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The Middle Wye Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Middle Wye Valley

The Defensive and Military Landscape

The historic landscape area contains a diverse range of defensive sites and structures belonging to the prehistoric, Roman, medieval and modern periods. An important group of hillforts probably represent tribal centres of the pre-Roman Iron Age, including those at Hillis and Pen-rhiw-wen on the low hills to the west of the Llynfi, The Gaer on the river terrace above the Wye at Aberllynfi, at Castell Dinas on a detached hill along the edge of the escarpment of the Black Mountains, at Pendre on the foothills of the Black Mountains behind Talgarth and on Bryn-yr-hydd Common near Llowes, on the low hills to the north of the Wye. The distribution of the forts, like later fortifications in the area, suggests an attempt to control both territory and access. Pen-rhiw-wen overlooks the fording point across the Wye at Llyswen. The Gaer overlooks the fording point at Aberllynfi. Castell Dinas overlooks the pass through the Black Mountains south of Talgarth. The hillforts vary considerably in size, ranging from an area of about 3.6ha enclosed by the defences of Hillis hillfort to about 0.45ha in the case of Aberllynfi Gaer. Several smaller enclosures, including one near Court Llwyfen and a possible example in Gwernyfed Park, may represent smaller defended Iron Age farmsteads.

The Roman fort at Clyro likewise overlooks a traditional fording point of the Wye at Hay, and lies in area of strategic importance on the route between Herefordshire and the Usk valley, to be controlled in the medieval period by the castles at Clyro and Hay. The fort appears to date to the early conquest period and seems to have been fairly short-lived, possibly belonging to the campaigns against the native tribe of the Silures between AD 50-60. A possible Roman marching camp has been identified by aerial photography further to the south-west.

Little if anything is known of defensive structures in the area during the early medieval period. The site of the supposed royal princely courts at Talgarth is unknown, and it is uncertain in what manner it might have been defended. It has been suggested that the hillfort at Pen-rhiw-wen might represent the llys at Llyswen, but this is unproven, as is the suggestion that the larger outer bailey at Bronllys marks the precinct of the pre-conquest llys or court which is assumed to have existed here.

The most remarkable series of defensive structures in the Middle Wye Valley belong to the Norman conquest period and to the subsequent holding of the territory by the marcher lords. The distribution of sites is generally on the low-lying ground following the Wye and Llynfi, and corresponds to the areas where the English-held manors were established. The exception is the stone castle at Castell Dinas, set within the defences of the Iron Age hillfort on the edge of the Black Mountains, which at over 450m is the highest medieval castle in England and Wales. The earliest castles were earth and timber motte and bailey castles, built to defend and administer the lordships and manors established after the conquest spearheaded by Bernard de Neufmarché in the 1080s. The newly-conquered territory in Brycheiniog was initially divided into lesser lordships as gifts to knights who had rendered service during the conquest, and who in turn granted various manors to tenants from their English estates who became settlers in return for rendering service.

Earth and timber castles of varying sizes belonging perhaps primarily to the late 11th and 12th centuries are known at Aberllynfi, Bronllys, Hay, Llanthomas, Garn-y-castell, Tredustan, Trefecca, possibly Clyro, Castle Kinsey at Court Evan Gwynne, the former motte at Glasbury, Castle Tump near Llowes, possibly the ringwork at Cefn Bank near Trefecca Fawr, and finally Boughrood Castle, which lies just outside the historic landscape area. Some of these early castle are associated with defended baileys, as in the case of Bronllys, Tredustan, Trefecca, Court Evan Gwynne, Aberllynfi, but in other instances the mottes appear to stand alone. Castle Tump near Llowes appears to be associated with a rectangular cropmark enclosure, which may however be of Roman date. The history of many of these early castles is poorly documented though the mottes at both Hay and Bronllys undoubtedly belong to the 1090s, though Hay is first mentioned in 1121 as castello de haia, Garn-y-castell is possibly referred to in 1150, Glasbury Castle in the 1180s and Aberllynfi in 1233.

Bronllys castle was possibly superimposed upon one of the pre-conquest seats of power, but many of the other early castles appear to have been set up on new sites. Hay castle was strategically sited at one of the main fording points of the Wye, land access into the Middle Wye being controlled by both Hay and Clyro castles. The mottes at Glasbury and Boughrood and Llowes each possibly controlled other fording points across the Wye, whilst Bronllys, Aberllynfi, Tredustan, and Trefecca were sited along the Llynfi. A few of the early castles were sited on much higher ground, such as Garn-y-castell, on a spur below Mynydd Troed, possibly also for strategic reasons.

