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Hereford Castle

HER no. 456, OS grid ref: SO 5114 3465

Description of the site today

The modern visitor today will unfortunately no longer find a magnificent building on the site, which is now known as Castle Green. This area is now a recreation area with little of its history still visible. However, the surrounding earthworks and part of the surviving moat give testament to the capacity of the once-defended area.

The castle once occupied a site to the south and east of the city, with the River Wye running along the south and defended on its other three sides by wet moats and high ramparts. These ramparts - and the enormous scale of them - can still be seen clearly today. The post-Conquest castle consisted of a motte with a kite-shaped bailey to the east. The rampart on the north side rises 21½ ft above the water level of the existing moat. To the east, the ground outside is 29 ft below the top of the rampart, the old moat having been replaced by a modern road. On the west side a slight scarp indicates what once would have been the position of the ditch between the bailey and the former motte.

Foundation and history of the site

Hereford Castle is of great importance because it is one of only four known castles in England that date from before the Norman Conquest. The other three are at Clavering in Essex and at Ewyas Harold and Richards Castle, both of which are also in Herefordshire.

1052: The first castle built in Hereford was established by Ralph, son of the Count of Vexin, who was made Earl of Hereford in 1046. He is credited with constructing a castle and Norman garrison sometime before 1052, which enveloped the already established ministry of St. Guthlac. This castle was most probably built of timber.

1055: The castle was overrun by the Welsh, the town and cathedral were burnt and Gruffyd ap Llewellyn took vast spoil and booty. The castle was destroyed.

1066: William fitz Osbern, Lord of Breteuil in Normandy, was created Earl of Hereford. William was ordered to build castles along the Welsh border, and it seems that he certainly restored Hereford Castle, even if he did not entirely rebuild it. The castle (and not the city wall) became the focus of the city's post-Conquest defences.

1067: Edric the Wild, who took everything up to the bridge over the River Lugg, harassed the garrison of the castle.

1071: William fitz Osbern died and his son Roger took over possession of the castle. Roger was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to depose King William; consequently he forfeited the castle, which with a few exceptions remained a royal stronghold for the remainder of its active life.

1100: Henry I ascended to the throne, and before his death nominated his daughter Matilda as his successor. However the Council of Barons did not consider a woman fit to rule the country and offered the throne to the king's nephew and grandson of the conqueror, Stephen de Blois. This action caused many castles to be built along the Marches, and involved Hereford Castle once more in the politics of the nation.

1138: Geoffrey Talbot garrisoned the castle on behalf of Matilda. Stephen de Blois and his men marched on the city and whilst taking the castle "the insurgents set fire to the city and all below the bridge over the Wye was burned down".

1139: Matilda landed in Hereford, and after routing Stephen's men seized the city. During this trouble the burial grounds of St Guthlac's were dug up and used to consolidate the existing defences, and soon afterwards the ministry of St Guthlac's was moved outside of the defences of the castle. Matilda did not regain control of the castle until later in 1139, when both Geoffrey Talbot and Miles of Gloucester besieged the castle.

1154: Matilda's son Henry II granted the motte of Hereford to Roger of Gloucester. However, a rebellion followed and Henry retook possession. For the rest of its history the castle remained royal.

1216: King John made Walter de Lacy Sheriff of the county and granted him the custody of the royal castle at Hereford.

1217: Work was undertaken at Hereford Castle to strengthen it against the Welsh attacks, but by 1218 the threat had passed.

1260s: During the Barons' Wars Hereford Castle became, for a time, the headquarters of the Baronial Party, which had the influential Simon de Montfort as its governor. When the eldest son of the King, Prince Edward, was taken prisoner at the battle of Lewes it was to Hereford that he was brought. Edward was apparently allowed to take exercise on horseback on Widemarsh Common. It was during one of these excursions that Edward, having tired all the guards' steeds, jumped upon a fresh horse and made his escape to Wigmore Castle, the family seat of the Mortimers and a Royalist stronghold.

For the rest of the medieval period the bailey remained an integral part of the royal castle and was built up with service buildings and yards. Records of the castle in 1265 list a number of buildings within the bailey. These included:

  • King's great and small hall
  • Chambers for the King, Queen and their knights
  • A counting house and exchequer
  • Two gaols and a building for siege engines
  • A stable, kitchen and bakery

1642: During the Civil War Herefordshire was very much a Royalist stronghold, though several principal families supported Parliament. In 1642 the Earl of Stamford's men took the city by surprise before retreating to Gloucester. The castle does not appear to have played an independent part during the sieges of the city in the Civil War. Its role at this time seems to be as part of the defensive circuit.

