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just outside the town of Bronllys, Powys, Mid Wales
Map link for Bronllys Castle
Text copyright © 1997 by Lise Hull
Photographs copyright © 1998 by Jeffrey L. Thomas
Approaching Bronllys armed with the knowledge that a castle, your destination, exists somewhere nearby is a great boost to any mounting indecision and thoughts that you must have missed the correct road. The journey is easy and scenic, but doubts may creep into your awareness as the castle fails to make itself known. But, don't despair, for in an instant, a tall stone cylinder leaps into your peripheral vision. Though camouflaged by leafy hedges, Bronllys Castle resolutely guards the roadside, towering ominously next to the gateway into the medieval stronghold.
Initially, this former Norman fortress seems compact, squashed into the property that once formed the baileys of the castle. The 80 foot tall masonry keep crowns a massive mound, the motte, and is still foreboding even in ruin, as it looms directly overhead and appears ready to topple over in your way. Don't worry, though, for this round keep has persevered for centuries, and, thanks to the care of CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments and the ongoing support of the public, it most assuredly will survive another 800 years!
Interestingly, the eastern borders of Wales (the Welsh Marches) contain an unusual density of round keeps, an innovative design developed for its superior ability to repel missiles thrown from siege engines. At least a dozen of these towers were constructed in the region during the 13th century, including not only Bronllys but also the curious cylindrical tower at Tretower, just 15 miles to the south. Here at Bronllys, the stone cylinder replaced an earlier wooden structure when the need for strength and durability became the Norman lord's priority in order to safeguard his feudal lands from the local Welsh malcontents.
As a reward for loyal service during his incursion into eastern Wales, Bernard de Neufmarche (Newmarch), Lord of Brecon, granted his followers parcels of land to set up their own lordly manors. One of Neufmarche's supporters was Richard FitzPons, then baron of Clifford, a village on the English side of the Welsh Borders not too far from Bronllys. FitzPons probably seized the land of Cantref Selyf in the late 1080's, during Neufmarche's incursion into Brycheiniog (when he became Lord of Brecon). The lordship of Cantref Selyf and its administrative center at Bronllys remained in the Clifford family (the surname was adopted by Richard's son, Walter) until the early 14th century. As an aside, Walter de Clifford I's daughter was the "Fair Rosamund", Henry II's notorious mistress.
Richard FitzPons probably built the first castle at Bronllys, a typical Norman motte and bailey stronghold. Situated on a well-appointed site overlooking the junction of two rivers, the Llynfi and Dulais, the castle guarded the main route into Welsh territory. While the castle saw little military action, it did play a role in maintaining Norman dominance in the region. The Cliffords were required to pay knight's fee for the right to own the castle and its surrounding estates, and when necessary, the lord of Cantref Selyf paid the Lord of Brecon the sum of five and a half armored horses (according to Smith and Knight, 1981) plus provided a number of soldiers.
The motte castle built by FitzPons still dominates the site. The huge mound solidly supports the stone keep, which was added by Richard's great grandson, Walter de Clifford III. The initial stronghold began its existence as a typical motte and bailey fortification, with an additional rectangular outer bailey. Today, a modern home and gardens sit on the site of the inner bailey, however, the basic form of the original castle is clearly visible in the alignment of the trees, the perimeter outline, and the masonry remains.
Below: First floor window (left) & second floor window (right) in the keep at Bronllys
One of the earliest records of Bronllys Castle appears in Gerald of Wales' "Journey Through Wales", which chronicles the recruiting mission of Gerald and Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to gain soldiers for the Third Crusade. Gerald regales readers with the tale of a hapless knight known as Mahel, Earl of Hereford in 1165. Mahel had the misfortune to be at Bronllys Castle when a fire ravaged its defenses. A stone hurtled through the air and struck Mahel, who died full of remorse believing his fate was the result of his relentless harassment of the Bishop of St. David's. Gerald relates the tale with relish, for the bishop was his uncle!
The Cliffords played an active role in the politics of the age, and both Walter I and Walter II fought in the wars against the Welsh in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Their heir, Walter III, also fought the Welsh, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, his neighbor and Justiciar of England. Not only was de Burgh an influential political force, he also owned three great castles on the Welsh Marches, Grosmont, White Castle and Skenfrith. Like Bronllys, Skenfrith is dominated by a fine round keep.
In 1233, Bronllys Castle was drawn into the conflicts that shaped the future of Wales. Choosing to side with the rebellious Earl of Pembroke, Richard Marshal, the Lord of Bronllys abandoned his support of Hubert de Burgh who in turn favored King Henry III. In retaliation, the king's men seized Walter III's castles at Bronllys and Clifford. However, a few weeks later, de Clifford regained control of his castles, and a huge force of 100 sergeants and 10 horsemen were garrisoned at Bronllys to keep the peace. Negotiations between representatives of the English king and those of the Welsh leader, Prince Llywelyn ab Iorweth, took place at Bronllys.
