Haverfordwest (Welsh: Hwlffordd) is the county town of Pembrokeshire, Wales, and serves as the County’s principal commercial and administrative centre. Haverfordwest is the most populous urban area in Pembrokeshire, with a population of 13,367 in 2001; though its community boundaries make it the second most populous settlement in the county, with 10,812 people.
Haverfordwest is 6 miles away from the village of Broad Haven, part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the United Kingdom’s only coastal national park, which attracts thousands of tourists each year.
Haverfordwest is twinned with German town of Oberkirch.
Haverfordwest serves as the market town for most of the county of Pembrokeshire. It forms an important road network hub between other towns in Pembrokeshire such as Milford Haven, Pembroke Dock, Fishguard and St David’s, as a result of its position at the tidal limit of the western Cleddau river. The majority of the town, comprising the old parishes of St. Mary, St. Martin and St. Thomas, lies on the right (west) bank of the river. On the left bank are the suburbs of Prendergast and Cartlett. At this point, a pair of sandstone ridges extending east-west and separated by a deep, narrow valley, are cut through by the western Cleddau. This leaves two high spurs on the west side of the river. On the northern spur, the castle and its surrounding settlement form the core of St Martin’s parish. On the southern spur, the High Street ascends steeply from the river, and forms the core of St Mary’s parish. From the foot of each spur, ancient bridges cross the river to Prendergast: St Martin’s Bridge (“the Old Bridge”) and St Mary’s Bridge (“the New Bridge”, built in 1835). St Thomas’s parish occupies the south side of the southern spur. From these core areas, the town has spread, mainly along the ridges. In addition to the four ancient parish churches, the remains of an Augustinian priory are visible at the southern edge of the town.
The name of the town means “ford used by fat cows” from Old English hæfar=heifer, fat cows. In local dialect, it is pronounced “harford”. The Welsh language name is said by B.G. Charles to be “merely a corruption of the English name”, and as such has no meaning in Welsh. Another claim is that Tudor period monarchs called it “Hereford or Hertford in the West”, to distinguish it from either the English Hereford in Herefordshire or Hertford in Hertfordshire. The veracity of these competing explanations of the name origin continue to be a matter of debate amongst scholars and linguistic experts.
It seems likely that such an obvious strategic location would have been settled in some way from an early date. Some have asserted that there is no documentary or archaeological evidence of a settlement on the site before the 12th century, when the first Norman architecture castle was established. However archaeological discoveries in Pembrokeshire suggest otherwise. Edward Llwyd‘s note to Camden’s “Britannia” (ed. 1695) refers to a valuable find of silver coins at Llanboidy, the latest coin being one of Domitian struck in AD 91. In the 1920s Sir Mortimer Wheeler partially excavated a Roman dwelling or villa at Wolfscastle (work restarted in 2002 by Professor Merroney).
The scores of Iron Age and Roman coinage and artefact discoveries, and excavations by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust under the direction of Heather James at Carmarthen (Maridunum) in the 1980s point convincingly to significant Roman penetration to this westernmost part of Wales. In 1992 aerial photography identified a Roman road running west of Carmarthen past Wiston to Poyston Cross, raising the possibility of Roman fortlets at strategic river crossings at Whitland and Haverfordwest.
The strategic position of Haverfordwest with its defensive bluff overlooking the lowest fordable point on the Western Cleddau and accessible to sea traffic would have required a Roman presence, probably modest in scale, from the first century AD to protect supplies to and from the coast. (The Roman legionary headquarters at Caerleon were roofed with slates from the lower slopes of the Preselly mountains.)
James Phillips, in (The History of Pembrokeshire) (published 1909) records a find of Roman silver coins in Haverfordwest, the earliest dated coin a Valerian and the latest a Claudius Gothicus. The museum in which the coins were deposited has been “scattered to the winds” and the whereabouts of the coins is unknown. Phillips claimed that the pre-Norman name of Haverfordwest was Caer Alun, so named by the Emperor Maximus (Macsim Gwledig). His sources are not given but the Cambro-Briton in 1822 also recorded that Maximus, the last Roman Emperor of Britain, a man who for a time divided the Roman Empire with Theodosius I, on withdrawing Roman legions from Britain granted civic status and Celtic names to a number of pacified Romano British settlements, including Southampton, Chichester, Old Sarum near Salisbury, Carmarthen(Caerfyrddin) and Haverfordwest (Caer Alun). Maximus had married Elen, a Welsh noblewoman, and they had three sons. Phillips claims that the name actually given to the town was Caer Elen, in honour of his wife (the name later changing to Caer Alun).
The ecclesiastical centre of the area (perhaps the seat of a bishop in the Age of the Saints) was probably one of the several churches of the local St Ismael, most probably St. Ishmael’s. This occurred around 1110.
