History of Builth Wells
Builth Wells (Welsh: Llanfair ym Muallt) is a town in the county of Powys, within the historic boundaries of Brecknockshire, mid Wales, lying at the confluence of the River Wye and the River Irfon, in the Welsh (or Upper section) of the Wye Valley. It has a population of 2,352.
Builth derives from the Welsh Bu Allt, meaning the wild ox of the wooded slope. The Welsh name Llanfair-ym-Muallt means The church of St. Mary in Buallt (Buallt mutating to Muallt).
History and geography
Builth first emerged in post-Roman times, probably on the other side of the Irfon river from its present site at Dol Eglwys (Church Mound) where a ruined early medieval church is thought to have stood. Vortigern, the British ruler alleged to have invited the Saxons to Britain is sometimes said to have owned land in nearby Builth Road on the Radnorshire side of the River Wye; the site previously having been known as Cwrt Llechrhyd. Early Post-Roman Builth was an independent kingdom. The most famous ruler was Elystan Glodrydd from whom many local gentry claimed descent. As an important component of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren, a political entity referred to in the poems of Taliesin, Builth was regularly at war with the Kingdom of Powys. Ecclesiastically, the Deanery of Builth has always been part of St Davids / later Swansea and Brecon, rather than St Asaph, the Powys diocese. Glodrydd probably lived at Llanafan Fawr rather than the modern site of Builth Wells. Until the foundation of the Norman town Llanfair ym Muallt the main settlement was Llanafan. Stories about Philip de Braose centre on Llanafan not modern Builth.
The site of the town controls an important ford across the Wye and the crossing point of the main north-south route in Wales and an important south-west-east route. It was militarily and economically significant for centuries. The Welsh name for the town “Llanfair ym Muallt” refers to the foundation of a Norman church dedicated to St Mary. The churchyard is however, a truncated oval which is strongly suggestive of an original Celtic foundation. The town was laid out as two streets connecting a castle and a church and was protected by a hedge rather than a wall. This type of town is sometimes called a Bastide, a kind of medieval market settlement. In exchange for rights to live and trade in the market of the new town skilled townspeople paid the lord various dues. In many parts of Wales the skilled workers were of Flemish or English origin. However, Builth may have had important significance in Welsh language culture as The Mabinogion was long thought to have been recorded in its final form by medieval monks here and recent historical opinion has shifted to a view that it was written down by a lawyer in Builth.
Despite repeated destructive fires, at one time involving a charitable collection in London, Builth Wells grew as a traditional Welsh market town. It received major boosts from the development of toll roads; it was at the centre of early road networks and the arrival of the railway at Llanelwedd. The railway allowed it to develop as a spa, and is well known nationally as the location of the Royal Welsh Showground, home to the Royal Welsh Show (although the showground is actually over the river Wye in Llanelwedd, Radnorshire).
The existing Builth Castle was built under King Edward I, the construction taking nearly five years in the 1270s. It replaced an earlier castle built by the Marcher Baron Philip De Braose who claimed the area as a Marcher lordship (Marcher lords were substantially independent of the King of England and the Prince of Gwynedd). There may also have been an earlier castle at Caerberis (the fort of Peris) on the north side of the River Irfon near protecting the original settlement. Owain Glyndŵr’s forces attacked Builth Castle when it was in the charge of John Oldcastle during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr and it was repaired in 1409, the bill being £400.
The death of prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
Cilmeri – 11 th December 1282
Perhaps no other event of this kind is so contentious and has been so mis-represented over the
years. The events leading up to Llywelyn’s final conflict with the English are complex, but we do
know that following the unexpected success of the Welsh at Menai Straits, Llywelyn and his army
came South through Powys, arriving just outside Builth in December 1282. Rumours, and some
evidence appear to show that Roger Lestrange was credited with the means whereby Llywelyn’s
death was accomplished.
Llewelyn appears to have led a large army to the Llanganten area, from where he sent men to
receive the homage of the men of Brycheiniog. Apparently, through good intelligence, the
supporters of king Edward I had also assembled a large force in the area.