Walter de Clifford III probably constructed the lanky stone tower shortly after he inherited the Lordship of Bronllys and Cantref Selyf in 1221. Rising three stories and lit with slender windows, the round tower retains many of its original features, including a vaulted basement and evidence that a timber hoard (or fighting platform) was secured around the rooftop. In the 14th century, the windows on the second story were embellished with `cinquefoil' heads.
In its heyday, the cylindrical keep held what were, presumably, the apartments of the lord and his household. Inside, fireplaces and window seats offered the residents some amount of comfort from the brisk Welsh weather. The third floor, a later addition to the original tower, also contained a latrine. The usual domestic buildings, including the hall block, the stables, a chapel, and workshops, were built in the inner bailey in the 14th century. Although there is good evidence that the hall existed as late as the 18th century, nothing of these structures now survives.
However, one intriguing relic from this building phase does exist and gives us a sense of the insecurity of the times. On the grounds of the 19th century Bronllys Church sits a lone 14th century tower. The fortified tower may have been used as a secondary refuge, a safe place to retreat if the castle keep was battered.
In 1311, Maud Giffard, the last surviving heir to the Clifford estates, died. Within the year, Bronllys Castle became the property of a native Welshman, Rhys ap Hywel. Rhys's father, Hywel ap Meurig, had associated himself with the likes of the Mortimers and Bohuns, politically influential Marcher lords, and also offered his loyalties to King Edward I (a man driven to crush the Welsh). Rhys also supported the monarchy and was granted the lordships of Cantref Selyf and Bronllys as a reward for his loyalty.
In keeping with the trend of the Middle Ages, Rhys swiftly changed his loyalties. In the early 1320's, the Marcher Lords, including Rhys ap Hywel, rebelled against their king. Rhys was imprisoned for his impudence and lost all of his properties, until 1326. In the tumult of 1328, when the barons revolted against their king, Edward II, Rhys once again played an active role. Ironically, it was Rhys and his companion, Henry of Lancaster, who captured Edward II and returned him to his fate at Berkeley Castle.
Rhys ap Hywel died in 1328, passing ownership of Bronllys Castle to his son, Philip ap Rhys. Due to the greed of the Bohuns, who wanted complete control of the Lordship of Brecon (of which Bronllys was a member lordship), Philip lost his estates and his castles after Humphrey de Bohun IV managed to convince the king that the lordships could only be administered by a man of great power, like himself (Humphrey). So, in 1351, Humphrey de Bohun became sole Lord of Cantref Selyf and the castle at Bronllys.
In 1373, Humphrey de Bohun V died, and the former Clifford estates reverted to the king. Finally, in 1384, Bronllys Castle was granted to the de Bohun heiress, Mary, and her husband, Henry, Earl of Derby, son of John of Gaunt. More controversy ensued, as the Duke of Gloucester, who had married the other de Bohun heiress, Eleanor, claimed hereditary rights to the castle. However, in 1399, after the Earl of Derby was crowned King Henry IV, all property held by the de Bohuns reverted to the monarchy.
Below right: the house that now occupies a portion of Bronllys outer ward, as seen from the keep.
Despite another claim to the lordship of Cantref Selyf by Anne Stafford, daughter of Eleanor de Bohun, Bronllys Castle remained a royal property. Roger Vaughan of Tretower held Bronllys Castle as the monarch's custodian for much of the 15th century, until it finally passed to an heir of the Staffords, Henry Duke of Buckingham in 1478. Though the Duke of Buckingham was executed in 1483 for his support of Harri Tudor (Henry VII), his estates passed to his heir, Edward. The new Duke of Buckingham did not actually gain possession of Bronllys Castle until 1509, and it remained his property for only 12 years. In 1521 Bronllys Castle reverted to the Crown for the last time after Buckingham's ill-conceived rebellion and execution.
By 1521, however, Bronllys Castle was already "beyond repair", victimized by 100 years of neglect. Even though the castle remained in the royal inventory, it never again saw military action and continued to decay until the State took over its care in 1962. Today, CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments tends to the upkeep of this little known but intriguing site, and allows public access at any reasonable time.
Lise Hull is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Ninnau, the North American Welsh newspaper, and Renaissance Magazine. She also owns and operates The Castles of Britain web site, a research dedicated to the promotion and study of British castles. e-mail: CASTLESU@aol.com.
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