Brecon Castle - Off the Beaten Track
copyright 2001 by Lise Hull
For years, writers have claimed that virtually nothing survives of Brecon Castle. From the A40 passing south of the cathedral town, one can catch a glimpse of the castle ruins, attached as they seem to be to the Castle Hotel, a fine white structure easily identified from the A-road. By chance, a few months ago, I finally had a reason to head into Brecon, when the Tourist Information Centre coincidentally located a B&B for me in the town - I had requested something a bit farther south. However, the pleasure of exploring this town more than outweighed any inconvenience caused by having to drive a few miles longer the next morning!
After finding my bearings and a pub for lunch and then locating the bed and breakfast inn where I would be staying, I rapidly scurried to the castle to take photos before the light dimmed too much. Much to my delight, I discovered that the remains of Brecon Castle are much more extensive than anything I'd read had led me to believe. Not only does a length of the hall still survive (that piece of masonry visible from the A40) but also a hefty motte and bailey, topped with a shell keep, an 18th century cannon still guarding the confluence of the Rivers Usk and Honddu.
In 1093, William II granted the lordship of Brecon to Bernard de Neufmarche, who established his motte castle to overlook the rivers. At that time, the Welsh leader, Rhys ap Tewdwr, attacked the Norman and his followers, the battle probably taking place about two miles from Brecon. The Normans routed the Welsh, and Neufmarche began building his castle. Rhys may have been killed on the spot where the high altar of the cathedral now stands. Neufmarche also founded the priory at Brecon, which evolved into one of Wales' most historic structures.
Located across the paved lane at the rear of the Castle Hotel, Brecon's first castle consisted of an earthen mound, now rising some 49 feet high, which was defended with timber ramparts. Atop the motte is the ruined Ely Tower, the shell keep associated with Morton, Bishop of Ely. Morton was imprisoned in the tower in 1483, but later was released to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor under Henry VII. Apparently, at one time the shell keep would have resembled the one at Tretower Castle, located about 12 miles to the west of Brecon. It would have consisted of a polygonal shell wall, with a later round keep placed inside.
Opposite the motte and bailey are the remains of the stone castle, added in the 13th century. Sadly, much of the original structure has long since disappeared, after Cromwell's army destroyed the castle after the Civil War in the 17th century; its stonework pilfered for building material.
The solid length of walling identifiable from the A40 is all that survives of the medieval hall at Brecon Castle. A fine set of battlements (possibly reconstructed in the late 18th or early 19th century) lines the uppermost level, while a series of windows pierce its two stories. At the eastern end of the wall stand two adjoining towers, a well-preserved polygonal tower possibly once holding the latrines, and a D-shaped tower which may incorporate more recent masonry.
Brecon Castle was the scene of drama on more than one occasion. The Welsh under Llywelyn the Great attacked the stronghold several times. While never taking the castle, they managed to destroy the town. In 1263, Roger Mortimer surrendered the castle to his Welsh foe, Llywelyn the Last, but Prince Edward (later Edward I) regained custody two years later. Control alternated between the Welsh and the English during the following ten years, and the Welsh again attacked Brecon in 1295. Owain Glyndwr assaulted Brecon Castle in 1405, but did not seize it. Then, in 1483, the Duke of Buckingham organized an unsuccessful rebellion against King Richard III, launching his attack from the castle. In the 1490s, Brecon Castle was the victim of a fire that left it severely damaged. Neglect led to further ruination, although the structure remained substantial enough to be used in the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, most of Brecon's medieval town walls were demolished by Cromwell's troops, but a length can be identified along Captain's Walk, not too far from the castle.
In 1809, the Morgans of Tredegar Park purchased Brecon Castle, and began transforming part of it into a hotel. Today, visitors may wander the grounds of the Castle Hotel and approach the ruined hall block, but the motte itself is now located on private property. Peering in through the gateway, however, one can gain an excellent view of the motte and easily trace the outline of the original castle perimeter.
Brecon itself is a fascinating place, with great personality. The historic market town retains its evocative atmosphere and medieval town plan, highlighted by medieval and Georgian houses, its medieval cathedral (the Priory of St. John the Evangelist), Dominican friary, and several impressive churches (St. Mary's once served the castle's occupants). The castle is freely accessible at any reasonable time.
If you are visiting this part of Wales, take a brief detour off the main roadways that by-pass Brecon. You may consider staying a day - or longer!
Lise Hull is a freelance writer specializing in British heritage. She is currently pursuing her Master's Degree in Heritage Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is located at http://www.castles-of-britain.com.