The proposition that Haverfordwest Castle was founded by Tancred, a Flemish marcher lord is questionable. The Marcher Lords were not Flemish but Norman Barons originally along the Marches (English-Welsh border). The castle is recorded as having been founded in 1100 by the Norman Gilbert de Chuv. The Flemings, said to have arrived in three groups in 1107, 1111 and 1151, are likely to have participated in its later development for their own and the Normans’ protection from the Welsh warlords. It is recorded that the Constable of the castle in 1207 was Itohert son of Richard Tancard – possibly a descendant of the first Tancred. The Flemish presence, reputed to result from floods in the Low Countries, was more likely to have consisted initially of Flemish mercenaries originally in the invading army of William the Conqueror, who in reward for their part in William’s victory were granted lands in parts of Northern Britain, and in Wales in the Gower, and Geraldus Cambrensis recorded their presence in the Hundred of Roose in Pembrokeshire.
A Fleming, Wizo, who died in 1130 founded at Wiston a motte and bailey fortification, forerunner of the stone castle, for protection against the Welsh warlords: the Flemings were reportedly unpopular wherever they settled. The precarious position of Normans and Flemings was demonstrated in 1136 when the Normans, having already lost 500 men in battle at Loughor, re-recruited from Lordships from all over South Wales and led by Robert fitz Martin at Crug Mawr near Cardigan attacked Owain Gwynedd and his army. Routed, they fled over the Teifi Bridge which collapsed; the retreating Normans drowning under the weight of their armour. Their leader Richard de Clare had previously been intercepted and killed by Iorwerth ab Owen. Wiston and the castle were overrun in 1147 by Hywel Sais, son of the Lord Rhys. Ranulf Higden in his Polychronicus records the Flemings as extinct in Pembrokeshire by 1327 but Flemish mercenaries reappear in 1400 when at the behest of Henry IV they joined an army of 1500 English settlers who marched north from Pembrokeshire to attack the army of Owain Glyndŵr at Mynydd Hyddgen. The attack was repulsed with heavy casualties and legend has it that English prisoners were spared but surviving Flemish mercenaries were massacred or sold into slavery.
Haverfordwest rapidly grew, initially around the castle and St Martin’s church (the settlement being called Castletown), then spreading into the High Street area. It immediately became the capital of the hundred of Roose (part of Little England beyond Wales), and because of its pivotal position, the commercial centre of western Dyfed, which it has remained to this day. In common with other British towns, its growth was rapid during the period up to 1300, and its extent by then was much the same as it was in the early 19th century. That being the case, its population was probably around 4000-5000 – a large town by the standards of the time. It received its first marcher charter from William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke some time between 1213 and 1219, and obtained the lucrative trading privileges of an English borough. It traded both by land and sea, and had a busy tidal quay on the river below the “New” Bridge. At least ten guilds operated, and there was significant woollen cloth manufacture. On 30 April 1479, the town was designated a county corporate by a charter of Edward, Prince of Wales, with the aim of supporting a campaign against piracy in local waters. It shared this distinction only with Carmarthen and a few towns in England, and remained officially “The Town and County of Haverfordwest” until the abolition of the borough in 1974.
Haverfordwest. This red and black footbridge crosses the River Cleddau and gives access to a newly-developed shopping complex
In common with other large towns in Europe, Haverfordwest was hit hard by the Black Death in 1348, suffering both depopulation (perhaps by more than 50%) and diminution of trade. Large parts of the town were abandoned, and it did not start to recover until the Tudor period. At the end of the 17th century, the town was still significantly smaller than in 1300. In 1405, the town was burned by the French allies of Owen Glendower, although in its early history Haverfordwest suffered less than most towns in Wales from such depredations.
During the English Civil War, the burgesses of the borough supported Parliament, while the ruling gentry were Royalist. As a result there was considerable conflict, and the town changed hands five times. There followed a period of stagnation in which the comparative status of the town declined. Haverfordwest today has the air of a typical small country market town, but the centre still conveys the feel of the important mediaeval borough. The once run-down riverside area has been renovated and Bridge Street has been pedestrianised and improved.
The town has been English-speaking for centuries (south Pembrokeshire being known as ‘Little England Beyond Wales’), but because the town markets traded the goods of Welsh farmers to the north and east, there has always been a significant Welsh-speaking influence and the air of a “frontier” town. The suburb of Prendergast seems to have originated as an extramural Welsh dormitory, dating from the times when all agricultural trade had to pass through the borough, and the fearful Normans before the destruction of Anglo-Norman power in 1136 tried to prevent Welshmen bearing arms from entering within the castle walls after nightfall.