BRECON, or Brecknock, a market town and municipal borough, the capital of Breconshire, Wales, 183 m. from London by rail, picturesquely situated nearly in the centre of the county, at the confluence of the Honddu with the Usk. Half a mile higher up the Tarell also falls into the Usk from the south. The ecclesiastical parish of Brecon consists of the two civil parishes of St John the Evangelist and St Mary, both on the left bank of the Usk, while St David’s in Llanfaes is on the other side of the river, and was wholly outside the town walls. Pop. (1901) 5875. There is only one line of railway, over which several companies, however, have running powers, so that the town may be reached by the Brecon & Merthyr railway from Merthyr, Cardiff and Newport, by the Cambrian from Builth Wells, or by the Midland from Hereford and Swansea respectively. The Great Western railway has also a service of road motors between Abergavenny and Brecon. A canal running past Abergavenny connects Brecon with Merthyr.
The Priory church of St John, a massive cruciform building, originally Norman with Early English and Decorated additions, is the finest parish church in Wales, and even taking into account the cathedrals it is according to E. A. Freeman “indisputably the third church not in a state of ruin in the principality,” its choir furnishing “one of the choicest examples of the Early English style.” Previous to the dissolution, a rood-screen bearing a gigantic rood, the object of many pilgrimages, stood to the west of the tower. The church was restored under Sir Gilbert Scott between 1861 and 1875. St Mary’s, in the centre of the town, and St David’s, beyond the Usk, are now mainly modern, though the former has some of the Norman arches of the original church. There is also a Roman Catholic church (St Michael’s) opened in 1851, and chapels belonging to the Baptists, Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists, and to the Congregationalists. In Llanfaes there was formerly a Dominican priory, but in 1542 Henry VIII. granted it with all its possessions to a collegiate church, which was transferred thither from Abergwili, and was given the name of Christ College. Many of the bishops of St David’s during the 17th century occasionally resided here, and several are also buried here. A small part of the revenues went to the maintenance of a grammar-school, but in 1841 the collegiate body was dissolved, and its revenues, then amounting to about £8000 a year, were transferred to the ecclesiastical commissioners. In 1853 Henry VIII.’s charter was repealed, and under a chancery scheme adopted two years later, £1200 a year was appropriated for the school. New school buildings were erected at a cost of about £10,000 in 1862, and these were enlarged at a cost of about £5000 in 1880. The chancel of the old Dominican chapel, dating from the 13th century, was restored in 1864, and is now the school chapel. There is also a Congregationalist theological college, built in 1869 at a cost of £12,000, and now affiliated with the university of Wales. The other chief buildings of the town are the shire hall built in 1842 in the Doric style from designs by T. H. Wyatt; the Guildhall; the barracks, which are the headquarters of two battalions of the South Wales Borderers; the county infirmary founded in 1832; and the prison (in Llanfaes) for the counties of Brecon and Radnor. There is a bronze statue of the duke of Wellington (erected in 1854) by John Evan Thomas, a native of the town. The town commands a magnificent view of the Brecknock Beacons, and is noted for its promenades on the banks of the Usk, and in the priory groves. Brecon is favourably known as a fishing centre, and there is also boating on the Usk and the canal. There are several houses of interest, notably the Priory and Dr Awbrey’s residence (now called Buckingham House), both built about the middle of the 16th century, but the finest specimen is Newton (about a mile out, near Llanfaes) built in 1582 by Sir John Games (a descendant of Sir David Gam), but now a farmhouse. The “Shoulder of Mutton” Inn, now known as the “Siddons Wine Vaults,” was the birthplace in 1755 of Mrs Siddons.
The name Brecknock is an anglicized form of Brycheiniog, the Welsh name of the territory of Brychan (whence the alternative form of Brecon), a Goidelic chieftain, who gained possession of the Usk valley in the 5th century. The Welsh name of the town, on the other hand, has always been Aber-Honddu (the estuary of the Honddu). There is no evidence of any settlement on the site of the present town prior to about 1092, when Bernard Newmarch, after defeating Bleddin ab Maenarch, built here a castle which he made his residence and the chief stronghold of his new lordship. For this purpose he utilized what remained of the materials of the Roman fort, 3 m. to the west, at Y Gaer, which some identify as Bannium. He subsequently founded, near the castle, the Benedictine priory of St John, which he endowed and constituted a cell of Battle Abbey. In time a town grew up outside the castle, and its inhabitants received a series of charters from the de Bohuns, into which family the castle and lordship passed, the earliest recorded charter being granted by Humphrey, 3rd earl of Hereford. Under the patronage of his great-grandson, the last earl of Hereford (who lived in great splendour at the castle), the town became one of the chief centres of trade in South Wales, and a sixteen days’ fair, which he granted, still survives as a hiring fair held in November. Further charters were granted by Henry IV. (who married Hereford’s co-heiress), by Henry V., who gave the town two more fairs, and by the Stafford family, to which the castle and lordship were allotted on the partition of the Bohun estates in 1421. Henry Stafford, 2nd duke of Buckingham, resided a good deal at the castle, and Morton, bishop of Ely, whose custody as a prisoner was entrusted to him, plotted with him there for the dethronement of Richard III., for which Stafford was executed in 1483. His son, Edward, the 3rd duke, who was born in the castle in 1478, had the estates restored to him, but, in 1521, suffered a like fate with his father, and the lordship and castle then vested in the crown. Both were acquired in the next century by the ancestors of Viscount Tredegar, to whom they now belong. By a statute of 1535 Brecon was made the county town of the new shire of Brecknock, and was granted the right of electing one burgess to represent it in parliament, a right which it retained till it was merged in the county representation in 1885. A chancery and exchequer for the counties of Brecknock and Radnor were also established at Brecon Castle, and from 1542 till 1830 the great sessions, and since then the assizes, and at all times the quarter sessions for the county, have been held at Brecon. The borough had also a separate court of quarter sessions till 1835. The town was incorporated by a charter granted by Philip and Mary in 1556 and confirmed by Elizabeth in the nineteenth year of her reign. A charter granted by James II. was never acted upon. The borough was placed under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, and until then the town of Llywel, which is 10 m. off, formed a ward of the borough. There were formerly five trade gilds in the town, the chief industries being cloth and leather manufactures. There are five ancient fairs for stock, and formerly each of them was preceded by a leather fair. The fairs held in May and November were also for hiring, much of the hiring being now done at the Guildhall, and not in the streets as used to be the case.
During the Civil War the greater part of the castle and of the town walls (which with their four gates were until then well preserved) were demolished by the inhabitants in order to prevent the town being either garrisoned or besieged. Charles I., however, stayed a night at the priory house shortly after the battle of Naseby. The chief ruins of the castle are now enclosed in the grounds of the Castle Hotel, the principal object being Ely tower, where Bishop Morton was imprisoned.
Besides those already mentioned the persons of note born in the town include Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham; Dr Hugh Price, founder of Jesus College, Oxford; Dr Thomas Coke, the first Wesleyan missionary bishop in America; and Theophilus Jones, the historian of the county. Henry Vaughan, the Silurist, at one time practised here as a doctor of medicine. (D. Ll. T.)