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BRECKNOCKSHIRE, Wales - History and Description, 1868

[Description from The National Gazetteer (1868)]
BRECKNOCKSHIRE, (or Brecon-shire), an inland county of South Wales, bounded on the N. and N.E. by Radnorshire, on the E. by Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, on the S. by Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire, and on the W. by Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire. It is about 35 miles in length from N. to S., and about 30 miles at its greatest breadth from E. to W., being in circuit about 140 miles, and comprising an area of about 750 square miles, or 460,158 acres. It is situated between 51° 45' and 52° 17' N. lat., and 3° 0' and 3° 48' W. long. Its outline is very irregular. At the time of the Roman Conquest this district formed part of the territory of the Silures, who under Caractacus made so brave a resistance to the foreign invaders. A Roman way was formed across it, and there were two important stations.

After the departure of the Romans, this territory became a separate principality, and acquired the name of Brycheiniog, from which are derived the present Welsh name Brecheinog, and the English Brecknock. The rule of the native princes, the last of whom was Bleddyn-ap-Maenarch, continued till about 1090, when the Norman adventurer, Bernard Newmarch, invaded and got possession of the territory, defeating Bleddyn in a battle fought near Caer Bannau. On the marriage of Bernard's eldest daughter, who succeeded to the lordship, it passed to Milo Fitz-Walter, afterwards Earl of Hereford. The family of De Breos held it for about a century, from whom it passed to the De Bohuns. A quarrel having arisen in 1286 between Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and the Earl of Gloucester, lord of Glamorgan, their territories were declared to be forfeited, and themselves sentenced to be imprisoned. On the payment of heavy fines these sentences were remitted.

It was in the northern part of this district that the death of Llewellyn, last prince of North Wales, took place in 1282. A severe struggle having occurred between the English and Welsh forces on the banks of the Irvon, and the latter being defeated, the prince fled, and was overtaken and slain by Adam de Francton, who did not at first recognise him. His remains were interred at a spot called Cefn-y-bedd ("Ridge of the Grave"), not far from Builth. The lordship of Brecknock was conferred in 1321 on the younger Despencer, who retained it till his death. With this exception it remained in the possession of the De Bohuns till the extinction of the male line, when it passed to the crown by the marriage of Mary, one of the daughters of Humphrey de Bohun, with Henry IV.

In 1439, Brecknock was inherited by Henry, afterwards Duke of Buckingham, who fell at the battle of Northampton, in 1460, and transmitted his title and possessions to his grandson Henry. The latter distinguished himself as a supporter of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III., who made him large promises but did not fulfil them. Buckingham, bent on revenge, took arms against the king, but was betrayed into his hands and beheaded without trial. His title and estates were subsequently restored by Henry VII. to his son Edward, who was also made Constable of England, and was the last to fill that office. On the extinction of the dukedom by his execution, in 1521, Brecknock reverted to the crown, and from 1534, when the union of England and Wales took place, it ceased to have a separate history.

Brecknockshire is wholly mountainous. Two principal ranges of mountains cross the county in nearly parallel directions; that in the N. called the Eppynt Hills, or Mynydd-Eppynt mountains, and that in the S. not having a distinctive name, but including the loftiest peaks in South Wales. The former extends in a north-westerly direction from the borders of Carmarthenshire to the banks of the river Wye and the border of Radnorshire, and is connected with the Plinlimmon range by an irregular mass of barren hills. The latter (southern) extends eastward from the lofty hills called the Carmarthenshire Beacons on the western confines of the county, to Crickhowell, and terminates in Monmouthshire.

The principal summits in this chain, which are also the highest points in the county and in South Wales, are the Bannau Brecheiniog, or "Brecknockshire Beacons", two conspicuous peaks, about 4 miles to the S.W. of Brecknock, having an elevation of 2,862 feet above the level of the sea (these are sometimes called Cader Arthur, or "Arthur's Chair"); Mount Capellante, rising to the height of 2,394 feet; and Trecastle Beacon, one of those called the Carmarthenshire Beacons, 2,596 feet. North of the Usk is another short chain called the Black Mountains, rising near Talgarth, the loftiest point of which is Pen Cader Fawr, or the "Cradle Mountain", rising to the height of 2,545 feet. The highest point of the Eppynt Hills is the mountain called Dwggan, near Builth, which is about 2,070 feet high.

