Article by Liam Geoghegan. Edited by Harriet Di Francesco. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.
Despite being constructed over 500 years ago, Goodrich Castle is almost as magnificent as it was in its prime. Situated on a densely wooded hilltop, Goodrich overlooks the Wye Valley and the meandering River Wye, which lends the valley its name. Interestingly, Goodrich itself used to be known as ‘Godric’s Castle’, after its original owner, who is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086; the origin of the castle thought to be in the 1090s. The castle is only semi-ruined: none of the interior remains, and the residual red sandstone walls have suffered the effects of centuries of British weather; in spite of this, Goodrich is in an impressively good state. The castle was always up to date with improvements in castle building; since being handed to William Marshal, a famous castle builder during the reign of King John, it was continuously added to and upgraded. The most notable of these changes were the refurbishment of both the defences and the domestic areas of the castle under the ownership of King Henry III’s half-brother, William de Valence.
The relative state of Goodrich, compared to some historical sites (Bristol Castle comes to mind), has made the castle a popular attraction for castle-lovers and tourists alike. One can walk around the full perimeter of the (now) dry moat, peruse various Civil War remnants and, perhaps most excitingly, take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding Herefordshire countryside from atop the sixty-foot high, twelfth-century keep. With my own visits to Goodrich edging towards double figures, I could easily fill this website with facts, accounts and depictions of the castle and its surroundings. However, this would offer little incentive for the readers to visit the site for themselves. Nevertheless, there is one feature of the castle that has always fascinated me the most, so it is this feature that this article will concentrate on – its defences.
Despite its history spanning some 800 odd years before English Heritage took ownership, Goodrich was hardly attacked. Just looking at the castle today, both “in the flesh” and in photographs, there are some pretty obvious reasons for this. As it stands today, the size of the building is vastly impressive. Yet at its peak, the castle’s outer walls were adorned with a number of additional battlements. The depth of these walls is also impressive; with the stone often measuring over a foot in thickness. Such a solid fortress already seems rather imposing and, when placed in the setting that Goodrich is, the castle only becomes more formidable. In order to attack the castle, enemy forces would encounter the steep surrounding hills and neighbouring river; all of this within clear view of the castle’s archers. In fact, the approach to the castle itself would have diminished any attacking army.
However, the intricate defence system of the castle would have been most impenetrable. Once you were actually within reach of the castle walls, you were not only susceptible to defending archers, but there was the question of how to cross the moat, scale the walls, penetrate the keep and still have enough of an army to make it worth your while.
The moat that encircles the outer walls of Goodrich would make for a difficult crossing even in its current drained state. The walls’ battlements and the tops of the four corner towers provide an excellent height advantage from which arrows and other projectiles could be fired at those below. On top of this, arrow slits are dotted all the way around the upper and lower levels of the building. Add water to its cavernous moat, and the attackers would be forced to swim across the challenging divide, slowing their approach and inhibiting their attack from there on in. The one dry alternative, the drawbridge, would have been raised long before the oncoming force had even reached the castle.
Let us imagine that at least a portion of the attacking army made it up the hill and across the moat. They would now be stood at the foot of towering walls, more than triple their own height; guarded by troops with all of the advantages. Even siege weapons were rendered almost useless against Goodrich.
The single potential weakness of the fortress is its gatehouse; after all, it is an entrance. Goodrich’s gatehouse, however, was probably the most difficult way in to the castle for potential attackers. Two portcullises were housed in the entrance, as they are today. These cast iron gates could be dropped in a matter of seconds; this meant guards could wait until attackers stormed the inside portcullis and then drop the outer one behind or on top of them, effectively taking them prisoner. Additionally, the walls and roof of the entrance contained arrow slits and murder holes, through which objects could be dropped and burning liquids could be poured. Alternatively, both portcullises could be left closed, so if the attackers managed to get past one, another awaited.
There is one other contender for the “worst entrance to the castle” award. If you were unfortunate enough to be the smallest member of the attacking force, you may be obliged to climb up the castle’s sewage tunnel in order to take out the defenders from the inside – or defender who was unlucky enough to be using the lavatory…
Moreover, Goodrich’s defences were not limited to its exterior. The spiral staircases in the towers and the keep were designed to make it easier for someone coming down the stairs to use a sword. Projectiles were aimed in to the inner courtyard as easily as they were down the hill. Last, but not least, if it came to it, the well could be poisoned, making the castle uninhabitable under return siege.
A visit to Goodrich comes highly recommended by myself; both for history-lovers and those just looking for a great day out. Make sure to enjoy the spectacle that is the remainder of the castle, the beautiful countryside over which it dominates, and the Civil War monuments including ‘Roaring Meg’ – the only surviving Civil War mortar. Just one piece of advice – don’t bother to attack!