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Brampton Bryan Castle

HER no. 191, OS grid ref: SO 3700 7260

The village of Brampton Bryan is situated in the north-west corner of Herefordshire. The castle ruins are on a floodplain south of the River Teme, 50m north of the church. From this site the castle guarded an important route from Ludlow along the Teme Valley to Knighton and on into central Wales.

The castle was built at the point where the valley narrowed between the heights of Brampton Bryan Park on the south and Coxall Knoll (an Iron Age fort) to the north. This area has been important since Roman times, and three Roman forts are situated within 2.5km to the east.

Description of the site today

The monument includes the ruined earthwork and buried remains of the quadrangular castle. The medieval layout appears to have been of four ranges built around a courtyard, with a gatehouse contained within the southern curtain wall, to which a large outer gatehouse was added. The whole monument was constructed on a motte and surrounded by a moat, with the approach to the castle being from the south across a bridge to the gatehouse.

The north range contained the hall and service bay, both at first floor level, with the kitchen to the east. Private accommodation was found in the other ranges, with further chambers above the gate passage of the inner gatehouse and on the first floor of the outer gatehouse.

Unfortunately landscaping for the later house and gardens has obscured the full extent of the castle buildings. The steep slope to the north of the hall range wall, which now continues eastwards along the edge of the garden, probably represents the original northern extent of the motte.

The standing remains are built out of local sandstone rubble and ashlar, and are listed as Grade I. These ruins represent several phases of construction, and include the outer gatehouse, part of the inner gatehouse and part of the south wall of the hall and kitchen range. The earliest documentary evidence tells us that Bryan de Brampton had a "tower with curtilage" on this site in 1295.

The barbican

The barbican consists of two semi-circular towers and their stretches of curtain wall which connect them to the gatehouse. The towers are of two storeys with a height of approximately 25ft to their battlements and a circumference of c.5m.

The entrance to the castle is through these towers via a 13th century pointed archway. The towers on either side of the barbican entrance contain window-loops. These are very small and would be almost useless for defensive purposes or for letting light through. Therefore it has been suggested that their purpose was simply for decoration. 

The east and west towers provide access to the guard chambers. The door of the east tower appears to be of standard 13th century design. The west tower is entered via an archway underneath the entrance to the first floor. Its ground floor is almost circular and contains a well, which has now been almost completely filled in.

The eastern tower of the barbican has a passage which leads to a garderobe chamber to the north, housed in a square projection from the curtain wall. The room has one small light, a garderobe chute and a medieval fireplace. This suggests that this tower once provided living accommodation for a member of the castle staff.

The first floor of the barbican towers can only be reached by the mural staircase in the western curtain wall. The steps of this staircase are high and difficult to climb, while at the top is a coffin-shaped doorway. The first floor incorporates both the east and west towers as one; the west side has two windows with miniature seats.

The parapet gives the illusion of military function but in reality the 18 inch walkway and battlements would have been next to useless in times of attack.

The gatehouse

The great hall and inner gatehouse of the current structure are thought to be the earliest stages of construction, which were either Bryan de Brampton's work or were built shortly after 1309, when the castle passed to Robert Harley by his marriage to de Brampton's daughter Margaret.

The inner gatehouse projected inwards from the southern curtain wall, which still stands to its east and west, and its north and south wall stand almost to their full original height. Two arches through the wall form the entrance, with an opening for a portcullis between them. An early example of ballflower work can still be seen over the inner arch. 

There is a single arch at the northern exit of the gateway passage, to the east of which is a contemporary doorway and to the west the shell of a 16th century stair turret. The first floor would have housed the portcullis, and contains a single chamber, with a garderobe or latrine closet. Single windows, both with seats in their embrasures, flank a fireplace in the north wall. With the construction of the outer gatehouse two doorways were inserted into the south wall of the inner gatehouse, giving access to the upper staircases and walkway along the top of the outer gatehouse walls. At second floor level the single chamber in the inner gatehouse also has a fireplace and garderobe.

The outer gatehouse was added sometime later in the 14th century. The gateway in its south wall consists of two arches enclosing a portcullis groove. Two round towers flank this entrance, each of c.5m external diameter and with two storeys remaining. On the ground floor the east tower contains a polygonal chamber, with a fireplace in the south-west quarter with a single window to the west, and a garderobe to the north of the passage doorway.

The first floor chamber is open to a portcullis room over the gate arch, and has two windows and a gardrobe above the one on the ground floor. The portcullis room itself has a fireplace in the north wall. The west tower houses a circular chamber at ground level, with a well at its centre now infilled. The chamber above has two windows, one with ballflower ornament.

