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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


The secular landscape

The historic landscape area is thought to have fallen within the territory of the Silures, a pre-Roman tribe which occupied south-east Wales during the course of the Iron Age. Tribal organisation at this period is probably reflected locally in a number of large and prominent hillforts throughout the area including those at Coed Fenni-fach, Pen-y-crug, Slwch Tump and Allt yr Esgair.

The area was conquered by the Roman army and became integrated within the Roman empire in about AD 75, the conquest period and the period of Roman occupation being represented by the Roman fort and possible temporary camp at Brecon Gaer, to the west of Brecon. It has been suggested that its Roman name, Cicucium, given in the Ravenna Cosmography, might derive from a Celtic root describing its topographical setting as a breast. Brecon Gaer lies at the hub of a system of strategic military Roman roads, running southwards in the direction of Ystradgynlais (Powys), northwards towards Llandrindod Wells, south-eastwards along the Usk valley to Abergavenny (Monmouthshire), north-eastwards to Kenchester (Herefordshire) and south-westwards to Llandovery (Carmarthenshire). Inscribed Roman milestones indicate that the road between Brecon Gaer and Llandovery was maintained into at least the later 3rd century and the road between Brecon Gaer and Abergavenny up to at least about the middle of the 4th century. Apart from a civil settlement which became attached to Brecon Gaer no large centres of population were established in the area during the Roman period and consequently the area appears to have remained under military control and administration until the end of the period of Roman rule in the early 5th century, though the presence of the high-status complex at Maesderwen, near Llanfrynach, points to the establishment of Roman landed estates in the area during the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The 6th-century commemorative stone known as the Victorinus Stone (now in Brecknock Museum) was found to the south-east of Scethrog on the probable line of the Abergavenny to Brecon Gaer Roman road. The vertical inscription on the roughly cylindrical pillar-stone, records the name of Nemnius (or Numnius) son of Victorinus strongly suggests that local elites within late Roman secular society, some retaining Roman names, were an influential in systems of social organization and land-use in the early post-Roman period.

By the early medieval period the area formed part of the kingdom of Brycheiniog which emerged as one of the early British kingdoms in Wales by the 7th to 8th century. Pre-Norman traditions suggest an association between the kings of Brycheiniog and Talgarth at that period. These foundation legends contained in two medieval Latin texts — De Situ Brecheniauc (‘About Brycheiniog’) and Cognacio Brychan (‘The kin of Brychan’) — identify Teuderic (Tewdrig) as the king of the district in perhaps the early 5th century. Teuderic, who claimed descent from a Roman nobleman, lived in a place called Garth Matrun. Commentators have identified the garth ‘mountain spur’ as the prominent and distinctively-shaped hill now known as Mynydd Troed ( 2-3 kilometres beyond the eastern boundary of the historic landscape area) and Garth Matrun as the modern town of Talgarth (‘the brow of the garth’) which lies at the foot of Mynydd Troed. According to tradition the kingdom of Brycheiniog was founded by the legendary figure of Brychan, grandson of Teuderic, apparently by expansion of his grandfather’s kingdom, with its administrative focus at Talgarth in the fertile valley of the Llynfi.

The kingdom of Brycheiniog, one of the less aggressive of the early Welsh kingdoms, came under conflict with from various quarters, to the extent that in the latter part of the century it was seeking protection from the Anglo-Saxon ruler, king Alfred. There are indications of conflict with the emergent kingdom of Gwynedd in north-west Wales by the 9th century and in 896 Viking raiders were also causing devastation in parts of the kingdom.

The historical and archaeological evidence points to the crannog or artificial island in Llangorse Lake as the residence of Tewdwr ab Elise, king of Brycheiniog in the late 9th and early 10th century, the crannog possibly having been built in response to the dangers posed by the Viking raids. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 916, following Alfred’s death, lady Aethelflaed, Anglo-Saxon ruler of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred, sent an army into Wales three days after the murder of abbot Ecgberht and his companions. The army is said to have destroyed Brecenanmere (‘Brecon mere’), almost certainly to be identified as the crannog within the lake, where the royal court was sited, resulting in the capture of Tewdwr’s wife and over thirty other people. The crannog, the only certain site of this kind known in Wales, has many Irish parallels: it seems to have been influenced by Irish building techniques, and was possibly constructed with the assistance of Irish craftsmen. It is probably significant that in later genealogical texts the kings of Brycheiniog claimed descent from a part-Irish dynasty, an association which probably also explains the occurrence of a distinctive cluster of ogham-inscribed stones in the area. The use of the unusual construction methods at Llan-gors crannog may have strengthened the royal houses’ claims to Irish ancestry and thereby enhanced their social and political standing. The destruction of the Llan-gors crannog is marked by a burnt layer found during the course of archaeological excavation.

The locations of subsequent royal centres in Brycheiniog are uncertain. Dependence upon the English crown continued into the 10th century. The kings of Brycheiniog attended the English royal court in the 930s, though towards the end of the 10th century the kingdom recognised the overlordship of the kingdom of Deheubarth in south-west Wales, then under its king Maredudd ab Owain. In the 11th century it was acquired as a sub-kingdom by the expansionist kingdom of Gwynedd under its ruler Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. Native rule finally came to an end with the Norman conquest of Brycheiniog by Bernard de Neufmarché when the defeat of Rhys ap Tewdwr, prince of Deuheubarth, ruler of south Wales and overlord of Brycheiniog in 1093 brought the rule of Bleddin ap Maenarch of Brycheiniog to an end.

