Goodrich Castle is one of the most well-preserved medieval castles in the UK. Located in the county of Herefordshire, this majestic Norman keep occupies a strategic position on a high outcrop overlooking the River Wye. It affords some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and boasts a fascinating, eventful past.
Original Norman Fortification
Goodrich Castle was built after the Norman invasion of England. Although it’s not entirely clear who ordered its construction, many historians agree that Anglo-Saxon landowner, Godric of Mappestone, was chiefly responsible. This is based on records from 1101 which describe the fortification as ‘Godric’s Castle’
The original wooden fortification was reconstructed in the 12th century by Richard de Clare who turned it into a small, but robust stone keep. Further modifications were made by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, including the erection of a defensive stone wall which surrounded the existing structure.
The new border fortress helped secure the Welsh Marches – an ill-defined region running along the border between England and Wales – which were at the heart of savage border disputes between the two countries.
During this period, Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd conducted numerous raids into English border territories with the Wye Valley and Goodrich bearing the brunt of his incursions
However, the castle was attacked just once in 1216, famously compelling Marshal to excuse himself form Henry III’s coronation feast to assist in its defence. Despite this, Goodrich Castle enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence until the English Civil War.
Expansion of Goodrich Castle
Nevertheless, the threat of invasion remained. So the castle was further expanded in the late 13th century by French nobleman William de Valance. The keep was updated with luxurious new living quarters, including an extended Great Hall and chapel.
These were contained in an inner shell and enclosed by stronger, more elaborate defences. Another line of outer defences were later added by De Valance’s son, Aymer in the early 13th century.
The castle’s dual purpose role as both a major dwelling and fortress was almost unheard of at the time and was considered a great success. Its ground-breaking design was highly influential with other major fortifications like Berkeley Castle following similar plans.
In the 15th century, the castle became seat of the powerful Talbot family and remained a deterrent against Welsh marauders. However, in 1404 the area was invaded once again with Gilbert, fifth Lord of Talbot playing a key role in repelling the attack and securing the castle.
Forfeiture to the Yorkists
During the War of the Roses, the Talbots supported the Lancastrians in their struggles against the Yorkists. Following the death of John Talbot in the Lancastrian defeat at Northampton in July 1460, the ownership of Goodrich was forfeited to Yorkist William Herbert. However, John’s namesake son later regained control of the castle after making his peace with Herbert.
By the 16th century, Goodrich Castle was being used less and less by the Talbots who favoured their more stylish London residences. But the fortress continued to serve as a judicial centre and well as a prison.
After Gilbert’s death in 1616, the ownership of Goodrich was passed to Henry Grey, heir to the earldom of Kent. He then let the castle to a variety of tenants including local attorney Richard Tyler, who became constable of Goodrich in 1632.
His family lived there for the next decade, making various renovations and alterations during their stay. Then, in 1643, Goodrich Castle became the scene of one of the most violent sieges of the English Civil War.
English Civil War
In 1642 armed conflict arose between the Parliamentarians and Royalists over the governance of England. As both sides fought for control of Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches, Goodrich Castle soon became central to the struggle.
Early in 1643 Tyler, along with the Earl of Stamford, garrisoned the castle in support of Parliament. But later that year, following attacks on nearby farm buildings by Royalists, Tyler withdrew to Gloucester. Thenceforth, the castle was occupied by soldiers loyal to the Crown and led by Sir Henry Lingen.
As the Royalist’s military situation worsened, south-west England became one of their few remaining strongholds. From Goodrich Castle, Lingen conducted numerous raids on Parliamentary forces in the vicinity.
In response, Parliamentarian commander Colonel John Birch marched south from his successful Siege of Hereford with the aim of finally stamping out Royalist resistance in the region.
His first act was to mount an attack on the castle’s stables. His soldiers set fire to the buildings and stole the horses, thus preventing Lingen from conducting any further raids. Then, three months later, Birch laid siege to the castle itself.
Goodrich Castle Siege
Although the medieval Goodrich Castle wasn’t really prepared for 17th century warfare, it occupied an excellent defensive position. Perhaps wisely, Birch therefore decided that a direct attack wasn’t terribly wise.
So he ordered his forces to lay trenches in preparation for artillery. Following an exchange of letters in which Birch plead vainly for Lingen’s surrender, the siege began.
The initial artillery volleys cut off the castle’s water supply with the exploding shells also destroying the courtyard cisterns, leaving the besieged Royalist troops to rely on the castle well for fresh water.