The pre-dominant formation is the Old Red sandstone, especially in the districts S. of the Usk; and in the narrow valley of Cwmdwr, the junction of the Ludlow rocks with the Old Red sandstone is well laid open. In the western part of the county the graywacke slates are found, which, in one part, are penetrated by volcanic rocks. Trap and porphyry rocks of the transition series appear in the N.W., and present a striking contrast to those of the same series in the neighbouring counties, by being entirely destitute of limestone. The geology of Brecknockshire is of high interest, and has been profoundly studied by Sir R. S. Murchison, who in his great work, "Siluia", alludes to the tile-stones of Cwmdwr, on which Horeb Chapel stands, as full of the casts of shells, among which are characteristic forms, such as the Troehushelieites, Turbo Williamsi, Belerophon trilobatus, and many others. Part of the district belongs to the Silurian system of that geologist, the upper members of which system constitute the escarpments of Mynydd Bwlch-y-groes and Mynydd-Eppynt.

The county abounds in wild, magnificent, and beautiful scenery. There are many rivers in Brecknockshire, but none navigable. The principal are the Wye and the Usk. The Wye borders the county on the N.E. for above 30 miles, separating it from the county of Radnor. It flows by Builth and Hay, at the latter place entering Herefordshire, and subsequently joining the Severn. The scenery along its course is of singular beauty, and charmingly diversified. The Usk has its source on the Carmarthenshire Beacons, and flowing in a south-easterly direction, passes by Brecknock to Crickhowell, thence entering Monmouthshire. Among the other rivers are the Claerwen, on the northern border of the county; the Irvon, which falls into the Wye near Builth; the Honddhu, joining the Usk at Brecknock; the Taf, formed by the union of two streams, rises at the Brecknockshire Beacons, and pursuing a rapid course southwards, enters the county of Glamorgan to the W. of Merthyr Tydvil; the Neath, and the Tawe.

The Neath is formed by two streams, the Mellte and the Hepsk, running southwards from the Beacons, on both of which there are cascades, and the former of which is remarkable for having an underground course of above half a mile through a cavern called the Perth Ogov, after which it runs over a fall of 40 feet. There are several small lakes in the county, the principal of which is Llyn Safadda, a little to the E. of Brecknock. It is also called Llangorse pool, or mere, and is about 2 miles long by 1 broad. It contains pike and perch, and very fine eels. The privilege of fishing here under certain limitations was granted to the monks of Brecknock in 1235.

There are no important minerals in the county, with the exception of iron and coal; and these are found in the beds belonging to the great coal-field of South Wales, which extend across the boundary of Monmouthshire a short distance into this county. Limestone is found in the western part of the county. Near Penderyn and Pont Neath Vaughan are beds of excellent fire-clay. Traces of lead and copper have been discovered, but attempts to work them have not been successful.

Brecknockshire, from the great irregularity of its surface, the height of its mountains, and depth of its valleys, has a singularly various climate. The district of the Eppynt Hills, extending between Builth and Trecastle, is the most desolate part of the county, and the most subject to severe cold, snow, rain, and storms. The climate is similar on the lofty mountains of the southern range. In the valleys the temperature is milder. Although much rain falls, the air is not found to be unhealthy.

There is a great variety of soils in this county, but the proportion of good land is very small. In the slaty tract of the north and the coal district on the southern border there is much clay, which keeps the surface cold and wet. A fertile loam exists along the banks of the Wye and the Irvon. In the red sandstone districts of the centre, along the valley of the Usk, the soil is remarkably light and sandy, but capable of yielding good grain crops. The best soil is found in the eastern quarter, in the hundred of Talgarth and Crickhowell, where excellent crops of wheat are produced. In this district are some hop-grounds, and orchards, from which good cider is made. An Agricultural Society was established at Brecknock in 1755, to whose exertions the county owes many of the improvements in farming which have been effected. It was the first society of the kind in Wales, and one of the earliest in Great Britain.

Barley and oats are the principal crops grown on the cold clays, and oats on the high grounds. The produce of ordinary grain, peas, turnips, and potatoes is sufficient for home consumption. The mountainous tracts afford pasturage to the native breed of small black cattle and the small mountain sheep. In the valley of the Usk and other lowlands the Herefordshire breed of white-faced cattle is found, and many varieties have sprung from the intermixture of this and the native breed. Brecknockshire has also a good native breed of small horses.

