Cardiff's Charters

The Mediaeval Charters


Cardiff was originally granted a charter, outlining its liberties and privileges, by Robert the Consul.It was successively renewed by the lords of Glamorgan until the Tudor Age.

The oldest surviving charter, which helped to create the future prosperity of the borough, was written on behalf of Robert the Consul’s son, William of Gloucester. This instrument appears to be a re-statement of earlier rights, issued by Earl Robert between 1122 and 1147 and modelled upon charters given to Tewkesbury and Hereford. The document absolved the burgesses of Cardiff, that is the householders who paid 12 pence a year to the Lord of Glamorgan, from all kinds of irksome feudal obligations.

Unless they were merchants, they were not required to pay the market tolls levied by the lord. Likewise, they were allowed to sell and inherit property without payment of a fee. In many English towns, feudal lords maintained a profitable monopoly over such necessities of life as the baking of bread, the brewing of ale, and the grinding of corn. The burgesses of Cardiffwere not only given freedom of choice in such matters, but were permitted to own a handmill, a horsemill or even a dovecot. The latter was a particularly prized privilege since doves provided a regular supply of eggs and fresh meat.

A citizen was expected to be available for jury service at the

Town Court
, where minor offences were heard, but he would be excused if he was setting off on urgent business. As the charter quaintly stated, "If a burgess be summoned to the hundred and..... shall be ready to depart so that he have one foot in the stirrup, and thereof shall have two neighbours witnesses, he shall be quit'.

Finally, all these privileges were extended throughout the county of Gloucestershire to the "burgesses, knights and freeholders' of Cardiff. The charter was updated and amended by subsequent lords of Glamorgan when they came into their inheritance, and from the sixteenth century onwards the Crown assumed the right to grant the borough its charter. Incentives were necessary to persuade people to live in twelfth century Cardiff. A pioneering spirit was esential in a region where danger was never far away


In 1340 Hugh Despenser issued a fresh charter to the burgesses of the town, which confirmed their earlier liberties  and added to them. Local government was delegated to officials, the most important of whom was the Constable of Cardiff Castle who also became the Mayor of the town.

New commercial and trading advantages were granted to the freemen of the borough. They were allowed to open a shop and were given a monopoly of trade through the Town Guild. All burgesses were entitled to graze their animals on the Great and Little Heaths to the north of the town. The prosperity of the borough was enhanced when permission was given under the charter to hold two annual fairs: one on Midsummer's day, the Feast of St. John; the other on 7-8 September, the Feast of St. Mary.

The charter brought to an end arbitrary imprisonment in CardiffCastlefor what was termed an "ordinary offence'. A burgess, charged with such a breach of conduct, was to be tried at the

Hundred Court
before a jury of his fellow freemen, and any custodial sentence was to be served at the Town Gaol.

A greater voice in the government of their community was given to the citizens of Cardiff and, once a fortnight, the Mayor presided over the

Town Court
or Council. From 1338 the Council met in the Town Hall which was built in High Street on land allocated by an earlier charter of William Zouche in 1331.

The charter of 1340 stipulated that every year the burgesses were to nominate representatives, and from these the Constable would select the Town Bailiff, 2 provosts responsible for the maintenance of law and order, and 2 ale-tasters. These officials were granted special privileges in return for assisting the Constable in his administration of the borough. A later charter of 1421 restricted the right to choose nominees for office to a select body of 12 aldermen. This decision, removing the voting rights from the burgesses as a whole, marked the end of open local government for 400 years. The aldermen now became a self-perpetuating oligarchy, filling any vacancies in their ranks with a successor of their own choosing.


 William, Earl of Gloucesterand Ifor Bach


William, the son of Robert the Consul was not as tactful nor as fortunate as his father. Using Norman law, he appropriated lands from Ifor ap Meurig, the Lord of Senghenydd. In breaking his father's pledge, William stirred up a hornets' nest. Ifor was a small man in stature hence his nickname, "Ifor Bach' but, despite his lack of inches, he had a fiery temper as well as an abundance of courage and he decided to teach this Norman upstart a lesson.