The castle built and developed at Brecon in the late 11th century or early 12th century, after the conquest, by Bernard de Neufmarché and his successors, became the administrative centre of the new marcher lordship of Brecon. The settlement which grew up alongside the castle became the major market town of the region, its influence extending far into the surrounding countryside. In the later half of the 12th century the marcher lordship formed part of the territory of William de Braose and in the later 13th century by marriage to the Bohun family of the earls of Hereford and Essex. Following the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267 it briefly formed part of the territories subject to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, but again fell to the Bohun family in the 1270s following the conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1284, but was confiscated by the crown following territorial disputes with neighbouring lordships in the 1290s. Parts of the Middle Usk Valley were subdivided into feudal manors after the English model granted to knight’s and others who had given service to Bernard de Neufmarché during the conquest, including the following within the historic landscape area: Scethrog (Sir Miles Picard, de Picardé or Pitcher); Llanhamlach and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn (Sir John Walbeffe or Walbeoff); Aberyscir (Sir Hugh Surdwal); Gilestone (Sir Giles Pierrepoint); Llansantffraed (Walter de Cropus), Llanspyddid (Sir Richard de Boulogne, or Bullen). Earthen motte and bailey castles which are probably to be associated with Norman manorial centres were founded at Aberyscir, Alexanderstone and Treberfydd.

By the Middle Ages the northern part of the historic landscape area, to the north of the Usk formed part of the cantref (hundred) of Cantref Selyf and the area to the south of the river to the cantref of Cantref Mawr. At the Act of Union in 1536 these medieval subdivisions together with the commote of Tir Ralph to the east of Brecon came to form the hundreds of Defynnog (Devynnock), Merthyr and Pencelli (Penkelly) respectively within the new county of Breconshire.

Brecon, like the Welsh medieval castle towns of Aberystwyth, Caernarfon, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest and Denbigh had developed the status of an important regional centre by the end of the medieval period. Along with Carmarthen, Caernarfon and Denbigh, Brecon was designated as one of the four regional capitals of Wales by the Act of Union in 1536. The town lay on one of the major lines of communication across south Wales and as implied by the status conferred upon it at this time, which brought both judicial and revenue raising functions, was probably based upon its accessibility:

And forasmuch as the counties of Brecknock, Radnor, Montgomery and Denbigh be far distant from the City of London where the laws of England be commonly used, ministered, exercised and executed and for that the inhabitants of the said shires of Brecknock, Radnor, Montgomery and Denbigh be not of substance, power and ability to travel out of their counties to seek the administration of justice it is therefore enacted by the Authority aforesaid that the King Our Sovereign Lord shall have one Chancery and Exchequer at this Castle of Brecknock and one other at this town and Castle of Denbigh.
It continued to assume prominence in the administrative affairs of Wales until it was eclipsed in importance by the developing industrial towns of south Wales in the later 18th and 19th centuries. Brecon remained the county town of Breconshire until the local government reorganisation in 1974 when Brecknockshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire were combined to form the new county of Powys. It remains the administrative centre of the Brecon Beacons National Park, designated in 1957.

The ecclesiastical landscape

Early medieval churches of certain or possible pre-Conquest date within the historic landscape area are known at Llan-ddew, Llanfaes, Llanfrynach, Llan-gors, Llanhamlach, Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, Llangasty Tal-y-llyn, and Llanspyddid.

Llan-gors evidently formed an important pre-Conquest ecclesiastical centre. A charter in the Book of Llandaff (Liber Landavensis) describes a judgement against king Tewdwr ab Elise of Brycheiniog made in the clas (‘monastery, mother church’) at Llan-gors in the early 10th century in favour of bishop Libiau of Llandaff. A royal estate here, corresponding to the later ecclesiastical parish of Llan-gors, had been granted by Awst, an earlier king of Brycheiniog, to the bishop of Llandaff in about the 8th century.

Following the Norman conquest under Bernard de Neufmarché monastic centres were established at the newly- created settlement of Brecon, after which the town of Brecon became the focus of religious life in the region and the centre of the archdeaconry of Brecon. A fortified palace belonging to the bishop of St David’s was established at Llan-ddew in the 12th century which formed the residence of the archdeacons of Brecon and the administrative centre for the management of episcopal holdings in the area.

The Benedictine priory of St John’s, which became an important landowner in the region, was founded before 1106 as dependant of Battle Abbey (Sussex). As in the case of the newly-established Anglo-Norman settlements elsewhere in south Wales, the juxtaposition of the castle and an adjacent monastery housing Norman Benedictine monks was part of a conscious strategy to stamp both secular and religious authority upon this newly-conquered territory.

A Dominican friary, subsequently known as Christ College, had been established by the mid 13th century at Llanfaes. Both the priory and the friary were suppressed in 1537. The priory church subsequently continued in use as a parish church and became the cathedral church in 1923 when the new diocese of Swansea and Brecon was created. In the 1540s Christ College was established as secular college and grammar school.

By the mid 19th century the following tithe parishes fell wholly or partly within the historic landscape area: Aberyscir, Battle, Llandefaelog-fach, Brecon St John, Brecon St David, Brecon St Mary, Llan-ddew, Llanfrynach, Llanhamlach, Llanfeugan, Llansantffraed, Llangasty Tal-y-llyn, Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn, Cathedine and Llandefaelog-fach.

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