising ground amidst a haze of dark trees. An atmospheric round tower, cracked  by time; shattered walls, the remains of hall and chapel. Privately owned, a garden drops down the hillside before it, to an old house  which appears to contain much castle stonework. Modern statuary of gargoyles peep out from a tangle of flowers as birds fly from their nests in the towers toward the town beyond, with its grey church, once an ancient priory.

This is  Usk Castle, and it has an interesting history, and a legend that might contain a grain of truth. A Roman fort once stood nearby and the castle itself may be situated on the site of an Iron Age hill-fort. The first castle was likely  built in Norman times by  Richard de Clare and William the Conqueror’s banner-bearer,  Tristram Fitz Rolf . Later, around  1120,  the Marcher Lord,  Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare strengthened the castle’s defences, perhaps building in stone for the first time. His tenure there was long so long; Iorwerth Ap Owain killed  him in an ambush in a dark, wooded pass called ‘the ill way of Coed Grano.’ The place today still contains a commemorative marker known as the ‘Stone of Revenge.’ Later still,  Usk was held by William Marshal and then returned to the de Clare family with Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hereford (son of Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I), who was slain at Bannockburn in 1314.

The last events of high drama at the castle seem to have taken place in 1405,  when Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr attacked the town of Usk and the garrison gave battle, capturing Owain’s  son.

The rest of the 1400’s may have been quieter in Usk, but just as interesting. For a time, Usk Castle was held by Edmund Mortimer, earl of the Marches,  and from him it eventually passed to Richard, Duke of York, whose mother was Anne Mortimer, granddaughter of Philippa, the daughter of Lionel of Clarence, Edward III’S third son. The Duke of York was also patron to nearby Usk Priory, today the parish church. William Herbert (senior) was  the Duke’s steward in the area. When Edward IV came to the throne, Usk became a crown possession, and of course it was also subsequently held by Richard III.

Several references of the 1800’s (earliest 1828) to the York family at Usk are rather noteworthy. They state the Duke of York spent ‘considerable time’ at the castle, and that both Edward IV and Richard III were born there. Now, it is known for a fact that Edward was born in Rouen, France and Richard at Fotheringhay, in Northamptonshire, but could there be something in this old tale, which was repeated in more than one source? Is there some sliver of folk memory here, recalling that the Duke’s sons had been in residence in Usk at some time? Edward was not all that far far away at Ludlow with Edmund as a youth, but what about Richard?

It is interesting to look at the stable isotopes detected on Richard’s teeth. They showed that his earliest childhood was spent in a geographic  area of England that would correspond with Fotheringhay; then the isotopes appear to indicate he spent some time in a wetter environment more consistent with western Britain. We know he was with his family at Ludlow at the time of the Battle of Ludford Bridge and the subsequent sacking of the town. Could he have spent some time prior to that at Usk? Was Duchess Cecily in residence there for a while with her younger children?  I somehow doubt  the Duke would have  his wife and children ride all the way from Fotheringhay to Ludlow with hostilities about to break out in the area, so it only makes sense to assume they were already dwelling somewhere in the region.  Perhaps they were at Usk and the Duke ordered them to Ludlow, which had a larger, stronger, more  defensible castle. The distance between Usk and Ludlow is around 50 miles, a much shorter distance than  that between  Fotheringhay  and Ludlow. That latter route would also have taken in more of the Lancastrian dominated areas in the Midlands. Certainly, the possibility is there and many legends are not just pulled from thin air.

Vintage article on the castle:

USK CASTLE FROM VICTORIAN HISTORY BOOK

 

USK CASTLE:

 

 

Mediaeval women who got the man they wanted . . . .

 ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

There was an interesting Facebook post on 2nd May, by Lyndel Grover, drawing attention to a blog about Joan of Acre, who lived in the 13th century. http://historytheinterestingbits.com/2015/04/30/rebel-princess/. It made me think about other mediaeval women who had done what Joan did. By that I mean, marry the man they wanted, not the choice of their families.

