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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape
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Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Usk Valley: Brecon
Brecon community, Powys
(HLCA 1172)


Large nucleated settlement of medieval origin alongside the river Usk, first established in the late 11th century alongside the castle built by Bernard de Newmarché following the Norman conquest, later becoming one of the largest towns in Wales in the 17th century and the county town of Breconshire. It continued to expand and develop as important regional commercial and administrative centre throughout the 18th and 19th from its position at the hub of regionally important road, canal and railway networks, though eclipsed in industrial and economic importance by the rapid rise of the industrial town and cities of south Wales in the later 19th century.

Historic background

Early settlement and land use in the vicinity of the town is suggested by a number of both Bronze Age and Roman chance finds. The course of the Roman road from Brecon Gaer to Abergavenny is thought to run along the north bank of the Usk, through the area now occupied by the town, but no evidence of its physical presence has been identified so far. There is documentary evidence to suggest that a dilapidated or abandoned pre-Norman church lay on the site later occupied by the subsequent Benedictine priory. Although the status of this early church and any associated secular settlement is uncertain is has been suggested that it may have been monastic in origin and encompassed by a circular llan (‘enclosure’).

An earth and timber castle was probably established in the late 11th century or early 12th century by the Norman lord, Bernard de Newmarché, shortly after the conquest of the kingdom of Brycheiniog in 1093, which became the administrative centre of his newly-created marcher lordship of Brecknock. Religious institutions associated with the early settlement included a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas within the castle and the Benedictine priory that was founded to the north of the castle before 1106. This included the priory church subsequently to be dedicated to St John the Evangelist which shortly after its foundation was granted with lands in the lordship to Battle Abbey (Sussex). Like monastic churches elsewhere the priory church was also used as a parish church and from the early 15th century it became known as the Church of the Holy Rood after the ornate rood screen celebrated by pilgrims to the church.

Brecon, the English name of the town, is a shortening of Brycheiniog or its English or Latin derivatives; Aberhonddu, its Welsh name, is taken from that of the Afon Honddu, the river which joins the river Usk towards the centre of the town and divides the eastern part of the town from that on the west. The settlement was besieged by Llewelyn ab Iorwerth in 1217 and laid waste by him in 1231 and 1233. It subsequently recovered, being provided with defences in perhaps the early to mid 13th century and received a series of charters in the period between the 1276 and 1517. It became a regionally important religious centre, forming the focus of the archdeaconry of Brecon. The castle was temporarily taken by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the Welsh war or independence in 1263. It was again attacked in 1404 during the course of the Glyndŵr uprising.

The town was designated as one of the four regional capitals of Wales by the Act of Union in 1536 and during the 1540s, Christ College, a secular college and grammar school were attached to the Dominican friary, which had been established by the mid 13th century, its church dedicated to St Nicholas. Both the Dominican friary and the Benedictine priory were dissolved in 1537–38, the priory church subsequently continuing in use as a parish church and becoming a cathedral church in 1923 upon the creation of the new diocese of Swansea and Brecon. The town continued to flourish during the 16th to 18th centuries, initially under the influence of the wool trade, being described by George Owen in the early years of the 17th century as ‘a bigge towne faire built’. It underwent further expansion as a commercial, industrial, legal, administrative and judicial centre and as a military garrison town in the later 18th and 19th centuries. The town expanded in response to the development of the turnpike road network from the later 18th century, the coming of the canal at the beginning of the 19th century, and tramroads and railways during the course of the 19th century. It remained a prominent county town from its geographical siting within the middle Usk valley, but it declined in national importance from the later 19th century following the growth of the south Wales coalfield and the expansion of the south Wales ports. Brecon remained the county town of Brecknockshire until the creation of the new county of Powys in the local government reorganisation of 1974, and is still the administrative centre of the Brecon Beacons National Park, designated in 1957.

