The final stop on our epic Welsh road trip was the historic town of Monmouth…
Status: Monmouthshire, Town, Wales
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: River Monnow, Monnow Bridge, Monmouth Castle, Shire Hall, Charles Rolls Statue, Agincourt Square, Monnow Street, Regimental Museum, St Mary’s Church, St Thomas’s Church, King’s Head Inn, The Green Dragon, Overmonnow House, Overmonnow, The Punch House, Medieval Cross etc
We arrived into Monmouth off the A40, just a few miles away from the border with England, making the town one of the last Welsh frontiers as it were. A large car park beside the River Monnow provided the perfect place to stop, next to the famous “Monnow Bridge”, shown above. The River is overall quite short at 42 miles, however it is regionally important as it forms a large section of the border with England, from Herefordshire down to Monmouth where it merges with the River Wye.
A large blue plaque as you enter the Bridge states that:
“Monnow Bridge. Built circa 1270, as a town defence, is the only surviving medieval bridge in Britain with the gate tower standing on the bridge. The gatehouse has served as a toll-house, guard room, gaol and dwelling house.”
There is evidence to suggest a wooden bridge stood on the site before the 1270’s, whilst the new stone bridge was an early version of a toll crossing, as local people travelling into Monmouth on market day would have to pay a small fee to cross the river. A few changes have been made over the years, with a second floor being added to the Gatehouse itself in 1705, becoming a residence for a Gate Keeper over the next century.
Just to the left of the bridge, on the far bank of the River is the Church of St Thomas, dedicated to the ill fated Thomas Beckett (1120 – 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by followers of King Henry II), whose original incarnation was built around the same time as the original Wooden Bridge, and indeed certain features still survive from this period, including an Arch in the Chancel called the “Dog’s Tooth”. The building has been restored and enhanced on numerous occasions since Victorian times, and it is still in use today.
The Church of St Thomas is located in an area of Monmouth called “Overmonnow”, which covers the area West of the Monnow. Around Norman Times the Anglo-Welsh border ran through what would become Monmouth, with areas West of the River, which later became Overmonnow being in Wales. East of the River, where Monmouth now stands, was in England.
Monmouthshire itself has always had a complex legal status within England/Wales, as at various times it has been grouped with Wales for new legislations, although laws and customs covering England were also in force over the last few centuries, particularly under the reign of King Charles II (1630 – 1685).
Having crossed the river into the centre of Overmonnow, a relatively small area which includes the Church, and the Western approach to the Bridge, we came across three of its other main landmarks, shown above:
- Medieval Cross: Beautiful historic cross dating back to Medieval times, when the area now covered by the roundabout upon which it stands was most likely a large Market Square. Sadly only the base is original, however the rest was lovingly rebuilt and restored in 1888 to it’s former glory, with F. A Powell contributing the shaft. The cross head, along with the four statues representing St Cenhadlon, St Mary, St Michael, and of course St Thomas, were created by H. Wall, a builder from the nearby city of Newport.
- The Green Dragon: The oldest surviving pub in Overmonnow, it was established sometime prior to 1801, when it is recorded that the keys to St Thomas’s Church were kept there.
- Overmonnow House: A listed building directly to the left of the Green Dragon Inn, which sits directly opposite St Thomas’s. It was completed around 1700, at the turn of the 18th century, and functioned as the local Vicarage for many years. It sits alongside another smaller building which was built as a Coach House around the same time as the pub.
Crossing the Monnow bridge once more, we arrived back into Monmouth town centre, and began heading up the high street towards the Shire Hall, one of the towns most stunning landmarks. Just past the Car Park where we had arrived, we found another Inn, called “The Robin Hood”, one of only a few medieval buildings to survive in the entire town, along with those in Overmonnow. The most notable portion of the building is the 15th century doorway around the main entrance, whilst presumably the rest of the Inn has been rebuilt/restored over the years.
Monmouth high street runs for around half a mile, from the Monnow Bridge up towards the very centre where the Shire Hall, Monmouth Castle Ruins, and the Regimental Museum can all be found.
In the distance you can see the tall spire of St Mary’s Church, whose origins can be traced to the Priory built on the site around 1075 by Withenoc (1035 – c 1101) who took over from Roger de Breteuil (c 1051 – c 1087) as the new Lord of Monmouth that same year. Of the existing building, the Church Tower is the oldest section, completed in the 14th century out of the same materials as the Monnow Bridge, Red Sandstone. The majority of the rest of the structure was redesigned in the 19th century by George Edmund Street (1824 – 1881, Essex Architect), aside from the towering 200 ft Spire added in 1743 by an architect from the English city of Worcester.
