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Ewyas Harold Castle

HER no. 1499, OS grid ref: SO 3850 2870

Ewyas Harold lies at the southern end of the Golden Valley. The castle, c. 300m west of the church, occupies the end of a spur running out from the west side of the valley.

Description of the site today

This castle is a remarkable example of a motte and bailey earthwork. The almost circular motte measures an average of 74m north-west to south-east and 64m transversely. It rises 13m above the ditch, which separates it from the spur. The motte is 10m above the kidney-shaped bailey. 
There is no indication of a ditch separating the motte and bailey, but it may have been infilled. The bailey is defended by scarp slopes, ramparts and ditches, with an original entrance most likely on the north.

To the south is a lower, outer bailey and excavations within it have provided indications that the original village was located here. Also to the south is an area which once may have contained fishponds.

The motte is built of stones and clay, while stone scattered around the crest may indicate a shell keep. 

Foundation and history of the site

This castle is very important historically, as it is one of only four pre-Conquest castles in the country. Along with Hereford Castle and Richard's Castle, it helps demonstrate the importance of Herefordshire as a border county at the time of the Norman Conquest.

It is unclear why the castle is called Ewyas Harold, but it has been suggested that it was after the first resident lord of the castle, Harold, who founded a religious house against the castle walls. Harold's son Robertus de Ewyas founded the Abbey of Dore at the beginning of Stephen's reign (1135) and built the parish church of Ewyas Harold. (Rev. Charles J. Robinson, Castles of Herefordshire and their Lords)

c.1050: The castle is believed to have been built by Osbern Pentecost. The castle of Osbern is thought to have been built on the existing foundations of an English burgh, laid down a century previously. He built his keep upon the mound and put a wall on the earthworks defending the platform of the lower bailey.

To the Anglo-Saxon natives the idea of building a private fortress so that you might lord it over your tenants was an alien idea, and not one that was welcome. They felt that these castles were a threat to their freedom and gladly supported Earl Godwin in his order that the castles of the Normans be destroyed.

1052: Earl Godwin is returned from exile. Godwin was returned to his power and it was decided that the French lords should be exiled or even executed. Some of the Normans of King Edward the Confessor's court retreated to the castle. They were outlawed and all fled except for Osbern, who surrendered his castle to Earl Leofric. The castle was dismantled and the lands of Ewyas given to Osbern's nephew.

1067-71: The castle is re-fortified by William fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, having been damaged by Earl Godwin or the Welsh. The plan of the new castle appears to have followed the structure of the original, with improvements that the advancement of technology allowed.

pre-1086: Alfred of Marlborough held the land and castle. It had 281 hides of land and was worth £302 4s 0d per annum. At the death of Alfred his daughter was denied claim to his land and the main parts went to Harold of Ewyas and Bernard de Neufmarche. It was probably Robert, the son of Harold, who gave the castle its present name. He was also responsible for its reconstruction.

1100: Harold founded a priory located within the outer bailey of the castle - the foundation charter refers to a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas and served by monks.

Sybilia de Ewyas, the eventual heiress of the castle, married Robert de Tregoz in the early 13th century and Ewyas Harold remained with his descendants until the property became divided at the death of John de Tregoz in 1300. The castle was passed in dowry to Roger de la Warre. When Roger died the castle was seized by the king and Henry IV later granted it to Sir Philip de la Vache, who was made Knight of the Garter in 1309 for his service during the French Wars. 

1403: In this year custody was given to Sir William Beauchamp, Lord of Abergavenny, with the intention that it was to be fortified against Owain Glyn Dwr. From Sir William's heirs it passed to the Nevilles.

1538: It is noted that the castle is "ruinous and gone" (John Leland, Itinerary).

1645: In this year Charles I passed through Ewyas Harold, and Symonds (his antiquarian officer) noted the church and the castle. The castle could have given them no shelter, being in a ruinous state.

Despite being one of the most important castles in the country due to its foundation prior to the Norman Conquest, Ewyas Harold played little part in any events of historical importance. It is possible that King John stayed here during his visits to the Welsh Border, and it may have been Owain Glyn Dwr who reduced it to ruins during his raids into Herefordshire.

Ewyas Harold Castle is featured on the BBC's Hands on History website, which is aimed at families. The Hands on History site also includes free activity packs that families can download.