Hereford means “army ford”, a reference to the turbulent days of its foundation when the Kingdom of Mercia was pushing westwards into Welsh territory. Excavations have uncovered the Saxon town rampart. For centuries the English settlers and the Welsh beyond the River Wye were uneasy neighbors, and in 1055 the town went up in flames. Harold Godwinson, later King Harold, drove back the invaders and rebuilt the shattered defenses.
In Norman times, the enclosed area doubled in size and a walled circuit replaced the earthwork defenses from 1224 onward. Hereford rebuffed a Scottish army in 1645 but fell to Parliament at the end of the year. Damaged during these sieges, the city wall suffered the common fate of demolition and concealment thereafter. However, clearance in the 1960s for the Victoria Street bypass has led to the re-appearance of much of the western part of the circuit, extending from the river almost to West Street. The wall is mutilated but it preserves two semi-circular bastions. All the gatehouses have perished, including the one which guarded the medieval Wye Bridge. There was no wall on the riverside, but remains of a ditch show that the medieval city had a suburb on the opposite bank.
According to John Leland, Hereford Castle was one of the “largest, fairest and strongest” in England, so its virtual disappearance is a great pity. Castle suffered from too close a proximity to the cathedral. In 1140 the Empress Matilda’s supporters fired stones and arrows into the bailey from the central tower, a forerunner of the present one. Henry III found himself a prisoner here after of Battle of Lewes, but his son Edward escaped and rallied the royal forces to victory over Simon de Montfort at Evesham.The defenses of this royal stronghold were torn down at the Restoration.
Hertford was one of the burgs founded by King Edward the Elder during the English re-conquest of the Danelaw. It was no doubt soon after 1066 that William the Conqueror raised the castle beside the River Lea. In general form, Hertford Castle resembles Berkhamsted – a motte and bailey once surrounded by a double moat, with much of its flint curtain still standing. The earthworks of the castle do not compare favorable, since the motte is surprisingly small and the moats have long been filled in. Royal expenditure is recorded in 1171-74, and the curtain probably dates at least partially from that time. The octagonal tower at the south angle of the enclosure is a later medieval addition.
Like Berkhamsted, the castle endured its only recorded siege in 1216, falling to the rebels during the Dauphin Louis’ campaign to win the English throne. A frequent royal residence up to Henry III’s reign, the castle declined in favor thereafter. Edward III granted it to his mother, the indomitable Queen Isabella, and those trophies of Edward’s military successes-David II of Scotland and John II of France-both saw spells of imprisonment here. An equally reluctant royal visitor was England’s own Richard II, who was deposed in the castle before moving on to his death at Pontefract.
The castle enjoyed a revival under Henry IV. He built the brick gatehouse in 1461-65. The gatehouse is an oblong structure with shallow angle turrets, the plain surface of the walls being enriched just below parapet level by blank arcades echoing machicolations. This feature is enough to show that the gatehouse was more for show than for defense. However, the original arrangements have been obscured by later adaptation. Occupation of the gatehouse continued long after the rest of the castle had been abandoned, and in1790 it was enlarged.