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: