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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:






A ‘Welsh’ Dynasty and Wales

Some people who are fond of Wales are also fond of the dynasty founded by Henry VII because they perceive it as ‘Welsh’. They tend to overlook that Edward IV and Richard III were descended from a real Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. This was recognised at the time by Welsh commentators in the case of Edward IV, who was seen as a potential fulfiller of prophecy. It must be admitted that Edward made little use of this potential asset to his kingship, but he did at least appreciate some of his Welsh followers. William Herbert, for example, was the first full-blooded Welshman to be created an earl.

Henry VII was, assuming his ancestry is correctly rendered, exactly one quarter Welsh by blood, one half English and one quarter French. He was of course born in Wales, but so was Henry V, and any number of nobles of Anglo-Norman descent. Whether he was culturally Welsh is an interesting question. He was for much of his childhood brought up by the aforementioned William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and his English wife. Such an upbringing was probably (note probably, not definitely) more Anglo-Welsh than native Welsh. He would have been educated and trained with a view to his making a debut at the English court at some point. Subsequently, he spent most of his life in Brittany and France before becoming King. So we can probably say that his ‘heritage’ was rather mixed, and that he was formed by a number of influences. His perceived Welshness was a useful recruiting tool – and in some ways still is – but once established on the throne he never visited Wales again. Not even once. Which is, frankly, somewhat surprising. However, Henry’s desire to emphasise his Welshness seems to have faded away the day after Bosworth Field. It is perhaps of a piece with his father’s attitude to his ancestry, seen in his coat of arms which included reference to the royal families of England and France, but made no heraldic reference at all to his official grandfather, Owain Tudor, a man of ancient Welsh descent who had borne arms all his life.

So what did he and his successors do for Wales? The answer is, quite bluntly – not a lot. Some individual families of Welsh origin certainly did well in the service of the dynasty. The obvious example being the Cecils (properly Sitsylt). William Cecil, Lord Burghley was certainly not ashamed of his ancestry, indeed he appears to have gilded it somewhat, but it is unlikely he thought of himself as anything other than English, and he certainly did not go out of his way to improve the lot of Wales.

The political map of Wales in 1485 showed a wide variety of Marcher Lordships of various sizes, as well as the royal lands seized by Edward I. These various territories had their own laws and customs, and it was dangerous, particularly for a native Welsh person, to travel between them without a letter of Protection from one or the other of the local lords. Often Welsh law survived, and it was usually possible for two Welsh litigants to have their case settled by it if they so chose. The harsh anti-Welsh laws imposed during and after the Glyndwr rising were still largely in existence, but in practice they were frequently ignored.

After 1485 the majority of these Lordships fell, by one means or another, into Crown hands. From 1489 a special Council meeting at Ludlow acted as the royal authority in the area of Wales and the Marches, and intruded as much as it could into the governance of the few remaining private Lordships. It was an untidy arrangement, and Henry VIII’s solution was to pass what has come to be known as the Act of Union (1536). This went through an English parliament in which the Welsh had no representation at all. It established English-style counties across Wales. However it also abolished what was left of Welsh law, imposing English law in all circumstances. In addition it enforced the use of the English language for all official purposes. (It should be borne in mind that at this time and for some centuries afterwards, most of the ordinary people of Wales were monolingual in Welsh!)

The Act did however benefit the Welsh in some ways. Legally, they were now all ‘English’, which meant that the various disabling statutes no longer applied. A Welsh gentleman was free to take on any office under the Crown without restriction – assuming that he spoke English. In addition, Wales was now represented in Parliament. Again, this was only really of benefit to the gentry classes, but it did give them a potential route of advancement that had not been available before.

Henry VIII of course also destroyed the abbeys of Wales, which in many cases were ancient cradles of Welsh culture. Once again, any benefits from this change fell almost exclusively to the gentry.

It was not until 1563 that a statute provided that a Welsh Bible and a Welsh Prayer Book should be provided in every Church in Wales. This probably saved the Welsh language from extinction. Hitherto the Welsh had had to put up with religious services in a tongue which, for many of them, was just as indecipherable as Latin had been.

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