Key historic landscape characteristics

The town of Brecon is sited on an alluvial fan deposited by the river Honddu at the point where it met the floor-plain of the Usk, the alluvial cone having later become incised by the Honddu which now forms part of a wooded walk known as Priory Groves. Brecon occupies an important position at the confluences of the Usk, Honddu and Tarell. There are several important historic fording points across the Usk here which are still usable at low water. The original settlement was centred on the early earthen motte and bailey castle and Benedictine priory (the later cathedral church of St John) on the north bank of the Usk, west of the Afon Honddu river. The original timber tower was rebuilt in stone as the partly surviving keep (Ely Tower) in about the late 12th century, other parts of the defences also rebuilt in stone at this period or in the 13th or 14th centuries including the curtain wall and towers and gateways, parts of which were still visible in the mid 18th-century but which are no longer visible above ground level. Early stone buildings made use of Roman building materials taken from Brecon Gaer, just under 4 kilometres to the west.

The main area of the medieval borough was subsequently laid out to the east of the Afon Honddu, presumably superimposed upon former farmland, the street pattern of the medieval town including a large triangular area used as the market square being still strongly reflected in that of the commercial core at the present day. This eastern portion of the town was provided with defences in perhaps the early to mid 13th century which comprised town walls with interval towers and gates at Struet Gate to the north, Watton Gate to the east, Bridge or West Gate leading to a bridge across the Usk, and Watergate leading to a bridge across the Honddu on the north-west. St Mary’s church, in the centre of the town, probably dates from the later 12th century, but only become a parish church in 1923. The town defences appear to have been still relatively intact at the beginning of the 17th century but together with the castle were partially destroyed during course of the Civil War in the 1640s. A number of the medieval gates were ordered to be removed in 1775 to improve the flow of traffic. The southern suburb of Llanfaes, to the south of the Usk may have emerged by the end of the 12th century. The present parish church and former chapel dedicated to St David at Llanfaes have been in existence since at least the 1180s, on the site of the present church built in 1924. A medieval hospital and chapel dedicated to St Catherine were also established on the eastern outskirts of the town near the Watton, which appear to have disappeared above ground level by the end of the 17th century.

There are fine medieval remains at the castle, cathedral and abbots lodging, St Mary’s church, and at Christ College but there is now little surviving evidence above ground level of the medieval period in domestic buildings. The castle is sited in the angle between the Usk and Honddu with a bridge over the Honddu linking it with the town. The remains of the castle consist of mound, with ruinous late 12th-century keep; attached to the present Castle Hotel is the ruined great hall of about 1280. The line of the town walls remains, but the extent of medieval survival is debated. Sections behind the council offices in Bulwark, and also in Captain’s Walk (as well as a gateway there) are scheduled monuments, but a study currently under way casts doubt on their being medieval. To the north of the historic centre the walled cathedral precinct forms one of the most important medieval groups in Wales. The Benedictine priory church of St John the Baptist was founded in 1093, but the present building dates from the 13th century and 14th century. Although sited away from the town centre it was the parish church and housed the town’s guild chapels and has important funerary monuments. Conventual buildings include the Canonry, partly on the line of a medieval cloister range with some ancient fabric, and the Deanery which incorporates the medieval Abbot’s Lodgings and perhaps guest hall. The Almonry too has some medieval fabric, but although the adjacent gateway is medieval, the walls of the precinct may be as late as the 18th century. The Priory became a cathedral only in 1923 when its parish functions were transferred to St Mary’s. The medieval St Mary’s church was originally a chapel of ease to St John’s, and its fine tower of 1510-20 dominates the town centre.

The surviving suggest a period of rapid development 1570-1630, and again in the last quarter of the 17th century for about 50 years. A possible slow down in central fifty years of 18th century was followed by a boom from around 1790 to around 1850. This pattern is common to many country towns in Wales and England. The buildings give an overall impression of a long history of prosperity as Brecon fulfilled the tradition roles of county town, agricultural centre, and garrison town (the Barracks were developed in the early 19th century). Gentry town houses survive particularly in Lion Street, The Struet and Glamorgan Street. Brecon has particularly fine domestic interiors including panelling and exceptional staircases from the earlier 17th century to the mid 19th century. The town held balls and theatrical performances (the great tragic actress Sarah Siddons was born here in 1755). The shell of a theatre survives as well as the ‘great rooms’ of inns where balls and performances took place. Architecturally, the town gives an overall impression of being Georgian in character, with small-pane sash windows, classical doorcases and detailing, and often smooth render, but the continuous prosperity of the town meant constant rebuilding so that many of the buildings in the historic centre contain fragments of earlier buildings on their sites.