Several sources from the 13 th century, both English and Welsh, have Llywelyn’s army occupying the
hillside between the rivers Wye and Irfon near their confluence, with a strategically important bridge
nearby being held by the Welsh. There are conflicting accounts of the ensuing battle, but mostl seem
to agree that prince Llywelyn was not with his army at the time of his death. He was mortally
wounded by an English knight but not recognised until later, when his request for a priest was
denied and he was beheaded with a sword.
Archbishop Pecham refers to seeing a treasonable letter disguised by false names found in the most
secret part of Llywelyn’s body, along with his privy seal, which perhaps adds weight to the many
conspiracy theories that survive, including traditional links to the village of Aberedw that first appear
in the late 16 th century. Roger Lestrange in his report to the king stated that Llywelyn was killed, his
army defeated, and the flower of his men killed.
The imposing granite monument in the village of Cilmeri replaced the original erected by Squire
Bligh of Cilmeri Park in 1956. It is traditionally believed that it was close to this spot that Prince
Llywelyn was killed, and the nearby well was where his head was washed following execution. His
body is thought to be buried at Abby Cwm Hir but his severed head was displayed at the Tower of
London for many years afterwards.
The Welsh struggle against the English continued until the wars of Owen Glyndwr in the 15 th century.
ByT Peniarth MS 20
Rh Griffiths, 1282, pp11
The name Builth is derived from the Welsh Bu-Allt which loosely translated means ‘cattle range’. The White Bull of Builth may be a reference to a herd of White Park Cattle that lived in the area from Post-Roman times. Two herds survived in Wales to modern times. The laws of the time suggest that the medieval and later economy of the Welsh borders was strongly dependent on cattle. The Hereford cattle breed, named after Hereford market where it was most prominently sold was the main breed of the Welsh borders. Builth was the market for a variant of the Hereford called the Builth Smokey Face. This was the traditional animal of the area but the breed has not existed for many, many decades. The Welsh Black cattle have very little to do with the history of Builth, except in so far as Cardiganshire cattle-drovers drove herds of cattle through Builth to markets in England. Beef cattle have largely vanished from the area.
The Beulah Speckled Face is a local breed of sheep. Nearby Mynydd Epynt was famous for its horses until it was seized for military training purposes.
The beef cattle market has vanished and economically sheep are now vastly more important than cattle with consequences for the traditional woodlands of the area, the salmon runs and other important ecological features.
The town is served by Builth Road railway station on the Heart of Wales Line, which is located just over a mile to the north, having lost its more central (Builth Wells) railway station on the Mid-Wales Railway in the 1960s under the Beeching Axe. A dedicated cycle route linking the town with Swansea has been proposed and a 13-mile section of the route from Swansea has already been developed.
One of the main Wales north-south trunk roads, the A483, passes through the town, using the former railway route. As of June 2009 part of this road, along with the other main route through town (A470), is the subject of a transport study by the Welsh Assembly to help alleviate traffic congestion in the town centre.
The 18th century bridge at Builth Wells carries heavy vehicles on the A470. It has six fine masonry spans, with relatively small round cutwaters, which are fitted on the upstream side with stout steel fenders to provide protection from debris. The centre of the bridge has a pedestrian refuge on each side. The arches have been reinforced by a layer of concrete in the soffit.
Education and recreation
Welsh Black bull bronze at Builth Wells
Builth Wells High School is the local bilingual secondary school. In 2000 it was placed 67th in Wales for its GCSE results (5 GCSEs, grades A-C) with a pass rate of 59%. According to the latest report byEstyn, however, it now has a pass rate of 77% and is the 9th best performing state secondary school in Wales. The high school is also the 2nd best performing state secondary school in Powys afterLlanidloes High School. For comparison, 95% of pupils in Christ College Brecon gained five or more GCSEs in 2008.
Builth Wells is home to local rugby union team Builth Wells RFC also known as ‘The Bulls’.
The local arts centre is the Wyeside Arts Centre, with two cinemas and a live performance stage.
Builth Wells also has a cricket pitch, tennis courts, a football pitch, a sports centre with squash courts, a 25m swimming pool and a bowling green.
Builth Wells has the distinction of having one of the very few post boxes in the United Kingdom bearing the cypher of King Edward VIII, the uncrowned king whose abdication in 1936 caused a constitutional crisis.
The cypher of King Edward VIII above the former Post Office