Heading up the high street, we spotted another of Monmouth’s fine drinking establishments, in the form of the “King’s Head”, which lies just opposite the main Town Square/Shire Hall. The pub opened as a Coaching Inn in the 17th century, and eventually became a large hotel, which expanded to incorporate two other buildings:
- Former County Club: Shown on the right, it was built in 1875 to designs by Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807 – 1880, Architect from Ireland).
- Former Monmouth Bank: Located on the left and completed in 1840. This was the first addition to the King’s Head, during the 19th century, whilst the County Club was only taken over around 1995.
Together the three buildings now form one large complex, a fine addition to the many historic buildings that line the town square, which is known as “Agincourt Square”. The name commemorates the famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt by King Henry V (1387 – 1422) in 1415, as Henry was actually born at Monmouth Castle in 1387.
Moving into Agincourt Square itself, we got a fantastic view of the beautiful Georgian Shire Hall, designed by an architect called Philip Fisher from Bristol in England. It opened in 1724, and became the new home of the Quarter Sessions (Courts in England/Wales that met four times a year) and the Assize Courts, which took over the more serious cases from the Quarter Sessions. Both of these (along with their counterparts around the rest of the country) were later replaced by the Crown Court in 1972.
Before we arrived in Monmouth, we had visited the city of Newport, and learnt about the Chartist Uprising which occurred in 1839, known as the “Newport Rising”. The Chartists were a large group campaigning for better rights for the working man, and culminated in a confrontation against the Armed Forces at Newport’s Westgate Hotel. One of the main leaders of the Rising was John Frost (1784 – 1877) who was captured and put on trial here at Monmouth Shire Hall, before being sentenced to be Hung/Drawn/Quartered, the last such punishment ever given out in England & Wales.
Today the Shire Hall is home to a Tourist Info Centre, and the offices of Monmouth Town Council. Despite Monmouth being the traditional county town of Monmouthshire, the County Hall has been located in Usk since 2013, having moved from Cwmbran in the neighbouring Torfaen Borough.
Above the main entrance to the Shire Hall stands a statue of the aforementioned King Henry V from 1792, one of the shorter reigning English monarchs. He was only 25 when he died of dysentery in France, having swung the 100 Years War between England/France into an English Victory at Agincourt. He was recognised by the French as their heir apparent, and his son Henry VI (1421 – 1471) would become King of Northern France until 1453.
Another famous son of Monmouth is also immortalised in statue form in the square, shown over to the right. It is in fact Charles Stewart Rolls (1877 – 1910), who famously founded the Rolls-Royce Car Company with Henry Royce (1863 – 1933) in 1906. Despite the fact that Charles Rolls was actually born in London, his family’s ancestral home was a large country house called “The Hendre” just outside Monmouth, and he spent much of his childhood there.
Rolls was sadly killed at the age of just 35 (just 10 years older than Henry V) when the tail of the Wright Flyer he was piloting fell off, and the plane crashed near Bournemouth. Despite his death, he did gain one final honour, the very first person in British history to be killed in a plane crash, as air travel was just taking off (no pun intended!).
The “King’s Head” lies at the square’s Southern end, whilst it’s counterpart, another Inn called “The Punch House” sits opposite, at the Northern end. It dates back to the mid 18th century, and similar to the King’s Head/Overmonnow House, it was founded as a Coaching Inn, called the “The Wine Vaults”. It was later renamed The Punch House in 1896, and sat alongside another pub called “The Black Bull” which sat directly to it’s right, however the two merged into one building in the 1990’s under one name.
The Spire of St Mary’s is visible in the near distance, located at the top of a small, quaint shopping street, the entrance to which you can see on the left. Monmouth is a very pleasant town, with plenty of interesting and varied looking buildings, each of which has it’s own unique history.
Our last stop during our exploration of Monmouth was a short climb up Castle Hill, to the Regimental Museum opposite the Castle Ruins. The Museum is located in one of Monmouth’s grandest buildings, the fantastic “Great Castle House”, built on the former site of the Castle in 1673, by Henry Somerset (1629 – 1700, 3rd Marquess of Worcester, Duke of Beaufort, and Member of the English House of Commons).
