A Brief History of the Main Castle at Hay-on-Wye

The Welsh border town is famous for its bookshops but its history goes back much further.

Hay-on-Wye is situated on the border between England and Wales and is renowned for its many bookshops. It actually has two castles. One is a small motte on the western side of the town and the other is situated in the centre of the town. The location of the castle meant that it was frequently fought over by the English and the Welsh and a castle was a necessary part of the defences.

The Early Castle at Hay-on-Wye

The castle in the centre of Hay-on-Wye has stood since the time of the Norman Conquest. It is thought that it was first constructed by William Fitz Osbern. In 1121, the castle passed into the hands of Miles de Gloucester, who was the first Earl of Hereford. The keep was apparently already in place at this time, so becoming the oldest example of a Norman tower in Wales.

When de Gloucester’s male line came to an end in 1165 the castle came into the possession of William de Braose, the lord of Bramber. It is the de Braose family who are credited with the building of the gatehouse, though legend states that Matilda de Braose, the wife of the fourth lord of Bramber, built the castle single-handedly overnight and carried all the stones in her apron! When the last of the de Braose owners was hung by the Prince of Wales in 1231 Hay-on-Wye passed into the hands of the de Bohun family.

The next few years saw the castle change hands on several occasions and in 1401 suffered a great deal of damage at the hands of Owain Glyndwr. In the hands of the Earls of Stafford, repairs were made but it was no longer suitable for use as a defence.

The Jacobean Mansion at Hay-on-Wye Castle

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, James Boyle added the Jacobean mansion which can now be seen on the north side of the castle overlooking the town. This section of the castle was home to a number of families during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but also fell into disrepair.

The castle was bought by Richard Booth in 1971, the man responsible for the town becoming a book town and the self-styled ‘King’ of Hay-on-Wye. The castle was a victim of a fire in the late 1970s but the grounds remain in use as a bookshop and parts of the original structure can still be seen.

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