What is now a picturesque town in Powys, Wales, famed for the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, was once a brutal frontier. The dense network of castles that run north and south along the Welsh Marches, the borderland between England and Wales, attest to the conflict in the region during the medieval period. It’s also the reason for a myth surrounding the building of Hay Castle.
The legend goes that Hay Castle was built in a single night, by a giantess. The truth, of course, is far more down to earth, but the story of Hay Castle is nonetheless one of violence, treachery and tragedy.
Here’s the story of Hay Castle, and the tragic tale of its owners, William and Matilda de Braose.
The Ogre of Abergavenny
A castle was erected in Hay as part of Norman efforts to invade Wales after 1066. The original ringwork castle was located near to St Mary’s Church and the motte, known as Hay Tump, remains visible today. The castle that can be visited today was built in stone in the early 1200s and is associated with the de Braose family. William de Braose was close to King Richard I and then to King John before falling foul of John’s fickle temper.
William earned the nickname ‘The Ogre of Abergavenny’ in 1175. He invited local princes and barons from around Powys to a Christmas feast at his castle in Abergavenny as an act of reconciliation following some tension. Once they were all inside the Great Hall, William had the doors locked and slaughtered them to a man. He claimed it was done in revenge for the murder of his uncle. It added to his reputation as a brutal Marcher lord.
The Lady of Hay
Hay Castle is less about William de Braose, though, than his wife Matilda. Known as the Lady of Hay, she is much more closely associated with the town and castle. Matilda has a formidable reputation. In 1198 while her husband was on campaign in Normandy, she is credited with defending Painscastle from an attack by Welsh forces. Some stories tell of her riding out in armour to fight among her men, and the feat led to Painscastle being known as Matilda’s Castle.
One legend explains that Matilda was a giantess who built Hay Castle in one night. She carried the stones in her apron. There is one of them in St Mary’s Church because Matilda dropped it on her toe and threw it as far as the church in rage. Matilda was clearly a very impressive and well-respected lady in Hay, but she obviously didn’t build the castle in one night. There is a reason for the creation of this legend, though.
‘One night house’
Tŷ unnos, which translates from Welsh as ‘one night house’, is an old folk tradition that has parallels around the British Isles. Essentially, it states that if you can build a house within 24 hours on common land, you could keep the house and own the land it stood on freehold. Some traditions require smoke to be seen from the hearth to prove completion. Others said that an axe or something similar could be thrown from the four corners of the house to mark out the extent of the landholding. Although Tŷ unnos had no status in common law, it featured in medieval folk traditions.
The legend of Matilda de Braose building Hay Castle in one night probably sought to tap into this Welsh folklore. The de Braose family were Normans seeking to expand their landholdings by pushing into Wales. That meant taking land from the Welsh. By fostering the idea that Matilda built Hay Castle in one night, they were using Tŷ unnos to express their presence and their right to the land they had under Welsh law. The Normans were here, and they were staying. The land was theirs now.
Fall of a family
William and Matilda de Braose would fall foul of King John. William had been a favourite of the fickle king until they fell out for reasons that are unclear. John claimed William owed vast sums of money and called it in. Some chroniclers believed it was made worse when John demanded the couple’s sons as hostages. William had been given custody of John’s rival for the throne, his nephew Arthur, Duke of Brittany. It’s widely believed that John killed Arthur, perhaps even with his own hands.
Roger of Wendover reported that Matilda shown her defiance by telling messengers, “I will not deliver my sons to your lord, King John, for he foully murdered his nephew Arthur, whom he should have cared for honourably.” It was an understandable response, but it hardly made things better.
Unwilling or unable to pay the sums demanded, the family fled to Ireland. John pursued them. Matilda and their oldest son William tried to escape to Scotland but were captured and handed over to John. William managed to escape to France. Matilda and William Junior were imprisoned (either at Corfe Castle or Windsor, depending on which source is believed). John ordered them starved.
A gruesome end
The Anonymous of Bethune, a contemporary chronicler, wrote, “on the eleventh day the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright but leaning back against her son’s chest as a dead woman. The son, who was also dead, sat upright, leaning against the wall as a dead man. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks. When William de Braose, who was in Paris, heard this news, he died soon afterwards, many asserting that it was through grief.”
It was a gruesome end to the story of a powerful woman. William died shortly afterwards in Paris, with some blaming it on a broken heart after hearing what had happened to his wife and oldest son.
The grand reopening
On 26 May 2022, Hay Castle opened to the public – for the first time in its 900-year history. The reopening was thanks to the work of the Hay Castle Trust, which purchased the castle in 2011 when it was on the brink of being lost forever. The castle and Jacobean mansion inside were then renovated.
The renovation and opening of Hay Castle is a reminder of the stories attached to the stronghold, but also of its brutal past on a violent frontier. It has been transformed from a place of closed doors, designed to keep everyone out, into a welcoming community institution dedicated to sharing its history with visitors.