|An illustrated guide to fishing, walking, wildlife conservation and other attractions in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park, South Wales, the country of the Red Kite|
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The Norman Invasion of Kite Country
The Normans eventually took control of the Upper Usk valley towards the end of the 11th century, although it is clear that their influence in the uplands of Kite Country was considerably less than in the more hospitable Border country to the East. The occupation resulted in some 200 years of bloody warfare between Norman and Welsh lords and the many castles that they constructed bear testament to the difficulties they faced. The Norman leader, Bernard de Neufmarché established himself in Brecon and distributed the surrounding lands amongst his followers. Parts of the castle he began to construct today form part of the Castle of Brecon Hotel.
Although the initial castles were of "motte-and-bailey" design and built of timber, the Normans soon made use of the limitless supplies of local stone and began an unprecedented era of construction. This is best illustrated at Tretower Court and Castle, near Crickhowell (see Map 9), where you can inspect the remains of the earlier Castle dating from the mid-12th century and also the superb manor house commenced in the 14th century and enlarged and improved for some 300 years thereafter. The site is a living illustration of the transition from brutal domination to feudal lordship over many centuries of occupation. The buildings are controlled by CADW Welsh Historic Monuments.
Even more spectacular is the location of Carreg Cennen castle in the Towy valley, South-East of Llandeilo (see Map 3). This seemingly impregnable fortress was the scene of many battles over several centuries and is certainly worth a visit. There are some excellent walking trails around the area and plenty of things for children to see and do (keep careful watch over them on the castle walls, though!
You will find plenty of other information about the Norman occupation on the Web and I have included a number of links to these elsewhere. Perhaps the very best source is the extensive CADW site, which contains lots of very good photographs and descriptions on literally dozens of castles built during that era. Those of you who are particularly interested in the subject of castles should head straight for Jeffrey Thomas' Castles of Wales site, where you will find masses of useful information and excellent photographs.
The Church and the various religious orders continued to thrive under the patronage of the Norman feudal lords and there are numerous religious sites to see. Brecon Cathedral has its origins in a Benedictine priory established by Bernard de Neufmarché and is a superb example of 13th/14th century architecture. It also has a good cafe and a shop selling high-quality goods. If you are lucky, you may catch one of the many concerts held here also. Cathedral status was first granted in 1923.
Also worth a visit is the superb Llanthony Priory in the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, South-East of Hay-on-Wye (see Map 4). The Abbey dates from the 13th century and is also protected by CADW. Interestingly, a very comfortable inn has been constructed within the ruined walls of the Priory. The mountain scenery all around is simply marvellous. See my page on the River Wye for further details. Also worth a visit are the remains of the very significant Strata Florida Abbey founded by the Cistercian order in the 12th century. Remotely situated in the beautiful hills north of Tregaron, the Abbey became one of the most influential centres of Welsh culture and is reputed to be the burial place of several Welsh princes. You can also see some well preserved medieval floor tiles.
The close relationship of either an abbey or a castle to its dependent village(s) and lands is a notable example of the Norman influence throughout England and Wales. The feudal system established over several hundred years can still be detected in some rural areas today, although the common pastures and harsh mountain terrain at the heart of Kite Country appear to have escaped the Normans' attention. This difference is noticeable also in the usage of the Welsh language, which is much less evident in the East of Kite Country than in the West, and also in the greater incidence of Norman place-names in the gentler Eastern lands.
The natural fortress of the Brecon Beacons seemed to be impregnable - until the coming of machines...
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