Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Welsh Marches: history, castles and CAKE

   The term Welsh Marches (French "marche = border - in Welsh "Y Mers") was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and denotes an imprecisely defined area along and around the border between England and Wales. This region, "Marchia Walliae", formed a porous barrier between England and "Pura Wallia" (true Wales), and was a frontier society created by William I when he established 3 Marcher Lordships to subdue and govern the unruly Welsh. Castles sprang up immediately and were symbols of power as well as practical means of defence and attack. These were mostly wooden motte-and-bailey structures but later were enlarged and fortified in stone: the Marches still have the highest concentration of such castles in Gt. Britain - and possibly the best CAKE.

The Marcher Lords
Chepstow and Usk castles

  William I honoured 3 of his most loyal supporters as earls with portions of this area: Hugh d'Avranches in Chester; Roger de Montgomerie in Shrewsbury and William fitzOsbern in Hereford. Each lordship was distinct, independent and different from the rest. Yet all the Marcher Lords had powers unlike those of comparable magnates in England. Their remit if keeping the region in order at all costs without interference allowed them particular rights: to make war on their neighbours for personal gain; to own lands exempt from taxation; to be able to create forests (uninhabited spaces for hunting), markets and boroughs.  They could keep any territory they conquered but the area was never completely subjugated.
   After the pattern of the Welsh princes, they owed allegiance to the crown in times of war but otherwise had a remarkable degree of autonomy and could construct castles free from the restrictions imposed in England. Wherever castles were built, small town tended to grow up around them; examples are Monmouth, Chepstow and Ludlow. At first these towns were little more than groups of merchants living under the protection of the seignorial castle but, in the second half of the 13th century, they acquired corporate existence, Monmouth being one of the first.
   The lordships were geographically discrete, separate from England and ruled by their own laws "sicut regale" - "like unto a king" as Gilbert de Clare stated. The Welsh provided wartime man power for English kings throughout this period (their bowmen were highly skilled) and smaller lordships proliferated as the Normans encourage immigration from Norman and Angevin regions. The king's writ never ran during this period in the whole area.
Ludlow Castle

   The area tended to become divided into the Englishry and the Welshry: the incomers took possession of the lower, fertile parts for rural settlement and arable farming, using the meadows and riverside regions for feeding livesstock. Sometimes manors were established. The Welsh were not usually displaced but, by and large, were left with the uplands and other less profitable land for sheep and cattle with winter quarters ("hendre") and summer pastures ("hafod"). It is notable that "da" meant "cattle" or "wealth/goods" and taxes could be paid by "cymorth", the rendering of a valuable beast to the lord. Other income came from the sale of demesne crops, tenant rents, court fines and resources such as mills and fisheries. 
   The unit of governance was not called the hundred as in England but the "commote" and the Domesday Book has entries for those which were under Norman control but still subject to Welsh law and custom. They were assessed for military purposes and taxation and Welsh law was administered in Welsh courts by Welsh officials although English officials might deal with English tenants - disputes arose over this jurisdiction (similar to those caused by the choice of a rugby referee of an England/Wales match but less bloody.)
   Ludlow Castle later became the organising centre of the Council of Wales (and the Marches) until its abolition in 1536 by Henry VIII. Between the high point in the Middle Ages and that demise, there was a gradual decline in powers after Edward I, on conquering the area, established shire counties on the English model instead. Yet the notion remained until the Industrial Revolution.

  The Welsh Marches retain a distinctive flavour and offer the visitor fascinating historical sites to savour with rewards of excellent CAKE after an educational and enjoyable trip or microadventure. Here is the River Wye near Symonds Yat on a lovely winter walk. Buses roam all over, from Chepstow Castle onwards to Usk Castle as well as the later Raglan Castle. A little further away is Ludlow Castle, intriguing with its round chapel - and magnificent Goodrich Castle still houses Roaring Meg, the formidable mortar.  Further information about William fitzOsbern, one of the powers behind the original invasion can be found in my post about him. For an account of trade and markets in the area click here.

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