Hay Castle – the ultimate secondhand bookstore?


When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they did not count on perpetual trouble from the adjacent Principality of Wales – but that is what they got. William the Conqueror (1028 – 1087) brought a feudal system of governance with him from Normandy, with individual knights swearing fealty to their liege lord, and everyone, ultimately, swearing allegiance to the King. In return, the King gave out lands in the form of manors – the more important noblemen receiving many of these to form large landholdings – where his rule held sway. However, it wasn’t quite like that on the border between England and Wales. This area was know as the Welsh Marches, and it was held by ‘Marcher Lords’ who were charged with subduing the unruly Welsh and preventing raids into England proper. In exchange for this arduous duty, they were given a free hand inside their lands, and although ultimately responsible to the King, could impose what laws and taxes as they saw fit.

The Normans broke into this area of what is now the Welsh County of Powys in 1070 AD, and erected a typical motte and bailey castle close to the current parish church of St Mary. The site is now marked by a grassed mound, approximately 10 feet high at the center, and 65 feet in diameter. Unlike the usual practice of simply replacing the wooden structure on top of the motte with a stone keep, a completely different site overlooking the crossing on the River Wye and the Dulas Brook into England, was chosen. A four-storey keep was built by William de Braose, a Marcher Lord, in around 1200 AD. It is this structure, which we now see near the center of the town, which is probably referred to in 1211 AD as the ‘Castello de Haia’.

The border was a savage and dangerous place, with pitched battles and border raids taking place regularly. Hay Castle changed hands and its owners changed sides, leading to it being burnt by both the Welsh AND the English. In 1230, William de Braose went visiting to see the Welsh Prince, Llewlyn the Great (1172 – 1240) – who was married to Joan, the natural daughter of King John of England. Let us say that William rather overstepped the bounds of Llewelyn’s hospitality, as he was found with Joan in her bedchamber! Prince Llewelyn hanged him. To top things off, he attacked, sacked and burnt Hay Castle in 1233. It was rebuilt by Henry III (1207 – 1272), the son of King John.

Hay Castle became part of the great estates held by Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, in the 15th century, but the next significant development was the erection of a Jacobean manor, attached to the keep, in the year 1660. Unfortunately, this lovely building was semi-destroyed by fire in 1939, and then further damaged in another fire in 1977. As you can see, the section attached to the Norman keep has no roof, and there is only the outer wall in existence. The other section has been re-roofed, and was owned by Richard Booth, the self-styled ‘King of Hay’ from the 1960s. A passionate buyer and seller of books, with a second-hand bookstore in town, Richard Booth virtually re-invented Hay-on-Wye (as it had become) and launched the wildly successful Hay Festival, with its strong literary base.

A bookstore was established inside the ‘habitable’ parts of the Manor, as well as the famous open-air ‘Honesty Bookshop’, established in front of the keep. You can see a sign for the Honesty Bookshop in this photograph. There is a strongly worded notice on the Manor warning that those who wish to enter to buy books do so at their own risk – a sign unlike that on any other bookstore I have ever encountered. They must stock some really dangerous fiction!

Hay Castle is a Grade One Listed Building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, yet it faces huge challenges, as the structure desperately needs stabilization and restoration work. Richard Booth decided that he could no longer support the property and put it on the market in 2011. A local Charitable Trust, the Hay Castle Trust, was quickly formed, and the Castle purchased by them for £2 million. The Trust have already started fund-raising and organizing events to raise more money. They have splendid plans to roof the gutted section of Manor with glass, and create an indoor garden for the town. They will restore and re-purpose the rest of the manor as arts and educational space, holding exhibitions, drama performances and craft fairs. The existing circular grassed space beyond the Manor – which shows traces of the 18th century formal gardens, and the 19th century terraced garden, is already being used for arts exhibitions, and may be hired as a function space for weddings, formal dining, and other activities. The later Victorian outbuildings will be renovated and used as retail space – in a sympathetic manner, we are told. The Castle, will, of course become a major focus for the Hay Festival.

Hay Castle – a truly beautiful concept!


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