1643: It appears that the defences of the castle required some work, with the water in the ditches being only knee deep.

1645: After the Battle of Naseby, Prince Rupert retreated first to Herefordshire and then on into South Wales. He was followed closely by the Scottish army who were marching under the Earl of Leven. The city was put into a proper state of defence and a garrison installed - 1,000 citizens are said to have taken up arms in a defence that lasted five weeks. King Charles arrived in Hereford in September and the Scots, afraid of a revival of forces, began to disperse.

The decline of the castle

This appears to have been the last action that the castle was to see. It was eventually sold to Sir Richard Harley and several of his friends for "public use and benefit". Harley then granted the castle to the Justices of the Peace of the county and the demolition men moved in.

1752: The magistrates leased the Castle Green to a local organisation called the Society of Tempers, whose aim was to promote amiability and good temper among citizens. This organisation was eventually dissolved in 1831.

1833: The magistrates leased the Green to the city council for a period of 200 years at £1 per annum. The council is still responsible today for the maintenance and upkeep of the area in its present incarnation as a recreation area.

Restoration, repair and decay

From the middle of the 12th century it is evident from accounts that work was carried out on the castle. In 1181 a limekiln was built to provide the materials needed to rebuild a decaying section of the castle wall.

It is thought that the great keep on the western mound was built around the beginning of the 13th century. At about the same time a small tower was built at quite considerable cost. The walls and bridges were beginning to require regular attention during the first half of the 13th century, and in 1239 a new tower was built to replace the old one, which had by now collapsed.
 
Between the years 1250 and 1252 over £100 was spent on various areas of the castle, however a survey in 1254 revealed that this was not enough to correct the many major structural problems the castle now had. The roof of the great tower, as well as the steps leading up to the motte, were now in serious need of repair, as were both of the gates leading into the castle bailey. A more serious problem was the south wall of the bailey, which was in danger of being undermined by the river Wye. The sheriff was allowed to spend £60 on emergency repairs to the wall, which he did by making a quay to protect the castle wall from slipping into the river. 

King John and his successor King Henry III were regular visitors to Hereford, and thus it is certain that the royal apartments in the bailey were kept to a high standard. Improvements in 1245 cost a total of £176 7s 10d - the king's chamber was whitewashed and the queen's lengthened by 20 feet and painted. The queen was also provided with a wardrobe, a fireplace and a privy chamber. In 1256 a new kitchen was built, followed by a new chamber for the king's clerks in the 1260s.

The Edwardian conquest of Wales between 1277 and 1282 meant that Hereford Castle lost much of its importance as a stronghold on the Welsh border, and an inquisition in 1281 recorded that Hugh de Turbeville, while sheriff of Herefordshire, had burnt and destroyed the king's houses, engines of war and military stores within the castle. The reason for this action was not explained.

Surveys in 1291 and 1300 reveal that the roof timbers of the great hall had lost much of their lead and shingle and were beginning to decay as a result. The roof of the county hall was also in need of repair and some 65ft of curtain wall is said to have fallen. The almonry had also been demolished. In 1307 some repairs were made but these do not appear to have been sufficient, for when Queen Isabella came to Hereford in 1326 she was lodged at the Bishop's Palace, presumably because the castle was again in a state of disrepair.

The last major attempt at repair of the castle was made after renewed fighting in Wales following the uprising of Owain Glyn Dwr. Just under £100 was spent but gradually the castle fell into decay and disrepair.

In his Itinerary of 1538, John Leland, the king's antiquary, gives a description of the state of the castle: "The drawbridge is now cleane downe and the whole castel tending towards ruine. It hath bene decayed since the Bohun's time (Edward III), it hath bene one over the fayrest, largest and strongest castels in England." Leland also gives a good description of the decaying defences as they stood in his time: "The walls of it be high and strong, and full of great towres". These towers presumably sat upon the great earthworks that currently run along the north and east sides of the Castle Green and upon the walkway beside the river.

Most of what remained of the castle seems to have been destroyed in the 1650s, and the stone used to build a new dining hall for the Vicars Choral and other buildings within the city.

Although no visible traces of the many buildings of the castle remain on the Green it is still possible after long hot summers to see parch marks in the grass where, not far below the surface, lie some of the ruins of this once-great monument.