These more numerous early castles of the conquest period were superseded during the 13th century by fewer but more strongly defended stone castles that could withstand a prolonged siege, the marcher lords showing considerable achievement in adopting the latest styles of military fortification which in some instances were based on ideas borrowed from northern France. The first masonry castle at Hay was a ringwork and rectangular stone tower built at the very end of the 12th century, which underwent a number of periods of rebuilding and repair throughout the 13th century. A fire in an earlier stone tower at Bronllys is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in 1175, the surviving round stone tower and walled inner bailey probably dating to the mid 13th-century, the tower being heightened in the 14th century to allow for domestic accommodation. Boughrood Castle had stone tower in 1205, and although little is known of the form or early history of Clyro Castle it evidently possessed a stone structure set on a motte-like platform, the castle being mentioned in 1397. The stone walls and probably stone keep of Castell Dinas, also known as Bwlchyddinas, set within the earthwork defences of a prehistoric hillfort, probably belong to the late 12th or early 13th century. The square Tower House in the centre of Talgarth probably dates to the 14th century, and seems to have been intended to defend the crossing of river Ennig and the town, which had been granted borough status in the early 14th century. The tower house, probably three-storeys high and with a pyramidal roof, was described by Leland in the early 16th century as 'a little prison'. It is one of only a handful of similar structures in Wales. The medieval town defences at Hay, dating from the earlier 13th century, were much more substantial. A strong wall with three gates were noted by Leland in the earlier 16th century of which little is now visible, much having already gone by the early 19th century. The line of the medieval defences is suggested around parts of the town by the road pattern and by property boundaries, however, and in one stretch adjacent to the former Water Gate on the east side of the town by a more recent wall which seems to have been built out of earlier masonry.

The later history of many of the castles is unclear, though several including Hay, Castell Dinas, Bronllys and Clyro were provisioned during the Glyndwr rebellion in 1403, the outer bailey of Bronllys being repaired as late as 1410. The castles ceased to have much military purpose after the early years of the 15th century, and by the mid 16th century most were probably already in a poor state, Leland recording that Bronllys was already beyond repair in 1521. A number were superseded by later gentry houses, such as the mansion built against the keep of Hay castle in about 1660, and the house built within the outer bailey of Bronllys Castle in the late 18th century.

A further important element in the history of defensive sites in the Middle Wye is the notable concentration of moated sites in the area which would have enclosed important timber or stone houses, whether for defence or show. The sites represent a significant element in the local settlement pattern and probably representing the rise of a class of sub-tenants of the feudal marcher lords in perhaps the 13th and 14th centuries. Probable moated sites which have been identified in the area include the following: Hillis, south of Llanfilo; Llanfilo village to the south of the church; in the village of Bronllys; Cwrt-coed west of Trefithel; and Lower House to the north-east of Clyro. Two of the moated sites, Bronllys and Llanfilo, are associated with church settlements.

The end of the tradition of fortified houses in the area is represented by the gatehouse at Porthamel, north of Talgarth, one of the greater medieval manor house of the area, and is a rare survival of medieval domestic gatehouse. The name of the house is derived from the Welsh Porth-aml ('many doored'), the late 15th-century two-storey sandstone gatehouse being described by Leland in the earlier 16th-century as 'a fair gate and strong waul embateled', referring to the walled precinct around the house, with wall walk and parapet, which had been demolished by the early 19th century. The gatehouse, in high quality stonework, is a feature of a number of more imposing 16th-century borderland houses.

An unusual element in the defensive and military landscapes of the Middle Wye is represented by the earthworks of ditches dug around tents of the Brecon Militia during their summer camp on the south side of Rhos Fach Common in the 1870s. Even the Second World War has left its mark on the historic landscape, including the now-demolished observation post set up on the motte at Hay, bomb craters near Cockalofty, and the extensive repairs to Llanigon church necessitated by a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe in 1941.

The Middle Wye historic landscape area contains a wide range of important defensive and military landscapes which raise a broad range of management and conservation issues. The defences of many of the prehistoric hillforts, medieval motte and baileys, ring-works and moated sites have been subjected in the past to ploughing, quarrying, ditch digging, road and railway construction, and housing development, which have resulted in the loss of archaeological information about the form of the sites and when and how they were occupied. Other sites, such as Castle Tump near Llowes, are potentially vulnerable to river erosion at some date in the future. A number of the sites, and perhaps especially the deeper ditches encircling hillforts, mottes and moated sites, are likely to contain waterlogged deposits which preserve important environmental information. A further issue which needs to be considered is the visual siting of monuments, since the prominent aspect which many of the monuments were intended to have within the landscape can often be considerably diminished by unsympathetic development in the immediate environs.

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