The Marches

What were the Welsh Marches?

Following the departure of the Romans, much of lowland Britain was invaded by Germanic tribes. By the 10th century the resulting early Angle and Saxon kingdoms had coalesced into a single country, England. On the other hand, the remaining western territory of the Britons, in what is now known as Wales, continued to be made up of a number of small kingdoms. While some of these occasionally combined through marriage or conquest, Wales was never a united political entity, except for a brief period between 1055 and 1063, when Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Powys managed to conquer all the other Welsh kingdoms. Subsequently, an invasion of Wales by Harold Godwinson and his brother Tostig resulted in Gruffydd’s death at the hands of his own men and Wales again separated into its traditional small kingdoms.

The border between the kingdoms of Wales and England was always disputed. Raids from both sides were common and a number of major battles took place in the 10th and 11th centuries. Edward the Confessor’s response was to install some of his Norman friends in Herefordshire. Around 1050 they built castles at Hereford, Ewyas Harold, and Richard’s Castle.

William of Normandy claimed the English crown but had no immediate ambition to conquer Wales. However, there is no doubt he was well aware of the need to establish control of the troubled border region that became known as the Welsh Marches. Immediately after the Conquest, he appointed three of his most trusted confidants as Earls of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford.

The first Earl of Hereford was William FitzOsbern. He had grown up in Normandy and was a cousin and steward of Duke William. As an advisor to Duke William, he was a strong advocate of the invasion. His younger brother Osbern had been chaplain to Edward the Confessor and would have been well placed to pass intelligence back to Normandy.

After the Conquest, FitzOsbern was first put in charge of the Isle of Wight and was soon given the Earldoms of Oxfordshire, Wessex, Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester. He was a great castle builder, erecting castles at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, Berkeley in Gloucestershire and Wigmore and Clifford in Herefordshire, as well as improving the fortifications of Hereford. He also set about taking territory from the Welsh kingdom of Gwent and built castles at Chepstow and Monmouth. In doing so he became one of the first and most powerful lords of the March.

The first use of the term “the March of Wales” was in the Domesday Book of 1086. It simply means the border.

a typical motte and bailey

The function of the lords of the March or Marcher lords was to control the border and neutralise the threat of Welsh raids into England. They achieved this largely through building castles to defend their new territories. Hundreds of castles were built along the border during the 11th and 12th centuries, more than in any other part of the country. They were mostly in the standard form of a motte and bailey, using rapidly erected timber towers and palisades. At first they were functionally little more than cavalry bases with watchtowers for controlling the immediate area. As territories were pacified the more important castles were rebuilt in stone with the capability to house and supply significant military forces and to withstand lengthy sieges.

early castle distribution in England and Wales

The Marcher lords were granted exceptional freedom of action. Although they held allegiance to the king and were bound to support him in time of war, they paid no taxes to the king on their Marcher estates. They had the right to establish forests, markets and boroughs in their territories without royal consent, and they held their own courts, often under Welsh rather than English law.

Marcher lords often fought each other. Their power also brought them into dispute with the Crown, and disputes occasionally developed into open rebellion. In 1088, after the death of William I, Roger de Lacy and other Marcher lords sided with Robert, Duke of Normandy against his brother, the new king, William Rufus. A second conspiracy against William II in 1095 led to Roger de Lacy’s banishment and the confiscation of his lands in Ewyas.

The conquest of the remaining principalities of Wales by Edward I in 1273 and 1284 resulted in a major extension of Welsh lands controlled by the Marcher lords. Roger Mortimer inherited large estates in the Marches and then acquired half of the de Lacy lands through marriage. In 1322 he was powerful enough to lead an army of Marcher lords in revolt against Edward II. The rebellion failed and Roger was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After escaping, he fled to France and in 1326 returned heading an invasion force of Flemish and French. With his English and Welsh supporters he forced Edward’s abdication. Taking the queen as his mistress, Roger went on to effectively rule the country, until he in turn was overthrown and executed by the young Edward III.

There were frequent Welsh uprisings during the next century or so, culminating in that of Owain Glyndwr. However, after Glyndwr’s defeat and the subsequent pacification of Wales, the role of the Marcher lords became an anachronism. In time, many of the lordships passed into Crown control.

With the Laws of Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, Henry VIII finally brought both Wales and the Marches under English law. The Marches were abolished and were converted into new counties under the jurisdiction of sheriffs, or were amalgamated into existing counties. For the first time ever, the border between England and Wales was defined for administrative and legal purposes. This resulted in the division of the lordship of Ewyas along the line of Hatteral Ridge. The Llanthony valley became part of Wales while the territory from Longtown to Cusop was absorbed into the county of Herefordshire.