The remains of the hall and kitchen are c.12m north of the inner gatehouse. The courtyard, which separated them, was cut through within the last century to provide access between the later house to the west and the tennis courts to the east. All that remains of the hall block is part of the original 14th century south wall, and the three-storied 16th century staircase bay enclosing the original doorway. Both the hall and the service bay were at ground level and lit by windows facing onto the courtyard. The kitchen was at basement level and rose through two floors.

The staircase bay and the stair-turret were part of the considerable alterations begun in the 16th century by Thomas Harley. His intention was to increase the comfort and convenience of the castle to be that of a home rather than a military stronghold. 

Foundation and history of the site

1086: Brampton Bryan Castle is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 as part of the estate of Ralph de Mortimer. The date of the foundation of the castle is uncertain and may well have been some years after the Conquest of 1066.

1179: The de Bramptons were involved with Hugh de Mortimer in the foundation of the Abbey at Wigmore. The second stone was laid by Bryan de Brampton and the third by his son John.

1294: Bryan de Brampton (not the same as mentioned above) died and his daughter Margaret married Robert Harley. For almost 700 years since this date the castle has remained in the Harley family.

In the Wars of the Roses the Harleys took the field under the banner of the House of York due to their friendship with the Mortimers, and fought at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1461. The Harleys also fought in the battle against the Scots at Flodden in 1514.

1295: The earliest reference to a building at Brampton Bryan is in 1295 when the castle was described as having a tower with curtilage, a garden and a vivary. It was described as being worth £8 7s 8d per annum. The castle was held under the Mortimers, there being a yearly rent of 13s 4d and guard duty, which was due at Wigmore Castle for 40 days in wartime.

1603-: Sir Robert Harley was noted for his wit, learning, piety and his austere and decided character. He was very much a Puritan, was made Knight of the Bath and represented the counties of Radnorshire and Herefordshire in various Parliaments of James I and Charles I. As a member of these Parliaments Robert Harley was required to move away from Brampton Bryan and reside in London. It was left to his wife Brilliana to deal with the estate and the problems of being a Puritan in a Royalist area. The moat was filled and the services of a veteran sergeant called Hackluyt enlisted.

1642: The castle was almost entirely destroyed during the Civil War. It is apparent that the castle was still a defensive structure at the start of the Civil War: it was surrounded by a moat which could be filled with water, and approached by a drawbridge to the south. The Civil War tested the Harley family to their limits. During the war Herefordshire was very much a Royalist county. There were a few exceptions among some of the principal families, notably the Harleys. At this time Sir Robert Harley was married to his third wife, Brilliana, who was the second daughter of Viscount Conway.

1643: Sir William Vavasour, Royalist governor for the area, tried to persuade Brilliana to surrender her position but she refused. On 26 July Sir William Vavasour, Henry Lingen, Sir Walter Pye and William Smallman, supported by men on horseback and on foot, surrounded Brampton Bryan. 

On 30 July the church in front of the gatehouse was lost to the attackers and a great gun installed in the steeple. This gun was used to fire at the castle but, fortunately for Brilliana, to little avail. The Royalists then turned their attention to the village and burnt down the castle mills, 40 houses, the parsonage and the church. Despite the frenzied attacks of the Royalists the defenders suffered few casualties compared to the 60 deaths suffered by the opposition. (Ron Shoesmith, Castles & Moated Sites of Herefordshire, Logaston Press, p. 60)

On 9 September Colonel Lingen withdrew to Gloucester, leaving a castle of which "the roof ... was battered so that there was not one dry room in it".

Brilliana's piety and trust in God helped her to withstand the attacks by the Royalists. In her letters she wrote, "the Lord would show the men of the world that it is hard fighting against Heaven", and described her besiegement as "God's cause in which it would be an honour to suffer". Brilliana died in 1643, the victim of ill health brought on by the siege. 

1644: The castle was attacked by Sir Michael Woodhouse. Brampton Bryan's defence was strong but the attackers made clever use of mines and better artillery. The defenders finally surrendered and the buildings were sacked and burnt. The prisoners were transferred to Shrewsbury.

A couple of years later the Royalist cause was lost. Sir Robert Harley returned to Brampton Bryan and was able to claim recompense for damage done to the castle. His claim was granted at a sum of £13,000 pounds (£1,000 of which was for a study of books). This was a substantial amount, especially when compared to the sum of £1,000 pounds that was granted to Goodrich.

The castle remained in its ruined and burned state until the death of Sir Robert Harley in 1657. It has been the family seat of the Harleys from 1309 up to the present day.