Mining activities were also begun on the castle’s river side in an effort to gain access to the keep and disrupt its foundations.
The Royalists retaliated by firing their cannons but after a few days ran out cannon balls. As a result they were reduced to throwing rocks at their Parliamentary assailants. But despite their seemingly hopeless position, the forlorn band of soldiers held out.
Suspecting that standard artillery alone wouldn’t be enough to break the siege, Birch had ordered a local blacksmith to construct a large cannon. Nicknamed Roaring Meg, its 15-inch barrel could fire a shell weighing almost 90kg.
Birch directed the cannon’s fire on Goodrich Castle’s north-west tower, which he considered a weak point. Numerous holes were punched into the castle’s defences, damaging the superstructure and foundations.
From the tower’s basement, the Royalists dug a countermine. But this was destroyed by falling rubble after Birch positioned his mortar closer to the castle and laid waste to most of the tower.
The onslaught finally proved too much for the besieged Royalist forces and they surrendered soon-after, lowering their colours and flying the white flag. The siege had lasted barely six weeks.
Out of the ruins marched around 170 defiant Royalists who were immediately taken prisoner and relieved of their weapons. Among their ranks were soldiers from an assortment of distinguished local Herefordshire families.
Goodrich Castle was left in ruins by the desperate siege. However, to ensure that it could no longer be used in any military capacity, Parliament ordered its slighting. Accordingly, the battlements were levelled and the interior partially demolished with explosives. Its main timbers and lead roofs were also removed.
18th Century Ruin
During the 18th century, Goodrich became noted for its status as a historical ruin. English clergyman William Gilpin referred to the castle in his book, Observations of the River Wye in 1782, mentioning that it contributed to the ‘correctly picturesque’ local landscape.
The fortress was further praised by the famed William Wordsworth as the ‘noblest ruin in Herefordshire’, and inspired his poem, ‘We are Seven’. Goodrich Castle continued to attract visitors throughout the 19th century, helped by the construction of a new bridge over the River Wye and later the Ross and Monmouth Railway.
Present Day Castle Ruins
Goodrich Castle in its present form is considered to be one of the more impressive examples of English military architecture. Accordingly, it is classed as a Grade I listed building.
Large portions remain, despite its tempestuous history. The 12th century stone keep is still relatively intact and is dwarfed by the surrounding square defences with their three large towers.
The Castle Towers
The towers, which are cut from darker sandstone, comprise high spur buttresses – a widely used configuration used on other 13th century keeps such as Caerphilly, Chepstow and Kidwelly Castle. It’s probably no coincidence that the latter two fortresses were also owned by the Earl of Pembroke.
Extending outwards from the castle is a great semi-circular barbican which closely resembles one built at the Tower of London. Although the latter barbican has long since been demolished, it is thought that the same team assisting in the construction of both.
An exposed causeway leads from the barbican to the castle’s gatehouse. The former Edwardian design has been converted into an asymmetrical structure which is flanked by two towers of dramatically differing heights. Murder holds and portcullises can still be seen, etched into the walls.
The gatehouse tower facing eastward houses the chapel which features a restored window. Reset in 15th century glass by Nicola Hopwood, its frame replaced a taller 13th century window.
The chapel’s west-facing window is modern and celebrates the various scientists, serviceman and engineers involved in the development of radar from the 1930s to the 1970s. The chapel’s altar is thought to pre-date the castle.
The castle courtyard comprises a ruined collection of domestic buildings such as the great hall, a pantry, buttery, kitchen and solarium. The construction of these buildings was integrated into the design of the castle’s defences to provide extra support. This is best exemplified by the great hall. Spanning 20 by 9 meters, it was placed in the strongest position, overlooking the River Wye.
The Stable Block
The ruined stable block is located beyond the main castle walls and retains its cobbled floor. At one time, it was shielded by a curtain wall although little now remains.
Roaring Meg Cannon
The Roaring Meg cannon that was so instrumental in the destruction of Goodrich Castle, is on display together with a pile of cannonballs fired during the siege. Lying adjacent to the cannon is a deep-water well, thought to have a depth around three-times the height of the castle’s keep.
Visiting Goodrich Castle
Goodrich Castle is now managed by the English Heritage. There are a variety of plaques located throughout the site providing historical insights. Free audio guides are also available which offer detailed information about the many events that have befallen this magnificent medieval keep. A gift-shop and tea-room are also located on the site.
Images of Goodrich Castle Sourced from: https://wyedeantourism.biz, © Paul Bennell
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