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The History of Chepstow

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There is evidence to suggest human habitation goes back to pre-history in the Chepsstow area. Archaeological investigations at nearby Thornwell revealed signs of continuous human occupation from the Mesolithic period of around 5000 BC until the end of the Roman period, just after 400 AD. There are Iron Age fortified camps in the area, at Bulwark and Piercefield, dating from the time of the Silures. Historians have speculated upon the probably existence of a small Roman fort in the area but evidence to support this so far has been in the form of Roman material and burials, rather than definite signs of buildings. One of the principle reasons historians hold the view that the Romans must have fortified the area is the very strategic importance that ensured Chepstow’s continued development after they had left Britain. Any force that controlled Chepstow controlled the gateway to Wales , and this is one of the reasons why it now hosts Britain’s oldest surviving stone castle.

A priory was established during the period after the Romans, when Saxons still dominated the country. The priory was dedicated to St. Cynfarch or Kingsmark. It suffered after the Norman Conquest and was replaced by a Norman priory in the town centre. Chepstow offered an ideal defensive location to the Normans, the steep limestone gorge was a perfect natural feature for the location of an impregnable castle. William the Conqueror wasted no time in ordering its construction in 1067, the year after his invasion. The Domesday Book records that it was supervised by William FitzOsbern, the master castle builder of the time. After the 14th century wars between England and Wales ceased, the castle's strategic importance rapidly vanished. But before it lost its reason for existence, the castle had attracted about its walls a bustling market town. The castle, the Priory church and the port were all important parts of Chepstow. In 1294 the town was granted a charter giving it the right to hold a weekly market and annual fair. It was exempt from English taxation which gave it a great advantage over some towns situated nearby, and yet within the England tax jurisdiction. The town wall which survives to this time, and is known as the Port Wall, was built in the 13th century. Chepstow Town Gate, part of the wall, also originally dates from the 13th century.

The Parish and Priory Church of St Mary is Norman in origin, although much rebuilt and extended in later centuries. Benedictine monks from Cormeilles Abbey in Normandy, now Chepstow's twin town, were present at long lost buildings near the church until the Dissolution of the Monasteries that started in 1536.

A thriving market town and in a superb strategic and economic position, Chepstow also enjoyed the advantages of being a port. From medieval times it is thought to have become the largest port in Wales. For the period of 1790 to 1795 records indicate a greater tonnage of goods handled at Chepstow than at Swansea , Cardiff & Newport combined. The port and shipbuilding declined at Chepstow in the 19th century as the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea moved ahead. Chepstow kept going as a port and shipbuilder into the 20th century. After the turn of the 20th century ‘Garden City’ and parts of Bulwark Village were built to house workers brought to Chepstow from 1917 for the new National Shipyard No.1. The same Bulwark area now houses around two thirds of the current population of Chepstow. The railway bridge over the Wye was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1852, although the original Victorian -built structure was replaced in the 1960s.

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