Builth Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification constructed in the late eleventh century by Philip de Braose. Situated on a strategically important fording point over the River Wye, it regularly changed hands as the native Welsh and Marcher Lords vied for control. It was rebuilt into a formidable fortress by Edward I but today only earthworks remain.
Situated at a fording point across the River Wye, Builth was a strategically important route into central Wales and accordingly of huge importance to the Norman Marcher Lords who were vying for control against the native Welsh. The first castle was established in the late eleventh century by Philip de Braose, Lord of Bramber and served as the centre of a Lordship based around the boundaries of the former Welsh Cantref of Buellt (the lands between the Rivers Wye and Tywi). It was an earth and timber fortification consisting of a motte topped with a wooden palisade and a single, crescent shaped bailey again with wooden defences. A circular (dry) ditch surrounded the site. At the time it was one of the largest forts in Wales and clear evidence of Philip de Braose's power. Builth was one of numerous castles built in the area by Philip - he also constructed ringwork forts at Llanlleonfell and Llysdinam plus motte-and-baileys at Llanganten and Treflys. He also constructed Radnor Castle.
Builth was attacked by Rhys ap Gruffudd, Lord Rhys in 1168 where it was recorded as 'destroyed'. It was recovered by the de Braose family shortly after and the castle was rebuilt - again in timber which is indicative of the enduring threat level; construction in stone required a period of protracted peace given the time taken and comparative vulnerability of the workforce during the work.
Builth Castle was confiscated by King John in 1208 on the grounds the then owner, William de Braose, owed money to the Crown. The castle was placed in care of one of the King's favourites - Engelard de Cigogne, Sheriff of Gloucester. William fled to exile but his wife and eldest son were captured by King John who starved them to death in Corfe Castle (some records suggest Windsor). This horrific act was one of the catalysts for Magna Carta and the subsequent First Barons War and, whilst William died in exile, his sons returned and allied themselves to Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Aided by the distraction of the King with the civil war, the Welsh Prince assisted the de Braose family to reclaim their castles with Builth retaken in 1215. The timely death of King John, in October 1216, allowed Reginald de Braose to be reconciled with the new King Henry III.
With the new peace settlement between Henry III and the de Braose family, Builth again became the target of Welsh attacks. It was taken by the Welsh in 1217 but returned to Reginald de Braose shortly after. Aided by Royal engineers, the castle was strengthened in 1219 (but was still built in timber) enabling it to withstand another Welsh attack in 1223.
The weak reign of Henry III enabled Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, to expand his territory at the expense of the Marcher Lords. In 1228 the then owner of Builth, William de Braose, participated in the Kerry campaign against Llywelyn. The expedition met with disaster and William himself was captured by the Welsh Prince and ransomed. What followed was akin to a soap opera - during his captivity William was discovered in bed with Llywelyn's wife and immediately executed. Llywelyn took control of Builth Castle and held it until his death in 1240.
The castle was recovered for the Norman-English in 1242 by John of Monmouth and thereafter passed into Crown ownership. It was granted to Prince Edward (later Edward I) who assigned Roger Mortimer as Constable. However by the mid-1250s Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) had started to restore Welsh power and took possession of Builth in 1260. Four years later he supported Simon de Montfort's rebellion (the Second Barons War) against Henry III and, despite the defeat of the rebels, the English King sought peace and conceded extensive territories (including Builth) to the native Prince in the Treaty of Montgomery (1267). The castle remained in his hands until 1276.
Builth, along with all the lands to the east of the River Conwy, were retaken by the English in the First War of Welsh Independence. Although Edward I, who became King in 1272, initially upheld the provisions of the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) relations soon broke down over Llywelyn’s refusal to pay homage. Although the Welsh Prince had attended a meeting in Shrewsbury in November 1274, Edward had been ill and unable to attend. Subsequent summons went unanswered; he refused to attend Chester in August 1275, Westminster in October 1275, Winchester in January 1276 and Westminster in April 1276. Following the latter, the English resolved to make war on Llywelyn and when no answer was received from this threat, a feudal summons was issued on 12 December 1276. Edward ordered his forces to rendezvous at Worcester for 1 July 1277 and he quickly overran north east Wales bringing all the land east of the River Conwy under direct English control. In the aftermath Builth Castle, now in Edward's hands, was extensively rebuilt in stone. A large round Keep was constructed on top of the motte surrounded by a curtain wall with six towers whilst the large bailey was divided into two by a deep ditch. It is possible only one half of the latter remained in use - the slender shape of the second bailey would not have supported stone walls and it is more likely it was reshaped into a defensive scarp in its own right. A twin-drummed Gatehouse, probably not dissimilar to that at the contemporary Rhuddlan Castle, provided access to the (main) bailey which was protected by substantial stone walls.
The Second War of Welsh Independence started in Spring 1282 when Dafydd ap Gruffudd - the brother of Llywelyn - rebelled against Edward I commencing with an attack on Hawarden Castle. Llywelyn felt compelled to support him prompting the English King to invade and conquer all of Wales. The Welsh Prince advanced on Builth Castle hoping to recover it but was engaged at the Battle of Orewin Bridge on 11 December 1282. Llywelyn was killed near Cilmery, some 3 miles west from the castle.
Work on Builth Castle seems to have stopped in 1282 even though the Gatehouse was seemingly incomplete. However, the castle continued in use passing to the Mortimers, Earls of March in the 1330s and was still being garrisoned in the early fifteenth century when it was attacked during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr. The popular revolt, caused by excessive taxation and crass management, enveloped much of Wales. The castle's constable was John Oldcastle although little is recorded of what action took place there. Some damage was certainly done for repairs were made in 1409.
The castle went out of use in the late fifteenth century and, following a major fire on 27 December 1690 that destroyed much of the town, the old fortification was robbed of its stone to support rebuilding. Today only earthworks remain.
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Builth Castle survives as the slightly confusing but substantial earthwork remains of a major motte-and-bailey fortification that was originally built in the late eleventh century and then extensively re-modelled by Edward I. Even with all traces of masonry long since robbed, the remaining earthworks are still extremely impressive and offer good views over the surrounding area.
Builth Castle Layout. The original motte-and-bailey raised by the de Braose family in the late eleventh century had a crescent shaped bailey that wrapped around the mound. Edward I’s castle builders re-used the existing earthworks but split the bailey and seemingly abandoned the western part probably turning it into a pointed scarp as an additional obstacle in aid of the castle’s defence. Some historians moot the earthwork in the north-east corner is evidence of a Roman Fort but this has not been conclusively proven and might alternatively have been a Civil War gun platform.
River Wye. Builth Castle was situated at an important fording point over the river.