A brief history of Usk

From Iron Age settlement to Roman camp

By the time the Romans arrived in 55 AD, there had been a scattered settlement of Iron Age farmers working in the water meadows (behind the prison) of the Usk valley who were probably living in their round huts somewhere near the site of the present Llangeview church.

The Roman construction camp (the modern ‘Wimpy depot’) was on the flat-topped hill above Casey’s Court. Their fortress ‘Burrium’ (see map) was the regimental depot of the first pacification of South Wales. Full of officers’ headquarters, granaries, hospitals, barracks, baths, stables, and forges, it was occupied until 65 AD when the Legion, (of 6,000 men, plus auxiliary workers were employed in Wales) having persuaded the local population to behave themselves, withdrew to their fortress near Gloucester. They left behind a small holding force in a much reduced defended area (from the Kings Head to Mill Street, Maryport St. and the back of Ty Mawr)

The civilian population which grew up around the fort remained until about 300 AD, latterly mainly occupied in the smelting of iron. There was a ready market for this from the Roman army which had returned in 75AD and built a permanent base at Caerleon which was on a navigable part of the river.

Medieval times onwards

The town of Usk was a ‘new’ town of the medieval period, built c.1170 on the usual grid-iron layout, for the profit of Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare, on a site at that time unoccupied because of flooding. The Castle had been built some years before this, very probably the first defences being constructed shortly after 1066, on the orders of the builder of Chepstow, Monmouth, Whitecastle, Skenfrith, etc. – William FitzOsborns.

Surrounded by a defensive ditch, the town flourished, to become one of the largest in the country. It was overrun not infrequently, and once occupied for ten years by the Welsh in the C12. However, the C14 saw a decline, the Rent Rolls telling a sad story of failed crops, dead tenants and burned houses, until the town was virtually burnt to the ground by Owain Glyndwr in 1403. The Battle of Usk in 1405 marked the beginning of the end for the Welsh rebellion, when the English forces surprised the besieging Welsh, pursued them across the river and defeated them with great loss of life. The town was rebuilt by degrees after this disaster. While they largely look Victorian, most houses in the town centre dated from the 1580s.

Fortunately Usk missed the Industrial revolution (being off the coalfield) and remained until recently a market town for the surrounding agricultural area, with the addition of some light industry (C19 Japan Ware) and now a small industrial estate and tourism.

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