Wigmore Castle: A Hidden Stronghold

I really need to work on my punctuality and have some kind of schedule when it comes to these posts don’t I? Regardless, a couple of months after my last post where I may or may not have promised more blog entries (whoops) here we are at long last! And this one is, if I do say so myself, a bloody good one.

Tucked away in the northwestern part of Herefordshire, in the village of the same name, lies Wigmore Castle. On the day of my visit it rather overgrown as you will be able to see from the, quite frankly, astonishingly amazing photographs I took just for you lot. But this merely added to the atmosphere of the site in my opinion. Having to fight your way through brambles, nettles and other plants that seem like their only purpose is to be a metaphorical and literal pain in the arse while wearing shorts, and then dealing with a slope that I instantly regretted climbing as soon as I turned around to go back down, just added to the entire experience.

I’ve been to quite a few castles in my time (and this would be a case of criminal understatement). However I can quite confidently say that Wigmore is absolutely in the top… 10? 5? Who knows but what I can say is it is a superb ruin of a fortress that was mighty indeed.

The Castle under FitzOsbern

The castle was built in 1067 on the orders of William FitzOsbern, lord of Breteuil in Normandy, first Earl of Hereford and a close advisor and relative of William the Conqueror. It is likely that the village that shares its name with the castle was founded at or near the same time. We do not know what the shape or size of FitzOsbern’s castle was, but we do know he was a prolific castle builder. As well as Wigmore, he ordered the construction of Clifford Castle (also in Herefordshire), Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight as well as the castles at Monmouth and Chepstow (Striguil) in Wales. Furthermore he created or improved the fortifications of Hereford itself and Shrewsbury. From what we know of the scale of the fortifications he constructed in the above places, and Wigmore’s crucial location close to the border with Wales, it does not seem improbable that the castle was substantial and could well have covered an area similar in size to the present ruins. There has been no evidence of any early stonework, so a classic “motte-and-bailey” style wooden castle that utilised the craggy area it was built upon. Although, as my photographs will hopefully show, the amount of flora and debris lying around could potentially be hiding evidence of an early stone keep at least.

FitzOsbern perished in the Battle of Cassel (modern French Flanders) in 1071 while intervening in the civil war after the death of Baldwin VI of Flanders when his son, Arnulf III, had his succession challenged by Robert I (the Frisian). Wigmore, the earldom of Hereford and FitzOsbern’s English estate passed to his son Roger de Breteuil who became the 2nd Earl of Hereford. Roger is best known to posterity for being one of three earls in the 1075 Revolt of the Earls, widely considered the last serious act of defiance against William. Following the revolt’s failure, Roger was stripped of his lands and titles before being imprisoned. He was only released 12 years later in 1087 following William’s death.

The Mortimers

Yes, those Mortimers, who were to hold the castle until the early 15th century. Following Roger’s involvement in the revolt, his lands were redistributed by William to other, more loyal followers. Wigmore was awarded to Ranulph I (or Ralph) de Mortimer, the castle becoming chiefly the head of the barony of the Mortimers, and from 1328 on Earls of March. If you are anything like me, until I had visited Wigmore was the most important castle I had never heard of.

Wigmore’s (and the Mortimers) crucial role within the politics of the kingdom are shown time and again. For example in 1155 Henry II was forced to besiege the castle because Hugh de Mortimer decided he wouldn’t, after all, return Bridgnorth Castle in Shropshire to the crown. Interestingly two small earthworks, one on the east and one on the west, could be the remains of siege-works built by Henry’s forces.

The actual castle itself went through a period of rebuilding sometime in the 12th and early 13th centuries, with the castle being remade using stone by the end of this period. The main survivals from this era of reconstruction are the inner part of the gatehouse and the D-shaped eastern tower. The bulk of this work could have been done under Hugh de Mortimer (c.1197-1227) when he was given Royal money for the castle’s garrisoning. These works included the curtain wall that surrounds the bailey and can still be seen at its full height on the east and south side. Just a note to clarify, that this was indeed a second, different Hugh. Unless the one besieged by Henry II in 1155 found the fountain of youth, it is his grandson. Interesting side note: this Hugh de Mortimer married Annora de Braose, the daughter of the powerful and important William de Braose, lord of a list of places as long as my arm.

A second phase of works took place in the late 13th or early 14th century with the walls being raised, the gatehouse remodelled to a more modern design, and a substantial block of new buildings, possibly lodgings, being constructed within the inner bailey itself. Now I want you to be fully aware and prepared, that the name Roger will appear profusely in the next bit. These works likely took place under Roger Mortimer (1231-1282), Edmund Mortimer (1282-1304) and Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (1287-1330). This second Roger, the Earl of March, strengthened the Mortimer family immensely during his lifetime. He acquired the also formidable (and another favourite of mine that I shall write a piece about soon) castle at Ludlow and a great deal of land in Ireland through his marriage to Joan de Geneville. He was also one of the most prominent leaders who opposed Edward II in the 1320’s and eventually went on to become the lover of Isabella of France, Edward’s queen. Following Edward II’s deposition and death in 1327 (no, I’m afraid to say he probably didn’t get a red hot poker up the bum) Mortimer found himself to all intents and purposes acting as the young Edward III’s stepfather and, just by coincidence of course, the most powerful man in England. In 1328 Wigmore was the site of a tournament held my Roger that was attended by the young king and almost all the magnates of the kingdom.

But alas, things were not to last for Roger. Eventually Isabella may have actually become pregnant sometime around 1329 with Mortimers child, and it does not take a great leap to imagine that Edward III felt the proverbial red hot poker closing in on his own buttocks. It also didn’t help that Edmund, Earl of Kent, himself a royal prince and sixth son of Edward I, had been executed without Edward III being informed. So to cut a long story short, Edward and some loyal men barged into a meeting at Nottingham Castle and had Mortimer dragged away on the accusation of assuming royal power et al, before being condemned without trial and hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330.

Aftermath

Mortimer’s grandson, also a Roger, was killed in a battle in ireland in 1398. and the male line of the Mortimer’s died out in 1424 which resulted in Wigmore passing to Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York via his mother Anne Mortimer, the last Roger’s sister. Now if that name sounds familiar that would be because he was the father of Edward IV and Richard III. The castle was said to have been derelict in 1425, but excavations suggest some building work was carried out there in the mid 15th century. It is also almost a certainty that Edward IV was based at Wigmore before he defeated Henry VI at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, fought near Wigmore itself. The castle, like so many others, came to its state of ruin after its defences were dismantled during the Civil War, following which nature gradually reclaimed what was left.

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