History of Herefordshire

Not to be confused with History of Hertfordshire.

The History of Herefordshire starts with a shire in the time of Athelstan (895–939), and Herefordshire is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1051. The first Anglo-Saxon settlers, the Magonsætan, were a sub-tribal unit of the Hwicce who occupied the Severn valley. The Magonsætan were said to be in the intervening lands between the Rivers Wye and Severn. The undulating hills of marl clay were surrounded by the Welsh mountains to the west; the Malvern Hills to the east; the Clent Hills of the Shropshire borders to the north, and the indeterminate extent of the Forest of Dean to the south. The shire name first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was derived from "Here-ford", Old English for "Army crossing", the location for the city. The area was covered first by Offa of Mercia, who constructed the dyke as a boundary to keep warring tribes out of the Mercian kingdom: an early indication of the ambivalent relations with the Welsh. The shire as an administrative unit was developed from Alfred the Great's Burghal Hidage, and the Shire-reeve courts of the Hundred. King Edgar the Ætheling was a regular visitor, and founded the diocese, previously part of the see of Worcester, in 976. The establishment of a centre of law and justice was supported by a monastic chapter that flourished during the Tenth century Reformation. Hereford's geographical location at the hub of the shire allowed Anglo-Saxon ealdormen to manage affairs; and Hereford played a vital role in the Scandinavian wars until Ralph, Earl Hereford was deposed by the regal Earl Harold Godwinson.

In the feudal Domesday Survey some adjacent areas of the Welsh Marches are assessed under Herefordshire. The western and southern borders remained debatable ground ("Archenfield") until, with the incorporation of the Welsh Marches in 1535, considerable territory was annexed to Herefordshire. These areas formed the hundreds of Wigmore, Ewyas Lacy and Huntington, while Ewyas Harold was subsumed into Webtree Hundred. At the time of the Domesday Survey the divisions of the county were very unsettled. As many as nineteen hundreds are mentioned, but these were of varying extent, some containing only one manor, some from twenty to thirty. Of the twelve modern hundreds, only Greytree, Radlow, Stretford, Wolphy and Wormelow retained their original Domesday names. The others were Broxash, Ewyas-Lacy, Grimsworth, Huntington, Webtree and Wigmore. Herefordshire is on the Welsh border (and before that the ancient boundary of the Welsh Marches).

In the modern era the boundaries of the Forest were not set until 1750, by which period several Bishops Peculiars were reassessed for land valuation and redistribution. Some land in the north-west of the county was ceded to Shropshire, and some land in the east to Worcestershire. However in the south-west the Golden Valley lands were confirmed as Herefordiensis (Herefordian). A unique source for the history of the county in the Chained Library contained some of the earliest printed books in Europe, printed by the Gutenburg press. During the Civil wars it acted as a royal treasury.

During the medieval period the county had been defined in law by violence and cruel punishments. It played a large part in various civil wars; spawned a Royal Duke; and gave rise to Lollardism. A fiercely independent folk and a position on the border with Wales gave the county a reputation for a frontier mentality. Many were hanged for hayrick burning, owing to the relatively low agricultural wage, during the Captain Swing Riots and later. However in contrast to Norfolk, for example, it did not form a militant agricultural workers union.

But the civilising influence of the 18th century enlightenment ushered in an era of poets and painters, clerics and the picturesque. Tourism from Tintern Abbey to the Malvern Spas revisited the royalism of years past.

Herefordshire continued to be backward in industrial development: the canals and railways arrived later than elsewhere in England. Development reflected local needs: processing cider apples, manufacturing agricultural machinery. It was not until 1930s that the first female councillors were elected, and that a rural bus service could provide a short journey into Hereford. The population remained static for 150 years until 2000, at about 150,000.

Historical setting

Welsh control

Prior to the arrival of the West Saxons, the region roughly corresponding to modern Herefordshire lay under the control of earlier Welsh kingdoms, principally the minor kingdom of Ergyng. Welsh origins in Herefordshire are evident in the survival of the Welsh language in parts of the county until the 19th Century, the survival of many Welsh place names and the historic Welsh commote of Archenfield.[1]

Archenfield was still Welsh enough in the time of Elizabeth for the bishop of Hereford to be made responsible together with the four Welsh bishops for the translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh. Welsh was still commonly spoken here in the first half of the nineteenth century, and we are told that churchwardens’ notices were put up in both Welsh and English until about 1860.[2]

Welsh was spoken by individuals until comparatively recently.

Anglo-Saxon control

At some time in the 7th century the West Saxons pushed their way across the Severn and established themselves in the territory between Wales and Mercia, and established the minor kingdom of Magonset, which was later absorbed into Mercia. The district which is now Herefordshire was occupied by a tribe the Hecanas, who congregated chiefly in the fertile area about Hereford and in the mining districts round Ross-on-Wye. In the 8th century Offa extended the Mercian frontier to the Wye, securing it by the earthwork known as Offa's Dyke.

