The town of Hay on Wye nestles in the Wye Valley in a bend of the river Wye, on its southern bank, and sits exactly on the border between England and Wales. It is situated in some of the most varied and stunningly beautiful countryside in Britain; with the glorious range of the Black Mountains marching away to the West, the rolling green hills of Radnorshire to the North, the Golden Valley and Herefordshire to the East and the wild, rugged beauty of the Brecon Beacons National Park stretching away to the South and West.
The name of the town, known locally as ‘The Hay’, is Norman in origin; the word ‘La Haie’ translating to ‘fenced enclosure’. In Welsh it is named ‘Y Gelli’, which translates as ‘grove or wood’. Like many Marcher towns it is both English and Welsh in character (the word ‘march’ comes from the Saxon ‘mearc’ meaning ‘border’). The genteel bulk of the Norman castle that dominates the centre of the town is a reminder of who was in control.
The fertile valley around Hay has been occupied since well before the Normans and there is evidence of a thriving Neolithic community there as early as BCE4000. A settlement at nearby Dorstone is estimated to have housed about 250 people, who would have been responsible for the impressive chambered long barrow tomb now known as Arthur’s Table after a local legend that the exposed and fractured roof stone was broken by King Arthur. This is one of six such settlements in the vicinity and 18 such tombs, all built on the flanks of hills facing the Black Mountains. The remains of one such tomb can be found in the fields above Penyrwrlodd Farm.
Later, in the Bronze age, the fashion changed to building round barrow tombs and stone circles, and examples of these can also be found in the area around Hay. In this period populations moved into larger settlements within hillforts for security against the new metal weapons. There is evidence of such a settlement on the northern bank of the River Wye at Hay, and of a Roman camp nearby.
Hay was not simply the boundary between Wales and England. During the Iron-age Celtic period it also stood on the boundary between the Silures tribe, to the West, and the Dobunni tribe to the East. The Dobunni, whose tribal capitals were at Cirencester and Gloucester, were tributary to the Catuvellauni tribe which dominated pre-Roman Britain and whose expansion, under King Caradoc and his brother Togidubnus, threatened Roman Gaul as well as Roman trade with their client kingdoms in Britain and thus precipitated the Roman invasion under Claudius in CE43.
Most of the tribes of South East England were Gaulish Celts; recent immigrants from France and Belgium within the previous few centuries, including many displaced by the Roman conquest of Gaul. The tribes of Wales had been settled for longer and had originated in Northern Spain. The Roman historian Tacitus suggests this, noting that the Silures had a darker complexion and curlier hair than their neighbours.
The object of the Roman invasion was to secure grain supplies from their client kingdoms in the flat fertile lowland plains of southern England, and to prevent them from uniting under the hostile Catuvellauni tribe into a powerful anti-Roman alliance that could threaten the Empire. Once the invading Romans had defeated Caradoc and Togidubnus at the Battle of Medway and later at the Battle of the Thames, securing these important river crossings and access to the tribal heartland and its capitals at Verulam (St Albans) and Camulodunum “fortress of the war god Camulos” (Colchester) – later to become the Roman capital in Britain, resistance largely ceased.
Caradoc, however, fled west to his allies, the Silures, and for nine years mounted a guerrilla campaign against the Romans from a base in the Black Mountains. Having secured their main objectives, the Romans then turned on the Silures and Ordovices in Wales, mounting an advance into Silures territory in CE48, the probable date of the Roman camp at Hay. In CE51 they defeated the Ordovices at the Battle of Caer Caradoc and shortly afterwards captured Caradoc after he was betrayed by Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes tribe in Cumbria to whom he had fled. Even without their leader the Silures continued resistance, regardless of whether Rome offered stick or carrot, until they were finally supressed in CE78. The Romans established a large legionary fortress at Isca (Caerleon) and built a new Romanised tribal capital of Venta Silurum at Caerwent in CE75.