THE MARCHES AND MARCHER LORDS

In his rapid conquest of England, William the Conqueror decided to leave the fate of Wales in the hands of his acquisitive barons. He appointed three of these to exercise control over the border areas (or Marches) of Wales. Roger of Montgomery was made Earl of Shrewsbury with responsibility for the Middle March; Hugh d’Avranches was created Earl of Chester. William’s redoubtable cousin William FitzOsbern was made Earl of Hereford. He achieved much, before his early death fighting in Flanders in 1071, and was responsible for building frontier castles at Clifford, Chepstow, and Wigmore.

The Earls were supported by a number of barons, and these Marcher Lords were given special powers to bring adjacent parts of Wales under Norman control. They fought the Welsh, absorbed towns and villages and lay down their own laws and customs. They kept these lands along the March as rights of conquest, and they were areas where ‘the King’s writ does not run’. Following the rebellion of Roger FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, in 1075 there was a more haphazard expansion of these Marcher lordships. They were of very different sizes, from the great lordship of Glamorgan to the much smaller Wigmore, under the young Ralph Mortimer (d.1115). Some of the first lords, like Bernard of Neufmarche, did not have an extended family, but other names like De Braose, Fitzalan, Marshall, de Clare, de Lacy and Mortimer were to last through several generations – the line of the Mortimers of Wigmore till 1425.

According to the Domesday Book, Ralph was granted extensive lands across England. Nevertheless he was soon moving a private army into mid-Wales to extend the area he controlled, close to his home at Wigmore. All his knights and freemen were under obligation to fight for him. As a Marcher Lord he could set taxes, administer justice, and build castles. Eventually the Mortimer family would endow abbeys, establish new boroughs, and have their own stewards, sheriffs, and treasurers.

The boundary between the areas under Norman rule and those controlled by the Welsh remained flexible as one side or the other gained the ascendancy. Almost from the beginning of Norman rule, however, the March included most of the south of Wales to Pembrokeshire and large stretches of the Northern coast (excepting Gwynedd and Anglesey) as well as the lands on the Welsh border. In 1301 there were some forty fiercely independent Marcher Lords: a great asset to the King – except when they turned against him!

The Situation in the first half of the 13th Century

Green - Pura Wallia (independent Wales)
Orange - Marchia Wallia (lands rules by the Marcher barons)

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