The History of Hay on Wye
It is ironic that these days the Welsh marcher town of Hay-on-Wye should be famous for that most peaceful of pursuits, reading; or at least providing the material for such. For this is now The Town of Books . But look at the more distant history of the town and it seems like those visiting the place either came to burn it down, or drink there: sometimes both.
Hay was first mentioned in writing in the 10th century, though it is likely that given its location guarding the river Wye , on the border with England, and on the ancient route to Brecon , that a settlement had existed on the site many centuries before that, serving and profiting from travellers.
The English name of the town is derived from Norman, haie meaning hedge, perhaps a reference to its border-town status. It appears to be the Normans who recognized its strategic importance, building a motte and bailey fortress in the place not long after the Conquest , replaced by a far stronger version elsewhere a century and more later, though the original motte survives in part. It may have been William FitzOsbern who ordered the creation of the first stronghold in about 1070, a base for the subjugation of Welsh princelings, as it was again in 1198 when an English army assembled in Hay prior to the Battle of Painscastle, where it defeated the men of Powys.
William de Braos is thought to have built the second castle in the town in 1200. He turned against King John , whose revenge was vicious and lengthy: in 1211 legend has it John walled up the wife and son of de Braos at Windsor or Corfe and left them to starve; William fled into exile; but John was not finished, burning the castle in 1216.
A new de Braos owner of the castle fared no better, being hanged in 1230 by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, who considering his work unfinished burned the town the following year. Henry III ordered its reconstruction in 1233, and in 1236 town walls were added, though these new fortifications cannot have been enormously effective given Hay changed hands three times during the Barons War, in 1265 falling to Simon de Montfort himself, the great man overseeing the reduction of the castle.
When not under siege the town would revert to a market centre, bringing traders from both sides of the border. It has had a reputation for inns for centuries, originally catering for such merchants and farmers bringing sheep and cattle for sale.
The castle was taken by Edward II in 1322, though neither his actions nor those of Edward I before him meant the Welsh had finished with rebellion: Owain Glyndwr attacked town and castle in 1401 to devastating effect.
Eventually peace reigned across Britain, and commerce replaced conflict. In the 18th century a tramway was constructed here to haul coal from the Abergavenny and Brecon Canal. During the great coaching era Hay again lived up to its reputation for hospitality, its inns serving travellers passing through the town en route to Hereford and Brecon. The picture of life in Hay painted in his diaries by Francis Kilvert, curate of nearby Clyro in the Victorian period and a regular visitor to the town, is worlds apart from the violent medieval era.
Hay is famed in the contemporary world for its numerous bookshops, and since 1988 its literary festival . But old habits die hard. The castle, which had again suffered a similar fate in 1939, burnt down once more for luck in 1977.
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