The Marches Borderlands.

The Wild West – well as far as England and Wales was concerned it was.

We need to go some way back in history. To 911 where Charles the Simple granted land to a group of ‘Northmen’ which would eventually come to be known as Normandy. Around 150 years later, the leader of the descendents of those Northmen, now called Normans, would invade from France to claim the throne of England.

Rhuddlan Castle. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

The English blood line claimed by the Norman chief, William I, or as is better known, William the Conqueror, is where we can begin to see an area we know as The Marches. Such was the effect of this that William changed the course of history for England and a significant part of Western Europe.

The term “The Marches” often needs some initial explanation. In fact the term is not completely clear, but may come from a border between territories which can also be identified as a ‘Mark’. In this case we are exploring the Welsh Marches. The border is not perfectly described, indeed, having moved quite a lot over a history of hundreds of years but a repeating theme focused on what we now know as Shropshire and Herefordshire.

Laura’s Tower, Shrewsbury. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

As a border area, as you might expect, the area is littered with fortifications although these are much more than just castles. Fortified houses and ancient hill forts are also a key part of the Marches territory, and these are found dotted around the landscape. Motte and Bailey castles were the standard type of castle constructed by the Normans in the Welsh Marches. You can imagine that these were what the Normans found, then used, and finally improved upon after their arrival in England. This has echoes of Roman engineers who adopted and adapted new techniques for their own use. Soon after their arrival the Normans began constructing some of their castles with stone. This alleviated the danger of fire to timber structures.

Going even further back in history, following the Roman occupation of most of Britain, Wales consisted of a number of kingdoms. To fill the power void after 410 AD the Angles and Saxons established their power bases in southern and eastern Britain and after a time there was a thirst to expand territories further west. The boundary of Offa’s Dyke signalled what would become the key frontier territory. Offa’s Dyke can of course still be seen in the region and is the focus of a long-distance walking route.

Ancient mark, Offa’s Dyke. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

There are a few sources that contain specific information relating directly to the Welsh Marches during the second half of the eleventh century. They are The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Domesday Book, and Brut y Tywysogion.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Brut y Tywysogion were recorded and collected by monks to document the important events affecting the border lands between England and Wales and written in English.

Denbigh Castle in the mist. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

The Domesday Book was commissioned by William I of England, with the information gathered by his assessors written by scribes in Latin.

The Brut y Tywysogion was written in vernacular Welsh.

These different perspectives highlight the differences between the records of the time and highlight the friction between the various factions. There was no single common language, of culture, or outlook shared between the groups of peoples.

Fortified manor house, Stokesay Castle. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

After 1066, the Norman Conquest a few trusted nobles were installed to control this border territory. Hugh d’Avranches, Roger de Montgomerie and William FitzOsbern were given earldoms around the areas of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. It was around this time that ‘March of Wales’ was first noted, used in the Domesday Book (1086). The Marcher Lords set up a number of controls along the border between the estuaries of the Severn in the south and the Dee in the north.

So we now come to ‘Marchia Wallie’ or the Welsh Marches and by the 12th century the term referred to something like two thirds of what we know as Wales. Quite an extensive building programme was established in the next two hundred years and evidence of this can be seen from examples as far north as Flint and Mold. This was very much seen as the wild west of Britain until the Industrial Revolution.

Bathed at sunset, British Camp hill fort. (The Marches in Photographs, Amberley Publishing)

The region around Ludlow and Hereford are seen are the centre of The Marches and indeed, the council of Wales and the Marches had its centre of administration in Ludlow first established in 1472 by Edward IV. Ludlow is in fact a perfect location to begin your own exploration of The Marches.

Bryan Phillips's book The Marches in Photographs is available for purchase now.