Moving to the countryside: Part 11: a very bloody lump in the landscape

Taking a walk from the new house – and unearthing a grisly story

Published: November 7th, 2012 at 11:50 am

Early November and the promised sunshine came but long after it had left our garden. So I took a walk on down into the valley and along the River Usk, which was still bathed in warm, autumn rays.


The river was surging and swollen after recent rain but I disturbed two female goosanders fishing in midstream. Local anglers are not fans of goosanders. Rather like cormorants (as featured in our December issue, which will be on sale in mid November), goosanders are blamed for preying on already depleted fish stocks. Some say they should be shot. They are very handsome birds, however.

I digress. The path wound beside the river, sometimes dropping down to shoreline, sometimes tiptoeing along a mini cliff that rose 30 feet above the water. Along the way, I found this large spindle tree already showing off its Christmas decorations.
Finally my path entered open, sheep scattered fields; the river was now flanked by ranks of alder and calmed itself. And then I noticed the mound rising out of the pasture ahead.
It was too big, too lumpy to be a burial mound so I checked my OS map. It said Castle Arnold in English blackletter – meaning 'old and interesting'. I’d never heard of it before so I took a few (poor, admittedly) snaps. Next to it was a dilapidated barn, perfect for barn owls though I couldn’t see any pellets on the floor when I peeped in.
I explored the mound looking for clues – it felt like a Norman motte, a mound on which a wooden or stone stronghold would have been perched. After an hour or so's wondering and wandering, I decided to meander home just as the mountain’s shadow swallowed the valley.
Back at my computer, I looked up Castle Arnold on the web – and discovered a sad and bloody tale associated with it. Its name is actually Castell Arnallt or Ernallt and was once the seat of the Welsh kings of Over-Gwent. The last lord of the castle, in the 12th century, was Seisyll ap Dyfnwal.
Like many native Welsh rulers in the area, he was struggling to hold onto his lands in the face of the incoming Norman lords. One of these was Walter de Braose, whose stronghold was Abergavenny, just 4 miles away. You’ll soon see why Walter has recently entered my top 20 historical villains.
Walter invited the local Welsh princes including Seisyll to Abergavenny for Christmas in 1175 – ostensibly to give them a chance to voice their grievances about the overbearing Normans. But once Seisyll and his retinue had dropped their guard, Walter and his men drew their weapons and slaughtered them. Meanwhile, Walter had sent another strong party of soldiers to Castell Arnallt where they surprised Seisyll’s guards, slew his seven-year-old son and probably his wife, too. If you’re intro realpolitik, you’d say “job done”.
According to some stories, De Braose was acting in revenge for the murder of his uncle, possibly by Seisyll. Whatever, it meant he gained the upper hand in the region by killing all of his main rivals – though it meant there was never any trust between the native Welsh and the Normans/English for a very long time. If ever.
Seisyll was avenged however. In 1182, Hywel ap Iorwerth, Welsh lord of Caerleon, stormed Abergavenny castle and killed the Norman sheriff of Hereford.
As for De Braose, he was a favourite of (bad) King John (it all figures, doesn’t it?). However, he fell out with the king, as seems inevitable with John. Bizarrely, he then allied himself with Welsh prince Llywelyn in a rebellion against the English king but was forced to flee to France, where he died in 1211. King John had already captured Walter's wife and son and had them murdered.
Amazing what grim stories you can find in the lumps and bumps in the landscape.
But I should leave you with one last image, taken from the summit of the mound that once supported Castell Arnallt. It's one of a line of sinister scarecrows protecting an autumn-sown crop.
Spirits of the dead from the Castell?


Fergus CollinsEditor, BBC Countryfile Magazine

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