Danish and Norman control

In 915 the Danes made their way up the Severn to the district of Archenfield, where they took prisoner Cyfeiliawg, Bishop of Llandaff, and in 921 they besieged Wigmore, which had been rebuilt in that year by Edward. From the time of its first settlement the district was the scene of constant border warfare with the Welsh, and Harold, whose Earldom included this county, ordered that any Welshman caught trespassing over the border should lose his right hand. In the period preceding the Conquest much disturbance was caused by the outrages of the Norman colony planted in this county by Edward the Confessor. Richard's castle in the north of the county was the first Norman fortress erected on English soil, and Wigmore, Ewyas Harold, Clifford, Weobley, Hereford, Donnington and Caldicot were all the sites of Norman strongholds. Then William the Conqueror entrusted the subjugation of Herefordshire to William FitzOsbern, but Edric the Wild in conjunction with the Welsh prolonged violent resistance against him for two years.

Return to English control

During "The Anarchy" – the prolonged civil war of Stephen's reign – Hereford Castle and Weobley castle were held against the King, but were captured in 1138. Edward, afterwards Edward I, was imprisoned in Hereford Castle, and made his famous escape thence in 1265. In 1326 the parliament assembled at Hereford which deposed Edward II. In the 14th and 15th centuries the forest of Deerfold gave refuge to some of the most noted followers of Wycliffe. During the Wars of the Roses the influence of the Mortimers led the county to support the Yorkist cause, and Edward, afterwards Edward IV, raised 23,000 men in this neighbourhood. The Battle of Mortimer's Cross was fought in 1461 near Wigmore. Before the outbreak of the civil war of the 17th century, complaints of illegal taxation were rife in Herefordshire, but a strong anti-puritan feeling induced the county to favour the royalist cause. Hereford, Goodrich and Ledbury all endured sieges.

Earls of Hereford

The earldom of Hereford was granted by William I to William FitzOsbern, about 1067, but on the outlawry of his son Roger in 1074 the title lapsed until conferred on Henry de Bohun about 1199. It remained in the possession of the de Bohuns until the death of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford in 1373; in 1397 Henry, Earl of Derby, afterwards King Henry IV, who had married Mary de Bohun, was created Duke of Hereford. Edward VI created Walter Devereux, a descendant of the de Bohun family, Viscount Hereford, in 1550, and his grandson, the famous earl of Essex, was born in this county. Since this date the viscounty has been held by the Devereux family, and the holder ranks as the premier viscount of England. The families of Clifford, Giffard and Mortimer figured prominently in the warfare on the Welsh border, and the Talbots, Lacys, Crofts and Scudamores all had important seats in the county, Sir James Scudamore of Holme Lacy being the original of the Sir Scudamore of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Sir John Oldcastle, the leader of the Lollards, was sheriff of Herefordshire in 1406, before arrest and execution for treason by Henry V.


Herefordshire has been included in the diocese of Hereford since its foundation in 676. In 1291 it comprised the Deaneries of Hereford, Weston, Leominster, Weobley, Frome, Archenfield and Ross in the Archdeaconry of Hereford, and the Deaneries of Burford, Stottesdon, Ludlow, Pontesbury, Clun and Wenlock, in the Archdeaconry of Shropshire. In 1877 the name of the Archdeaconry of Shropshire was changed to Ludlow, and in 1899 the Deaneries of Abbey Dore, Bromyard, Kingsland, Kington and Ledbury were created in the Archdeaconry of Hereford. The Bishop held a number of Peculiarities in another jurisdiction: Dymock in Gloucestershire was named after a Queen's Champion from Lincolnshire who fought in the Welsh Wars for Edward I. But the manor long had connections with the Talbots, manorial landowners and familial relations from the county, proven by recent archaeology.[3] The manor was also occupied by the Roundheads and Scots during the Civil Wars, was on the railway line, and on the earlier canal from Hereford city.


Herefordshire was governed by a sheriff as early as the reign of Edward the Confessor, the shire court meeting at Hereford where later the assizes and quarter sessions were also held. In 1606 an act was passed declaring Hereford free from the jurisdiction of the Council of Wales, but the county was not finally relieved from the interference of the Marcher Lords until the reign of William and Mary. Herefordshire was first represented in parliament in 1295, when it returned two members, the boroughs of Ledbury, Hereford, Leominster and Weobley being also represented. Hereford was again represented in 1299, and Bromyard and Ross in 1304, but the boroughs made very irregular returns, and from 1306 until Weobley regained representation in 1627, only Hereford and Leominster were represented. Under the act of 1832 the county returned three members and Weobley was disfranchised. The act of 1868 deprived Leominster of one member, and under the act of 1885 Leominster was disfranchised, and Hereford lost one member.


Herefordshire has always been esteemed an exceptionally rich agricultural area, the manufactures being unimportant, with the sole exception of the woollen and the cloth trade which flourished soon after the Conquest. Iron was worked in Wormelow hundred in Roman times, and the Domesday Survey mentions iron workers in Marcle. At the time of Henry VIII the towns had become much impoverished, and Elizabeth to encourage local industries, insisted on her subjects wearing English-made caps from the factory of Hereford. Hops were grown in the county soon after their introduction into England in 1524. In 1580 and again in 1637 the county was severely visited by the plague, but in the 17th century it had a flourishing timber trade, and was also noted for its orchards and cider.


  1. http://www.kimkat.org/amryw/1_clawdd_offa/22_cymru_dros_glawdd_offa_enwau_euas_eng_cym_0980e.htm
  2. Transactions Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, 1887, page 173
  3. Transactions of Woolhope Naturalists Field Club


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