The History of Brecon
Brecon was formed as a new town in 1093 or thereabouts, when Bernard Newmarch, a relative of William the Conqueror gave him the area unseen. He had to fight the Welsh to get it, but when he had killed Rhys ap Tewdwr and his brother in law Bleddin ap Maenarch he built his castle on a mound skirted by two rivers, the Usk and the Honddu (pronounced Honthee). As a penance for any wicked deeds, he financed the building of the Priory, and sited it on a hill above the Honddu, probably the site of an earlier Celtic church. Incidentally, the welsh name for Brecon is Aberhonddu. During the middle ages the town prospered, and the Priory, on account of its fabulous rood screen ( which is no longer there) became a place of pilgrimage. There were guild chapels for weavers, tailors, shoemakers and fullers set up there. The Castle by this time was in the hands of the Bohuns and was sumptuously appointed. Henry IV was a Bohun, and consequently was Lord of Brecon as well as King of England. In 1483, the then resident of the castle, a proud and haughty man, the Duke of Buckingham having once been an ally of Richard III started a rebellion against him, which failed and he was executed. His son was that Duke of Buckingham who was responsible for building the tower of St Mary’s Church in 1521 in the centre of the town. He too was executed, but by a different king.
At the time of the Reformation, the monks were banished, but the church remained intact since it was being used by the townsfolk. Sir John Price, a Brecon man was appointed by Henry VIII to dissolve all the monasteries in South Wales and Herefordshire. He kept the surrounding buildings for himself. It is said that his son was a friend of Shakespeare who visited the Priory House. The other monastery in Brecon, over the Llanfaes bridge, became a school, and is now the celebrated Christ Colege. Still, Brecon prospered, and by the time of the charter granted by Phillip and Mary in 1556, it was the second largest town in Wales.
During the Civil War, a hundred years later, the townsfolk supported the royalist cause, but to save being put under siege by Cromwell’s men, they dismantled both the castle and the town walls. Charles II gave the townspeople permission to use the surplus stone. The castle was later partly rebuilt as a ruin and forms part of the Castle of Brecon Hotel.
During Georgian times, many fine houses were built, and most of these can be seen today, with blue plaques attached to some of them. The country gentry had their country estates but since the roads were so bad in the 18th century, they needed town houses for the winter. The presence of the military and a lively social scene was an added attraction. The military was needed to safeguard the people in some of the valley towns, where coal-mining and iron smelting had attracted many workers from all over the country. Lloyds Bank in the High Street is the building which was originally Wilkins Bank, the first bank in Wales and provided many of the loans for the Industrial Development of the Valleys. Brecon commemorates the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift and Islandawana on the previous day in 1879 each year. Soldiers of the Twenty-fourth regiment of Foot, based in Brecon were awarded 11 VCs as a result. The military museum has memorabilia of this.
Brecon was the County Town of Breconshire for many years, but lost its county status in 1974 when it became part of geographically the largest local authority in Wales, Powys. The town has a population of about 8,000, and is fortunate in having aacathedral, two museums, a live theatre, a cinema, a leisure centre, a canal, and is in a beautiful setting in the Brecon Beacons National Park. The Information Centre is situated between two of the main car parks in the centre of town.
Peter Jenkins MBE
About us - A brief history of Brecon
Shire Hall now the Brecon Museum