Presumably after his death, in 1700 the Assize Courts moved in for the next few decades, until a new, permanent home in the form of the Shire Hall was completed. After this various uses were found for the House, from Judges Lodgings to a Private Girls School, until the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (then known as the Militia Regiment) took up residence in 1853.
The Regiment is one of the oldest in the British Army (1539), and is notable for a number of reasons, including:
- Most senior Regiment in Britain’s reserve forces.
- The only British Regiment to have the word Royal twice in its official title.
They are now headquartered here in Monmouth, and a wing of the house was converted into a Museum in 1989, with information about the various Dukes of Beaufort, the Regiment’s history, and that of the neighbouring Castle.
Outside in the courtyard we saw a number of interesting pieces of equipment, which looking from right to left consists of:
- Russian Fortress Gun: A relic from the Crimean War between the UK/France/Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire, captured during the siege of Sebastopol in 1855, and brought back to Britain.
- FV721 Fox: Used in active service between 1973 – 1994 by the British Army after the withdrawal of their Ferret Scout Car. Lightweight and nimble, it had a top speed of over 60 mph, ideal for out maneuvering the enemy in the battlefield. Whilst they are out of service in the UK, several African countries still use them.
- Armoured Bulldozer: Heavily armoured for use in a war zone, many modern versions of which are based around the D7/D9 models produced by Caterpillar Inc, an American Company who specialise in various types of machinery for both civil and military use.
As I said earlier, the House sits where various parts of Monmouth Castle once stood (more specifically the Castle Keep), and the only visible remains of the building are on the other side of the Car Park, shown above.
The original Norman Castle here was built in the 1060’s, immediately following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It wasn’t however the conquest of Britain, as Wales was still to come, so a network of bases were built along the borderlands between England/Wales (Cheshire/Herefordshire/Shropshire) ready for the main invasion, completed by the end of the century, although they had to contend with numerous rebellions along the way.
Anyway, returning to topic, Monmouth Castle was established by William FitzOsbern (1020 – 1071, a Norman Lord who had already built one in Chepstow, also in Monmouthshire). He was in charge of Herefordshire under direct orders from William the Conqueror (1028 – 1087, Norman Duke) himself, alongside his counterparts in the other border counties, ready for the invasion. He would be killed in the Battle of Cassel in 1071, fighting for the French against the King of Flanders.
The Castle would then become the home of Edmund Crouchback (1245 – 1296, son of Henry III) who built a Great Hall. His successor, Henry of Grosmont (1310 – 1361, Earl of Derby), also made numerous modifications to the Castle, improving its defences to make it fit to guard the new town of Monmouth which was slowly developing around it, including a large wall similar to those that encircle Conwy/Caernarfon in North Wales. 20 years after the death of Grosmont, Henry IV (1367 – 1413) and his Wife Mary (1368 – 1394) bore their first child here, who would of course become Henry V in 1413. Interestingly, the day before we had made a visit to Pembroke Castle, and found out that King Henry VII was born there in 1457, so the Henry’s of Britain were a major feature of our trip.
To get a sense of the sheer scale of the Castle at that time, it did in fact stretch down to where Agincourt Square was eventually built, where the Outer Bailey was located. A Market was established, and as Military use began to decline, its importance gradually diminished. It’s ultimate fate was sealed in the 1640’s, when Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian Army took the Castle in 1645 during the Civil War, deliberately damaging it to make it of no use to the enemy 2 years later. Much of the remains were built over when Great Castle House was completed, leaving just a few walls and the remnants of the Great Tower still in existence today, a small reminder of the impressive history of Monmouth.
Monmouth is a fascinating place, and whilst geographically it is quite small, a lot of history and sites are crammed in together, from Overmonnow to Agincourt Square, to the Castle Ruins. Whilst it was once well connected by rail to other areas of both England and Wales, the lines closed in the 1960’s, leaving Road as the only access to the town. It lies on the A40 between Fishguard and London, which also connects up with both the M4 in South Wales (Swansea – London via Bristol) and the M40 in Herefordshire (Ross-on-Wye – M5 near Worcester). The nearest large airports are located at Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham International, for all major destinations.
We soon pushed on, at the end of our long two day road trip which had taken us through Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Swansea, Newport and finally Monmouthshire. A fine end to an incredible trip around a beautiful country!