In the post-medieval period the town expanded beyond its medieval limits, particularly in the Pendre area on the north-west, in the area of Llanfaes to the south-west and in the Dering Lines area to the east, probably overlying former areas of medieval open-field cultivation associated with the medieval town. These open-fields appear to be denoted within the drawn boundaries of the character area by traces of ridge and furrow cultivation, in the playing fields just to the south of Christ College, and by a suggestion of a relict pattern of strip fields in the area of the playing fields and sport grounds south of the Watton, on the level ground north of the Usk. Low-lying land in the vicinity of Llanfaes that was previously subject to frequent flooding is now protected by flood defences built in 1983.

The buildings and townscapes of the town provide a valuable record of its economic and social history. An element of social stratification had evidently already developed in the town by the 16th and 17th centuries, the period of the earliest surviving buildings in the town, which has resulted in the presence of larger and more affluent town houses in Glamorgan Street, for example, and workers’ housing with narrower street frontages in Ship Street and parts of Llanfaes. The town became an important focus for nonconformist worship from the later 17th century onwards, surviving early to later 19th-century chapels within the town, some of which have now been converted to other uses, including Bethel Chapel (1852), Plough Chapel (1841) and the Presbyterian Chapel (1866) at the Watton.

There are relatively few visible surviving remains of Brecon’s important transport and industrial history. Several bridges or bridge sites of medieval origin across the Usk and Honddu survive within the town, including Usk Bridge, Castle Bridge, Watergate Bridge and Priory Bridge. The 7-arched Usk Bridge dates from 1573, although modified in 1794 and 1801. A number of inns such as the Castle, the Bell, the Wellington Hotel and the Golden Lion developed as coaching inns the later 18th and 19th centuries following the development of the turnpike road network from the later 18th century. The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal (now called the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal) which opened in 1800 was of particular importance in the transport and distribution of coal and lime from south Wales. It terminated at a complex of wharfs, dry docks, lime shed and other buildings at the Watton, most of which have now disappeared above ground level. There are likewise few surviving remains of age of tramroad and rail transport in Brecon, represented by the opening of the Hay Tramroad in 1818, the Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway in 1862, the Brecon and Merthyr Railway in 1865 and the Neath and Brecon Railway in 1872. The Brecon and Merthyr Railway at first opened a station at the Watton (on a site now occupied by offices) and the Neath and Brecon Railway a temporary station at Mount Street, but a joint station was subsequently opened at Free Street in 1871 (on a site now occupied by the fire station). Commercial traffic on the canal ceased in the 1930s but continues to form an important focus for tourism and leisure activities. The railways ceased to carry both freight and passengers in the early 1960s.

Industrial sites associated with the use of water power include several early watermill sites on the Usk and Afon Honddu and originating in the medieval period, including the corn mill and malt mill called Castle or Honddu Mill, a former saw mill below Castle Bridge on the Honddu, and the site of a former fulling mill, now demolished, near Priory Bridge. Canal-side limekilns were established at a number of points along the southern margins of the town.


CPAT Historic Environment Record; Alban and Thomas 1993; Bacon 1995; Beresford 1988; Burnham 1995; Carter 1965; Charles 1938; Colvin 1963; Cowley 1977; Creighton and Higham 2005; Davies 1992; Davies 2000; Gant 1972; Glynne 1887; Griffiths 1978; Gwynne-Jones 1992; Hadfield 1967; Haslam 1979; Jones, T. 1909-40; King 1961; Knowles and Hadcock 1971; Jepson 1997; Lewis 1833; Lloyd 1903; McPeake and Moore 1978; Morgan 1989; Morgan and Powell 1999; Norris 1991; Parri 2003; Parry 1981; 1985; 1991; Plowman and Smith 1992-93; Poole 1886; Powell 1993; RCAHMW 1994; Redwood 2000; Rees 1916; Silvester 1993; Silvester and Dorling 1993; Smith 1906; Soulsby 1983; Taylor 1951; Thomas 1967; Thomas 1991; 1993; Turner 1971; Walker 1993

For further information please contact the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust at this address, or link to the Countryside Council for Wales' web site at

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