Joan was the daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, and took as her second husband Ralph de Monthermer, who eventually became 1st Baron Monthermer. But he was a commoner who had been in the household of her first husband, Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester, so King Edward was furious that Joan had made such a misalliance. He eventually relented, however, and Joan kept her chosen husband. She might be said to have got away with it. And so did Ralph, who could have paid a very high price for crossing Edward Longshanks.

In the 14th century, another princess, Joan of Kent, known as ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, was also determined to have the husband of her choice. And she decided this at the age of only twelve, when she secretly married Thomas Holland of Upholland in Lancashire, who was seneschal in the household of William Montacute, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. It was a love match, as was proved when Thomas went off to the Crusades and her family immediately forced her to married Montacute instead. He apparently had no idea she was already married to his seneschal. She fought against this marriage, and on Thomas Holland’s return, she went back to him. She was allowed to keep him, too. Well, this is all a potted version, of course, but the result was the same, Joan retained the husband she wanted. On Thomas’s death, she married the Black Prince and became the mother of Richard II.

Moving to the 15th century, another very highborn lady who got away with a commoner ‘husband’ was the French princess, Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V. A very warm lady from all accounts, she was not content to remain the widowed Queen Mother, and if contemporary rumours are true, she took as her lover her late husband’s cousin, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. But legislation was passed, preventing a widowed Queen Consort from remarrying.

The next we hear—and rather quickly at that—she had a new lover a handsome Welshman named Owen Tudor, whom we are told she married, and by whom she certainly had a very prompt baby boy, Edmund Tudor. But there is no proof of an actual marriage. Yet again, Owen was a commoner who might have paid a very high price, but got away with it by the skin of his teeth. He was eventually beheaded, not for Catherine, but for being on the wrong side at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross.

It was from Catherine and Owen that the Tudor dynasty descended . . . although there is a persistent whisper that Edmund Tudor, their firstborn, was actually the son of the Duke of Somerset. So Edmund Tudor might well have actually been another Edmund Beaufort, and as he was also the father of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, it might well be that we should have had a House of Beaufort. But it’s a question of conflicting evidence, of course.

Another 15th century princess who rebelled and married a commoner was Cicely Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV. She was the sister of Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York, and also Henry’s aunt because she was married to his half-uncle, John, Viscount Welles. When the viscount died, Cicely upped and married a true commoner, one Thomas Kymbe, a gentleman of Lincolnshire. I can only imagine it was a love match, because she must have known what would happen when Henry found out. He went ballistic, and was so beside himself that he snatched her lands and did just about everything else except imprison her and her new husband. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was John Welles’s half-sister, protected the newlyweds and interceded on their behalf, she and Cicely being on close terms. Margaret managed to calm Henry down sufficiently to persuade him to restore Cicely’s property. They were left alone after that, to live in obscurity, and Cicely never resumed her former high status. When she died, Thomas remained in obscurity. But at least she died married to the man she chose.

Interestingly, Margaret Beaufort, who was surely the most important woman of Henry VII’s reign, did not get her way at the end. Her first husband was the Edmund Tudor mentioned above as the apparent firstborn of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, and by him Margaret had Henry when she was in her very early teens. She was very small, and the birth was so difficult that she never had another child, so you might expect her to abhor Edmund for what he had done to her. He was in the wrong, even by 15th-century standards, and should not have consummated the marriage until she was at least fourteen. However, even though she had a further three husbands after him, it was with Edmund that she wished to be laid to rest. Was it simply because he was Henry’s father? Or had she loved him? We will never know. But when she passed away, she was denied her desire, and was buried close to her son and daughter-in-law in Westminster Abbey. So Margaret, the most powerful woman in England, did not have her wish honoured.

We are all so used to hearing of aristocratic mediaeval women having little choice in the matter of husband, but a few pioneering spirits went after and got what they wanted.

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