In 794, Mercian King Offa, the builder of dykes - yes, there were two - murdered King Ethelbert the East Anglian through coercion or spite. Inviting his rival to take the hand of his daughter, Offa had his rival beheaded where Marden now stands. Interred where he fell - near Sutton Walls, Offa’s palace - the guilt-ridden leader had regret in his heart. Ethelbert’s corpse was exhumed, taken to Hereford Cathedral and reburied in pomp and installed as a saint. Yet that wasn’t all - Offa had the region’s ecclesiastical centre rededicated as St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelbert the King.
King Richard I sold Hereford to its people; in return for their maintaining its defences against enemy attack. In this borderlands region, frequently such threats came from the mutinous Welsh - led by its Princes and disparate bands. Dated 9th October 1189, Richard’s Charter ensured the king raised his funds for crusades in the East.
Largely owing to the threat from the Welsh, William the Conqueror installed three Earls of the Marches, building three* (known) earthen-work castles before 1066… Pentecost Castle (now Ewyas Harold) is acknowledged as the nation’s first Norman castle (1050); while Hereford and Richard’s (both 1052) made up the trio of early control. [*A fourth, Robert’s Castle, was thrown up in Clavering, Essex.]
Subject of ongoing myth and confusion, Fair Rosamund left Clifford Castle caught up in a 12th century murder…amidst claims of immoral and traitorous sex. Her illicit affair with King Henry II, was said to have started while Queen Eleanor was confined with the future King John. As others alleged, the king’s wife saw her rival was cruelly poisoned, and insisted the girl be dug up and put in a commoner’s grave. Her lasting epitaph then made sure her reputation was sullied: ‘This tomb doth here enclose the world’s most beauteous Rose; Rose passing sweet erewhile, now nought but odour vile’!
Those bickering cousins, Stephen and Empress Maud (Matilda), traded Hereford and its county in the course of their war. In Easter 1138, Stephen took the city from those who supported the ‘never-was Queen’, pursuing Geoffrey Talbot - her favourite - and the biggest thorn in his side. Yet a few short months later, Maud took Hereford Castle - through the violent machinations of Talbot the same. Such changeable times were never long-lasting, as Stephen recovered not only the castle but the county as well. At Whitsunday service, slightly later that year, he declared himself monarch whilst sat on his temporary ‘throne’.
John of Gaunt (Ghent), progenitor of scores of rival monarchs of England, was once (allegedly) Governor of Hereford Castle. His son, Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, was soon after appointed its first ever Duke, recognising the importance of the city itself. Meanwhile Gaunt, (rumoured illegitimate) son of Edward III, gave rise to at least three royal houses - the Lancasters, Yorks and the peace-making(!) Tudors.
Magna Carta monarch, King John sought help from the Welsh, when faced with troubles from the turbulent French. Installing himself in Hereford Castle, he spent a week in July 1216 failing to win their support.
The future Edward I (of the numerous ‘Welsh Castles’) was imprisoned in Hereford Castle by de Montfort, his foe. In spring 1265, while exercising his horse north of the city (Widemarsh), he tired both his guards and their mounts with his continual rides. At the last, having leapt on to a fresh horse he kept waiting, he escaped over the Common and on to Wigmore Castle’s estates.
Long before Edward II met his end in the dungeon at Berkeley Castle, his wife Queen Isabella saw him ripped from the throne. The so-called ‘she-wolf of France’, in cahoots with her lover - Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (of the castle at Wigmore) - returned from their self-imposed exile across the Channel in France. In Autumn 1326, the pair and her son - the future King Edward III - landed at Harwich and set about seizing the throne. Exercising her power, from Hereford Castle, she had one of Edward’s supporter - some say his homosexual lover - Despenser the Younger, hanged in the city on a gallows fifty feet high…
...Meanwhile, deposed Edward II was first taken to Ledbury before being removed to his hideous end…
…While his son, Edward III, when a man, avenged the death of his father: as Mortimer was hanged, Isabella exiled.
But for his death at the famed local skirmish - the eponymous Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (1461) - Owen Tudor, founder of the dynastic family, may himself have ascended the troublesome throne. Instead, 24 years before his grandson Henry VII, he succumbed to the future Edward IV, taken to Hereford and beheaded on the market cross steps. His body was buried in the town’s Greyfriars’ Church - had he not been so despatched, the nation might never have known Richard III, Bosworth or the Leicestershire car park in Leicester!
The oldest known depiction of Elizabeth I (as an icon) resides unassumingly in St Faith’s church, Bacton - ‘home’ to one of its own. The subject of ongoing research by Ruth E Richardson, local historian, the red-headed queen adorns a monument stone. Local worthy, Blanche Parry (1508-90), went from royal maid duties to become Queen Bess’ firm favourite…so much so that she forever remains near her single mistress’s side.
The Virgin Queen’s ‘lover’, meanwhile - Robert Devereux (Essex) - was himself a Herefordshire lad. Born 1565, at Netherwood near Bromyard - his manor house long-since pulled down - the politician and soldier became the queen’s ally and friend. Falling from grace, not least for his failed exploits in Ireland, he became the last person beheaded at the feared Tower of London (actually Tower Hill), dying in ‘shame’ in 1601.
Doomed King Charles I, after suffering defeat at the Battle of Naseby (1645), fled through the county until he found refuge at Dorstone castle…or having defeated the querulous Scots - besiegers of Hereford city, July to September the same year - he stayed for one night on his way to Holme Lacy. His triumph is commemorated in glass in the Cathedral’s south aisle.
By David J. Vaughan