Thecounty is divided into the six hundreds of Builth, Crickhowell, Devynnock, Merthyr, Penkelly, and Talgarth. Brecknock is the county town and the only borough. The county contains four market towns: Brecknock, Builth, Crickhowell, and Hay, all of which are the heads of Poor-law Unions and County Court districts. The assizes are held at Brecknock, the county being included in the South Wales circuit. For ecclesiastical purposes Brecknock is comprised in the archdeaconry of Brecknock, in the diocese of St. David's, and province of Canterbury. It contains 66 parishes, 3 of which are in Brecknock, and 12,929 inhabited houses, with a population, according to the census of 1861, of 61,627, having increased 153 in the decennial period from 1851. The county returns one member, and the borough of Brecknock one, to the imperial parliament. The local government is vested in a lord-lieutenant, a high sheriff, and a body of magistrates, in number between 40 and 50.

Brecknockshire has no important manufacture, except that of iron, which employs a large number of persons. The works are chiefly situated near the south-eastern border, and are those of Clydach, in Llanelly; Beaufort, in Llangattock; Romney, and Ynyscederni. Attempts were at one time made to establish the linen and woollen manufactures, but without permanent success. Flannel, coarse cloth, baize, and stockings are made to a small extent. There are numerous tanyards, and the leather made is considered of excellent quality. The county exports cattle and sheep, manufactured iron, leather, fire-clay, &c.

The remains of antiquity in this county are numerous and interesting. Among those of British origin are several stone circles, camps, and cromlechs - one of the last mentioned is called Ty Illtyd; and remains of ancient camps or British towns may be seen at Penmyarth, Crûg Hywel, near Crickhowell, and at Venni Wood, Llanvillo, Aberbran, &c. Traces are found of two important Roman stations, the principal of which is the Caer Bannau, situated on the banks of the Usk, where the Yscir meets it. This is a rectangular camp, supposed to be identical with Bannium, a British town which preceded Brecknock, and was adopted as a station by the Roman general, Ostorius Scapula. This station occupied a space above 620 feet long and 456 feet broad, and the remains of it are still considerable, comprising the ruins of several ramparts and the foundations of walls, in several places from 3 to 6 feet high, partly overgrown with underwood. But the stones were removed by the Norman Conqueror of Brecknockshire, Newmarch, to his castle lower down the Usk, where the county town now stands.

Here is also a curious ancient relic called Maen-y-morwynion, or the Maiden Stone, adorned with carving, and bearing a Latin inscription, now almost obliterated. The other station, also called Caer, or Gaer, and of about the same extent, is near Cwm Dhu, in the hundred of Crickhowell. Fragments of bricks are strewed over the sites, and Roman coins have been found at both stations. The way called the Via Julia Montana, a branch of that formed along the south coast of Wales, and called the Via Julia Maritime, entered this county near Abergavenny (the Roman Gobannium), and passing the Caer and the Caer Bannau, crossed into Carmarthenshire. Scarcely any vestiges of this road remain. There were two vicinal or cross roads connected with the Caer Bannau, now called the Sarn Hir and the Sarn Helen, which are easily traceable.

With the exception of the remains of Brecknock Priory and College, there are no ruins of religious houses in the county. Many castles formerly existed here, and there are still interesting ruins of those of Brecknock, Crickhowell, Devynnock, Trêtower, besides smaller remains of those of Dinas, Builth, and Penkelly. At Brynllys is a round tower in good preservation. The county contains a large number of ancient mansions, once the seats of the principal families, but now mostly occupied as farmhouses. Among the chief modern seats are Glan Usk, Gevernvale, Dinas, Llangoed Castle, Castle Madoc, Penpont, and Pennoyre House.

The construction of the Brecon canal was commenced in 1793 and completed in 1811. It is 33 miles in length, extending from Brecknock by Clydach and Abergavenny to Pont-y-pool, where it joins the Monmouth canal. In the 18 miles between Brecknock and Clydach, it has a fall of 68 feet, with six locks. It passes along a noble aqueduct, 80 feet high, over the Clydach valley, whence it has a level course to Pont-y-pool. Easy communication is secured between this canal and the various extensive works on the confines of Monmouthshire, by several lines of railroad constructed shortly after its completion. There are also lines from Brecknock to Hay and Kington, and from Glan Usk to the Swansea canal, which enters the county in the south-west.

The principal roads in the county are the following: those from Brecknock to Crickhowell and Abergavenny; to Merthyr Tydvil; up the valley of the Usk to Trecastle; to Castle Madoc and Builth; and that from Hay to Talgarth and Crickhowell. A line of railway is projected to cross the county from N. to S., by Builth, Talgarth, and Brecknock, to meet the Vale of Neath railway at Merthyr Tydvil; and another line from Hereford, to enter the county at Hay, and meet the former at Talgarth.

[Description from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]

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