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Discovering Crickhowell, Wales

Discovering Crickhowell, Wales

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History of Crickhowell

By Marco Stojanovik

Crickhowell is a small market town in South Wales, located in the beautiful Usk Valley, to the south of the Black Mountains within Brecon Beacons National Park. The town is a popular tourist location from which to experience the scenery of Brecon Beacons and partake in enjoyable outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain-biking, rock climbing, fly-fishing and more. While a tour of Crickhowell itself reveals a range of attractive ancient sites that tell of the town’s interesting history from a castle settlement to picturesque town. This article explores this history to assist your tour.

An aerial view of the Welsh Town Crickhowell and River Usk

Prehistory – Crug Hywel

The name Crickhowell, anglicized version of the Welsh name Crug Hywel, tells of the town’s prehistory. Crug Hywel, meaning Hywel’s Rock, refers to the prehistoric fort on top of Table Mountain – the flat-topped hill that stands above the town. The fort is believed to have been established by Hywel Dda who ruled over most of Wales in the mid-10th century. 

A sheep near the summit of Table Mountain, Wales

Origins of Crickhowell Castle

Crickhowell Castle was founded soon after the Norman Conquest sometime in the late 11th century. At first it was a motte and bailey with timber buildings, most likely built by Robert Tuberville, vassal of the lord Bernard de Neufmarche

Bernard conquered the Welsh Kingdom of Brycheiniog between 1088 and 1095 and Crickhowell’s location – on the banks of the river Usk, a key communication and trade artery into central Wales – was important for control of the region.

By the early 12th century, the castle was firmly in the hands of the de Turberville family, remaining in their possession for over 150 years until the death of Hugh de Turberville in 1293. Then without a male heir, the castle passed to Sir Grimbald Pauncefote who married Hugh’s daughter, Sybil.

Prior in 1272, as the castle governor, Pauncefote had rebuilt the castle in stone upgrading it into a substantial fortification with a stone shell keep, gatehouses, and towers.

Crickhowel Castle. From a Survey in the beginning of the 16th Century.

Town’s Early History

The town developed around the time of the refortification of the castle, laid around it with regular streets and building plots. In 1281, the settlement became official with Edward I of England granting a charter confirming its right to existing markets and fairs. And two years later it was upgraded to a borough status designating a self-governing walled town.  

The town became a parish following the building of the parish church, St Edmunds Church, in 1303 by Lady Sibyl Pauncefote. Her effigy, along with her husband’s, lies within the church.

Keith Daulby / St Edmunds Crickhowell / CC BY 3.0

Both the castle and town fell under control of the powerful Mortimer family in the 14th century. The castle declined as a smaller holding within a large portfolio of lands, titles, and larger castles. Its alternative name, Alisby’s castle, is after Gerard Alisby, appointed Constable by Roger Mortimor, Earl of March at this time. 

Downfall of the Town

In 1402 with the political stability of Wales threatened by the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, the castle returned to the Pauncefote family on the royal command of King Henry IV. With this Sir John Paunceforte, great-grandson of Sir Grimbaldrefortified the town to defend against the threat of attack. However, his efforts were unsuccessful with the castle sacked and destroyed by Glyndwr’s rebels a year later in 1403. 

The castle was abandoned, never to regain its former status, drifting into ruin. The town too was badly damaged and fell out of prosperity into a long-lasting hardship. By the 17th century, 200 years later, it no longer had a market and consisted of only around 100 houses.

Alan Bowring / Remains of Crickhowell Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Crickhowell’s Revival 

During the Georgian and into the Victorian Period the town reemerged from its slump. The centre along High Street was completely redesigned in the attractive Georgian style and the market was re-established remaining vibrant until today.  

The famous stone bridge of Crickhowell over the river Usk was built in 1706 and modified between 1828 and 1830 with thirteen attractive arches on the upstream side and twelve on the downstream side.

Crickhowell Bridge and riverscape

Tower Street was rebuilt in 1850 and the new town-hall, Clarence Hall, was laid in 1890 with a reading-room, library, and a dispensary.  

The surviving mid-14th century Inns – the Bear Hotel with its cobbled yard and ‘post horses’ archway, as well as the White Hart Inn, and Malt House – also became more popular at this time. 

All sites remain as historic features of the town to visit today. 

Ben Brooksbank / Crickhowell, High Street in 1966 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Articles on Wales published by Odyssey Traveller.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Wales.