The romantic ruins of Brecon Castle overlook the River Usk and the River Honddu in the heart of the town. Designed by the Normans to subdue the hostile Welsh, the castle was once a daunting sight.
The castle is currently in private ownership.
Brecon Castle was the creation of Bernard de Neufmarche in around 1093. The confluence of the Usk and Honddu made this an ideal location for its construction - water was useful for defence, sustenance and for powering the mills.
There were no bridges across the Usk at this time, so the fords were also of strategic importance for the Norman's planned expansion westwards and required defending to keep them open. The upstream ford is still known as Rhyd Bernard and is marked as such on some of the older Ordnance Survey maps.
The earliest castle was a motte and bailey. The great earth mound, now in the Bishop's Palace garden, opposite the Castle Hotel, was the motte on top of which was a timber keep. The bailey or courtyard below the motte extended to cover the present garden and, possibly part of the site of the hotel; the embankment on the north side can be clearly seen in the garden. Even at this early stage the castle must have been a daunting sight. This is exactly what the Normans intended; a deterrent to subdue the hostile Welsh.
The Normans built hundreds of castles in the two centuries after 1066. In almost all cases they started as motte and baileys with timber buildings. But the more important were enlarged and strengthened and this occurred at Brecon.
The castle soon became the administrative and military headquarters of the great Lordship of Brecon. Its important strategic position also warranted making the castle more powerful. The most dramatic alteration was the substitution of stone for timber. The surviving parts of the castle show this well.
Brecon Castle would have had two entrances as well as a postern gate. The main gate faced west and overlooked the Usk and was approached across a drawbridge. It may well have been guarded by two semi-circular towers and a great door and portcullis.
The castle was also guarded by a drawbridge on the site of the present bridge crossing the River Honddu. These gates were joined by the encircling curtain wail which enclosed the whole area of the castle. Within these outer defences the most imposing building was the Great Hall; this was the social centre of the castle and the Lordship, where the Lords of Brecon held court. The private apartments of the Lord were next to the Hall.
There are references to other rooms and buildings contained within medieval documents. For example the Constable and the Receiver (of taxes and dues) had their own chambers. There was a chapel, exchequer, kitchen, harness tower, stable and porter's chamber - the well was described as being 30 feet deep. These descriptions suggest that the castle was more like a small heavily fortified town rather than purely a military base.
People from the surrounding Lordship came to the courts held at the castle to pay their dues to the exchequer and plead for privileges as well as to trade food, timber and other supplies.
Nonetheless there were many occasions when the drawbridges were raised and the castle played its military role as an alien stronghold in a hotly disputed part of the country. It was attacked six times between 1215 and 1273; three of the assaults were successful - in 1215, 1264 and 1265. Much of this warfare was part of the three hundred year struggle between the Normans and the Welsh which began with the conquest and lasted until the Glyndwr revolt.
There was, however, another cause of war in the Marches - the power struggles involving Welsh kings and their barons. The military events which affected Brecon Castle and the town in the 13th Century need to be seen in this wider, national context.
Marcher Lordships differed from the rest of Britain. Lords were able to set up their own system of law. The King had little right to interfere in internal affairs of the Lordship unless the Lord was guilty of treason or felony.
Seat of power
The Lords of Brecon were among the most powerful men in the kingdom - their possessions in this area were only a part of their vast lands. De Neufmarche was succeeded by his daughter Sybil who married the Earl of Hereford and their Brecon estates passed to William de Braose.
They remained in the de Braose family for about a hundred years, then by marriage the Brecon and Hereford lands of the original Lordship were united in the possession of Humphrey de Bohun. The Lordship was in royal hands from the late 14th Century to the middle of the 15th when it was granted to the Staffords who were to be the last Lords of Brecon.
All these families were ambitious politically and this involved them in wars, rebellions and conspiracies. For this reason Brecon in the Middle Ages was often caught up in important events and was much closer to great national issues than in later centuries.
What there is to see at Brecon Castle
On top of the motte are the remains of a shell keep which dates from the middle of the 13th century. The largest surviving structure, next to the hotel, is part of the 13th century Hall. Adjoining the wall on the Honddu side is a semi-octagonal tower of the early 14th century.
Visiting Brecon Castle
Parts of the site have been a hotel since the early 1800s.
How to get there
The castle is in the town of Brecon.
OS grid reference
Brecon Castle Hotel, tel 01874 624611, www.breconcastle.co.uk