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Castles in Herefordshire

The early period and timber castles

Herefordshire is an important county for the study of the development of the Norman Castle. Its position as a county on the Welsh border and the aggression of the Welsh princes quickly established it as a district of importance for frontier control after the Norman Conquest of England.

Once the Norman Conquest was completed each major landowner was allowed to build a castle as his main seat of power, which he held from - and on behalf of  - the King.

The earliest castles in Herefordshire after the Conquest were nearly all built of timber. This typical early Norman stronghold included a moated mound or motte, which would often have a wooden palisade (wall) and a timber tower, maybe even three storeys high. The motte may have had a court (or bailey) attached, which was often defended by ditches and palisades. The palisade could sometimes be further strengthened by the addition of towers or turrets.

The bailey was where the residential and commercial buildings of the castle would stand. These buildings would include workshops for the carpenters and blacksmiths, stables for the lord's horses, and storage buildings for supplies.

There are many castle sites in Herefordshire where the motte is little more than a mound with a surrounding ditch, but with no sign of an outer bailey. Such sites are known as castle moundstumps and twts. There is very rarely any sign of stonework on these sites and they may have been constructed as temporary defences at times of war (see for example Castle Twts, Kington, Historic Environment Record no. 347).

The extensive castle building by the Normans in Herefordshire before the Conquest caused friction among the natives, and when Godwin, Earl of Hereford returned from exile (he had been exiled for raising troops against King Edward the Confessor and disobeying his orders) he demanded that the Normans be banished and their castles destroyed. Many of the Norman lords fled but Osbern Pentecost remained and surrendered his castle at Ewyas Harold (HER no. 1499). The castle was dismantled in 1052.

In the Domesday Survey of 1086, 50 castles and two domus defensabiles (fortified manors) were mentioned in England. Of these, twelve (or one-quarter) are on the Welsh border with seven of the castles and both domus defensabiles being in Herefordshire. This demonstrates the importance of Herefordshire as a frontier zone. The need to conquer and consolidate in this county was stronger than in most other parts of England.

As Herefordshire was on the border with Wales it was important that the Normans install an efficient form of defence. Wales had not been conquered and the Normans were well aware of the power of the Welsh and the trouble that they could cause, so the Herefordshire border and its new castles were to act as a buffer zone between the conquered and the "rabble".

In 1067 the Norman king, William the Conqueror, put his cousin William fitz Osbern in charge of a castle-building regime in Herefordshire. In the four years between 1067 and the death of William fitz Osbern in 1071 he rebuilt the castles at Ewyas Harold and Hereford (HER no. 456) and built significant new castles at Clifford (HER no. 713) and Wigmore (HER no. 179). The lords of these new castles then gave sections of land to their knights in return for periods of military service. This regime split the county into castelries, creating a semi-military feudal system.

Henry I (1100-1135) had only one true heir, his daughter Matilda, though there were many pretenders (claimants), his nephew Stephen being one of them. When Henry died Stephen quickly crossed the border into Scotland and had himself crowned as King. People opposed to him quickly pledged their allegiance to Matilda and between 1139 and 1148 there was civil war in this country.

In 1138-9 King Stephen campaigned in the county, but Herefordshire was held by Matilda. Matilda garrisoned Hereford Castle against Stephen and rebuilt many castles along the Marches. Stephen marched on Hereford, and whilst taking the castle burnt the city and all below the River Wye. Matilda arrived soon after and overpowered Stephen's men. She created a new earldom in Hereford for Miles of Gloucester, one of her most loyal supporters. Miles' son Roger, along with Hugh de Mortimer and Gilbert De Lacy, were the chief barons when Matilda's son Henry came into power in 1154. These barons were responsible for building Aymestrey (HER no. 1701) and Longtown (HER no. 1036) castles, among others.

Another major period of castle building occurred around 1403, when the Welsh rebel Owain Glyn Dwr exposed Herefordshire to the risk of invasion by the Welsh and Henry IV, worried about the state of the border defences, ordered many castles to be re-fortified. Ewyas HaroldGoodrich (HER no. 349),Eardisley (HER no. 1073), Snodhill (HER no. 1557), Lyonshall (HER no. 355), Huntington (HER no. 944) and Brampton Bryan (HER no. 191) were all warned of the danger of not being prepared for Welsh attack. They were ordered to equip themselves with men, stores, arms and artillery. Unfortunately, Owain Glyn Dwr and the Welsh still took many castles in this area.

Timber is a very vulnerable material, prone to decay and damage by fire, and because of this all that survives of the many timber fortifications of the county are their earthworks. Even so, the ease of building in timber means that there are over 3,000 of these around the country that were built in the 150 years after the Conquest, compared to the 500-600 stone castles built between 1066 and the end of the medieval period.

A final, late period of castle building occurred during the English Civil War between King Charles II and Parliament (1642-1647). Herefordshire nobles were mainly on the side of the Royalist cause, with the notable exception of the Harleys of Brampton Bryan, who were Parliamentarians. Some castles were refortified but some were deliberately damaged to prevent the enemy from occupying them. Examples of this destruction to foil the enemy occur at Goodrich Castle, which had been occupied by both Parliamentarians and Royalists, and Croft Castle (HER no. 6347), which was slighted by Irish levies employed by Royalists.

Unfortunately the slighting of the castles meant that there was now a good supply of building stone available for other buildings. This has made the identification and study of castles very difficult. The best-preserved castles often survive in places where the surrounding town decayed once the castle lost its purpose and the lord no longer lived there (for example Clifford and Goodrich). In flourishing towns such as Hereford the stone from the castle was re-used for new buildings (such as the College of the Vicars Choral at Hereford Cathedral) and other works, and the castle all but disappeared.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]