Hay on Wye Castles

Hay on Wye, like Builth Wells, has two castles within a short distance of each other.  The history of both sites open up new possibilities for the early foundation of this castle.  It is possible Hay was fortified by William Fitz Osbern during his penetration of south-east Wales in the summer of 1070 when he defeated three Welsh kings. The history of the site then continues through the lordships of the Neufmarchés, which was confirmed at the battle of Brecon in 1093, and also the Gloucester/Hereford families until 1165, when the district passed into the hands of the Braoses. In the book the very early origins of the castle are examined and compared with that of the little known motte by the church, which has always wrongly been described as the first castle of Hay on Wye. In 1230 Hay castle passed to the Bohuns and the local history, including the battle near Hay in 1231, is continued through the Mortimer wars of the 1260's and the battle near Brecon in 1266 down to the death of Earl Humphrey Bohun in 1298.

Lying close to Saint Mary’s church on the western edge of the town of Hay-on-Wye is a small but well-preserved motte a little under fifteen feet high. This supports a summit some forty feet across. The site overlooks a gorge and small stream leading to the Wye, which was undoubtedly one reason for the construction of a castle here. A recently-levelled platform under the car park to the north-east may have once have housed the castle bailey. This little fortress was probably the work of William Revel, a knight of Bernard Neufmarché, and may later have been the seat for the manor/commote of Melinog.  Other than this the motte has no further recorded history.

The main fortress within Hay on Wye was situated on the great site commanding the town and river under the current ruins of the castle and mansion.  This was undoubtedly the 'castello de haia' handed to Miles Gloucester in 1121 with the daughter of Bernard Neufmarché. It is most likely that the 'keep' stood by this time and it is also possible that it is the oldest Norman tower in Wales, dating to the onslaught of William Fitz Osbern in 1070.  During the Anarchy (1136-54) a series of charters were passed by the Gloucesters concerning the castle.  In 1165 the last of Miles Gloucester's male descendants was killed at nearby Bronllys castle and the castle passed into the hands of William Braose of Radnor and Buellt.  The Braose were energetic lords and probably built the core of the gatehouse which now stands besides the keep.  In the summer of 1198 a major English army formed here before marching off to victory at the battle of Painscastle some four miles to the north.

In 1230 the last Braose of Brecon was hanged by Prince Llywelyn Fawr and Brecon lordship with Hay on Wye passed into the hands of the Bohuns.  Taking advantage of this in 1231 Prince Llywelyn ravaged the lands of his Bohun in-laws during which Hay on Wye town was burnt.  In July Llywelyn also routed an English army in battle near Hay with the aid of a monk from Abbey Cwmhir.  The castle saw service in the Barons War of 1263 to 1266 changing hands three times, once being surrendered to the great Earl Simon Montfort of Leicester.   With the conquest of Wales by Edward I life became more peaceful in this Marcher town.

Around 1401 both town and castle suffered damage by Owain Glyndwr's forces, although the castle was listed as defensible against the Welsh in 1403. The castle later passed to the earls of Stafford, who were to become the unlucky dukes of Buckingham during the Wars of the Roses.  The castle was repaired during the conflicts of the 1460's, although its military use would have been somewhat dubious against cannon. In the 1660's James Boyle of Hereford built a new mansion on the north side of the castle, while most of the curtain wall was demolished to improve the views of this new house. The mansion is now used for second-hand bookselling.

The keep is roughly thirty feet square and was once of four storeys.   The corners of the tower have been much rebuilt, probably due to insecure foundations.  The entire south-east corner of the tower has been replaced and it is possible that when first constructed there was a spiral stair here to allow access to the upper floors.  This keep is similar to the one found at Goodrich castle.  

Some time in the twelfth century the powerful curtain wall with gate was added to the rampart around the site.  This gateway is one of the finest carved castle gateways in Wales and is comparable with the much more ornate work at Newcastle Bridgend castle.  The two gates hanging within the gateway, although of different ages, would appear to be very old - the gates at Chepstow castle have been dendrochronologically dated to the reign of Henry II (1154-89).  

Probably during the troubles of the Barons' War a small gatehouse was added in front of the gateway to make a proper gatehouse complete with portcullis.  The portcullis mechanism mounted on the wall walk was reached via a flight of steps up over the back of the gate passageway which also allowed access to the wall walks. 

Hay on Wye town was once enclosed within town walls and there was a chain over the River Wye to stop traffic passing without paying a toll!  The town defences are best preserved on a bank on the east side of the town.

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Copyright©1994-2007 Paul Martin Remfry


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