This place situated in the historic centre of the town of Oswestry has a deeply ancient feel even though the only surviving features are the great motte upon which the castle once stood, and some fragmentary stone wall remains.
The castle’s motte still stands proud and defiant overlooking Castle View and Castle street which would have originally been parts of the castle’s bailey with the make up of these parts altering drastically throughout the ages as the town of Oswestry developed in and around the fortification from a small number of nearby hamlets.
The associations connected with the town and the castle are deeply imbued with blood and slaughter from the numerous tumultuous conflicts they witnessed down the centuries. Even its very name arose from the ashes of a slaughtered prince. In the year 642 a battle was fought near the town (then called Maeserfield) by Oswald, the brave and generous prince of Northumberland and Penda, the ferocious monarch of Mercia. Oswald was defeated, and fell in the battle, and Penda with blood thirsty barbarity, fixed his mangled limbs on stakes and on a tree as trophies of his victory. Thus, the place was called Oswaldstre, or Oswald’s Town, and subsequently Oswestry.
The views from the top of the castle stretch out over the whole town and across to the ancient Old Oswestry Hillfort. Old Oswestry was built and occupied during the Iron Age (800 BC to AD 43) and is one of the best-preserved hillforts in Britain. During this period Britain was divided into numerous tribal territories, and the hillfort was probably a stronghold and principal settlement for one of these.
King Offa of Mercia ruled from 747-796 and constantly had problems with warring Welsh tribes in the Marches. An impressive earthwork (the longest in Britain) runs for 82 miles of the total distance of 149 miles, the intervening gaps being filled by natural features such as slopes and rivers. It consists of an earth bank, which in places still stands to a height of 12ft, fronted by a deep ditch with a total width of up to65ft. Excavation has confirmed that a wooden breastwork ran along the top of the bank and in places this was later rebuilt in stone. This now generally aligns with the modern Border between England and Wales.
This was followed by Wat’s Dyke, a 40-mile long linear earthwork, built through the site of Oswestry in AD 820. Wat’s dyke runs generally parallel to Offa’s Dyke, sometimes within a few yards but never more than three miles away. Both of these impressive undertakings run either through Oswestry or very close to (Wat’s dyke ran directly to the Old Oswestry Hill fort and can still be seen there today)
Origins of the Castle
The place was, not surprisingly, identified as strategically important by the Normans and a castle was built on the site by Rainald de Bailleul, Sheriff of Shropshire in 1085. The fortification is listed in the Domesday survey, a relatively rare occurrence for castles, in an entry labelled Luvre. This is probably a corruption of the French word l’oeuvre which originally translated as ‘the work’. The earliest surviving record listing Oswestry Castle by name (Castellum de Oswaldestr) dates from circa-1180.
The eleventh century castle was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The oval shaped motte was converted from a natural glacial mound and would have been topped with a timber palisade whilst its base was surrounded by a dry ditch. A bailey extended to the south and was enclosed by a timber palisade. This would have hosted the Great Hall, high status chambers and the ancillary buildings associated with such a site. The town first grew up within the bailey before over spilling into the area beyond. An outer bailey, perhaps a livestock enclosure, may have been located to the north of the motte.
After Rainald’s death in 1098, Oswestry Castle passed to his stepson, Hugh FitzWarine. It then passed to Alan FitzAlan and then to his son, William, who was still the owner at the outbreak of the Anarchy, the civil war between Matilda and Stephen over the English succession. This turbulence in England was exploited by the Welsh and in 1148 Oswestry Castle was seized by Madoc ap Meredith.
However, the castle was recovered by William who then held it until his death in 1160. In 1165, Henry II adopted it as a base for his unsuccessful campaign against Owain Gwynedd.
During this period the Pipe Rolls recorded expenditure of £2,000 on the castle and, although the only reference is to repairs made to the palisade, this vast sum suggests the stone Keep was built at this time. An inventory taken in 1398 provided a list of the compartments within this rectangular structure; Great Chamber, Middle Chamber, High Chamber, Constable’s Hall, Wardrobe, St Nicholas Chapel, Kitchen, Larder and Buttery.
By the late twelfth century William FitzAlan had acquired Clun Castle significantly expanding his power and influence across the Welsh Marches. However, when he died in 1210 King John demanded that his son, also called William, had to pay a fee of 10,000 marks to inherit.
William was unable to pay and accordingly the King confiscated Oswestry Castle and granted it to Robert de Vipont. It then passed in rapid succession to John Marshal and then to Thomas de Erdington. William FitzAlan died in 1216 but the family estates were recovered in the same year by his brother John. He actively opposed the King in the First Barons’ War resulting in Oswestry being attacked by Royal forces in 1216 in which the town was sacked although the castle withstood the assault. The family were reconciled with the Government of Henry III the following year.
A Parliament was held on this hill
Oswestry hosted a Royal visit in 1398 when Richard II held a Parliament within the castle. Two years later the town (but not the castle) was burnt by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr.
The castle was garrisoned by Royalist troops during the Civil War and captured by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1644. It had been largely demolished by the Parliamentary Roundheads by 1650.
It is incredible to think that something as important as a Parliament was held on this very site, which to many onlookers working or visiting in and around it would now see no more than a raised public garden. The scene of the parliament must have been quite a sight of splendour with the King himself present as he wandered around during recesses and following its conclusion. The scenes, sights, sounds and fights this place has borne witness to down the ages is remarkable, from the echoes of the voices of King John to Richard II and legendary figures of welsh folklore have reverberated from the stones that still remain settled on this brilliant spot.