Wales – White Castle
Your first impression of Monmouthshires’s White Castle is of awe mixed with disbelief. Situated in the middle of green Builders North Wales fields, age-old hedgerows and a scattering of well-kept homes, the stone fortress seems almost out of place. Yet with views as far distant as the Brecon Beacons, the hilltop upon which White Castle stands was an ideal setting for a castle. Admirers have long described White Castle in Llantilio as “the dreamers’ fairy-tale castle”. Deservedly so, because this masonry masterpiece possesses all the features anyone would expect from a medieval stronghold – a huge twin-towered gatehouse preceded by a wooden bridge crossing a grassy mound, encircled by a deep, water-filled moat and commanding vistas of the countryside. During the Middle Ages, the effect would have dazzled the eyes, for the castle received its name from its white plaster walls, which must have gleamed on sunny days.
Even in ruin, the castle of Llantilio conveys power and stability. Although it centered a large manorial estate, White Castle served chiefly as a military base rather than a regal residence. Henry II initiated the castle’s transition from a primitive earth-and-timber fortification into a well defended fortress during the 1180s. Remodelling the stronghold using a design typical of the times, the builder, Ralph of Grosmont, supervised the construction of a square keep and stone curtain wall. A simple gateway alongside the keep served as the main entry point. Anyone wanting access had to cross the hornwork, a crescent-shaped chunk of land enclosed by water, to enter the castle.
Although frequently granted to loyal subjects, White Castle remained predominantly a royal stronghold. During the early 13th century, Hubert de Burgh, King John’s justiciar, controlled White Castle and its sister fortresses at Skenfrith and Grosmont. De Burgh fell in and out of the king’s good graces more than once, losing his castles repeatedly and making only minor repairs to the castle of Llantilio.
On de Burgh’s death, Henry III granted the three castles to his sons, Edward and Edmund as lords in their own right. They immediately began a major building program in 1243, transforming the fairly basic castle at Llantilio into a fairy-tale fortress.
During the rebuilding campaign, not only was the main gate turned into a postern gate, but also the entire focus of the castle was shifted 180 degrees to the north. Builders added two new gatehouses to the northern walls and attached four drum towers to the hundred-year-old curtain wall. When finished, the castle of Llantilio featured three complementary sections. First was an outer bailey enclosed by a dry ditch and towered curtain wall and fronted with its own gateway, this acted as a first line of defense should an assault occur. Second was the inner moated castle with its massive towers, intimidating gatehouse and domestic buildings. Finally the hornwork, which provided a barrier to unwanted access from the south.
The best way to experience White Castle is with your imagination coupled with the ruins that remain. You can wander the area of the outer bailey, where scores of soldiers set up their tents and stabled their horses as they did centuries ago. Visualize the vanished buildings and ruined towers completely rebuilt, plastered with a lustrous white and the whole dominated by the castle lord. Even as an empty shell, White Castle can change dreams into reality.