Pottering about the back lanes of County Louth, one’s attention is suddenly arrested by a limestone outcrop on which are the remains of a once-substantial fortification. This is Castle Roche, the name of which suggests that it was built by a northerly branch of the Roche family members of which are mostly found in Counties Wexford and Cork. Actually the origin of the castle’s title is more complex, as is the history of its construction. The building is believed to date from the 13th century and to have been erected by the Anglo-Norman de Verduns. An ancestor, Bertram de Verdun had come to England in 1066 as a retainer of Count Robert of Mortain, one of William the Conqueror’s principal commanders at the Battle of Hastings. His grandson, another Bertram, was appointed seneschal for the visit of Henry II to Ireland in 1171 and this was the beginning of the de Verduns’ association with this country. Bertram would die at Jaffa in 1192 while participating in the Third Crusade, but his son Nicholas inherited the family estates and especially after marrying Joan Fitz-Piers who likewise came into land in Ireland he spent much of his time here. The couple had a daughter, Rohesia de Verdun, and she is traditionally credited with building Castle Roche.
Rohesia de Verdun was a considerable heiress, so it is not surprising that she should have become linked to another important Anglo-Norman family in Ireland, in 1225 marrying as his second wife Theobold le Boteler, a forebear of the Butler family. However by this time she already had a son, John de Verdun, perhaps the offspring of an illicit marriage or affair. It was John de Verdun, and not the children of Rohesia’s marriage to Theobold le Boteler, who would eventually inherit his mother’s Irish estates. In the meantime, she had become a widow, her husband dying in 1230 during an expedition to Gascony. Six years later, she is said to have undertaken the construction of a mighty fortress on her lands in what is now County Louth. Its name, Castle Roche, derives from a corruption of her own, Rohesia. It is likely that John de Verdun added much to the work his mother had begun, not least because in 1242 she founded the Augustinian Priory of Gracedieu near Thringstone in Leicestershire. This house is believed to have been the only one of its kind in England and, in line with the independent character of its founder, the nuns were independent of outside control. Rohesia died there five years after establishing the house. A persistent legend about Castle Roche may explain why she decided to become a member of a religious community. Although the Magna Carta enshrined in law that no widow could be compelled to remarry, it was not unusual for the crown to insist on such unions for various political and fiscal reasons. If she had taken another husband, Rohesia would have weakened the likelihood of her son John inheriting the family estates intact. It is said that she declared her intention only to marry the man who could build a castle to her satisfaction. Someone duly did so, but on their wedding night, as he showed his new bride the spectacular view from a window on the west side, she pushed him through it. Thereafter at Castle Roche it was known as the Murder Window.
Built on the edge of a steep cliff, the plan of Castle Roche is almost triangular, this unusual form being dictated by the nature of the site. Rock formations provide protection to east, west, north and south so that the only access to the building lies on its easterly side. This was controlled by a bailey separated from the castle by a rock cut ditch. Entry to the castle was gained through the bailey, across a bridge over the ditch and through an arched gateway between two bastion towers. Like the battlemented curtain walls, these towers feature a series of slits through which arrows could be fired at the approaching enemy. Inside, the remains of a two-storey great hall can be found in the south-east corner, but otherwise little survives of any permanent structure as this was predominantly a walled enclosure. Castle Roche survived for several centuries. A meeting of all the English forces in Ireland took place here in 1561 but the building was devastated eighty years later during the Confederate Wars and has remained a ruin ever since. Given its dramatic position and relatively decent state of preservation, Castle Roche seems surprisingly little known. Last year the state tourist board launched an initiative called Ireland’s Ancient East designed to encourage more visitors to this part of the country. Castle Roche ought to feature in proposed itineraries but doesn’t. A missed opportunity – but at least those of us who come across the place can be confident of having it to ourselves.