In 1158 he gathered together a small but determined band of retainers. They rode to Cardiff and tethered their horses near the castle. Giraldus Cambrensis, who heard the story on his journey through Walesin 1188, tells us that the castle garrison numbered approximately 120 soldiers. Though outnumbered, Ifor and his trusty followers scaled the walls at dead of night. Before the alarm could be raised, they broke into the living quarters of William, his wife and their young son. The story goes on to relate how Ifor took them back to his own stronghold, where he forced William to restore everything which had been unjustly taken from him. The garrison was undoubtedly half-asleep and bewildered, but it seems unlikely that Ifor could have succeeded without some friendly assistance inside the castle. The raid was one of the most daring and impudent in the history of Wales, providing a clear warning that the Welsh would not meekly submit to Norman injustice. See also; Cardiff Castle – The Norman Castle)



The Clares


When William of Gloucester died in 1183 he left no male heir. Through his daughters, the Lordship of Glamorgan passed first to King John, and then in 1217 to the Clare family. For nearly a century this powerful dynasty exercised great influence throughout the realm. It was a time of turbulence when the King was frequently in conflict with his barons, and the Welsh princes of Gwynedd were striving to unite the whole of Wales under their leadership.

In Glamorgan, the Clares completed the Norman Conquest by squeezing and reducing the remaining outposts of Welsh independence. Final success came in January 1267 when Gilbert de Clare, nicknamed the "Red Earl' on account of his auburn hair, staged a lightning raid and captured the Lord of Senghenydd, Gruffydd ap Rhys. He was imprisoned at Cardiffand later removed to a more distant Clare castle at Kilkenny in Ireland, presumably to thwart any plans of escape.

It seemed to be the final act in the subjugation of the Welsh but a new threat came from LLywelyn ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Gwynedd.  As he made considerable advances into Central and South Wales, this self-appointed Prince of Wales aroused the fears of all the Marcher lords.

To guard the RhymneyValley and to prevent an attack upon Cardiff from the north, Gilbert built a mighty, concentric castle at Caerphilly. The need for it became apparent in 1270, when Llywelyn raided and destroyed the partially erected fortifications. After recovering his castle through a combination of diplomacy and intrigue, Gilbert hastily completed its construction. All the latest techniques of castle-building, many of them acquired by the Crusaders in their expeditions against the Turk, were applied. The water obstacles alone were immense and, when completed, CaerphillyCastle was virtually impregnable.

Llywelyn's attack on Caerphilly caused Gilbert to critically examine his defences elsewhere in Glamorgan. Castell Coch, the "Red Castle', was built on the hillside near Tongwynlais to protect the river crossing. In Cardiff, the wooden pallisade surrounding the town was replaced with a stone wall, while a number of alterations were made to enhance the fortifications of the castle. The skilful nature of these defences can still be appreciated though a number of alterations, most of them dating from the sixteenth century, have masked much of the work. (See also; Cardiff Castle – The Castle in the Later Middle Ages)

The death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd at Builth Wells in 1282 marked the demise of Welsh independence and it might appear that these defensive measures were unnecessary. Even in defeat, however, the Welsh remained defiant, and in 1294 Madog ap Llywelyn rebelled against the new English laws imposed by Edward I. In his final campaign, the Red Earl used CardiffCastleas his military base to crush the revolt in Glamorgan.

He died the following year, having lived through dangerous, uncertain times. Not surprisingly, his principal interest at Cardiffconcerned the state of its defences. Yet the borough seems to have flourished while he was Lord of Glamorgan. Since both Gilbert and his son came into their inheritance as minors, the royal inquisitions made on behalf of the Crown give an insight into the prosperity of Cardiffbetween 1262 and 1295. The burgesses of Cardiffpaid their lord his seignorial dues in a lump sum. This "farm', as it was known, rose from £66 to £127 during Gilbert's lordship. The number of burgages increased to 420, indicating a population of just over 2,000. This evidence, together with the substantial revenue from markets, fairs and mills, all point to a thriving, successful community.

The last of the Clares, also named Gilbert, was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn.


The Despensers and the Tragedy of llywelyn Bren


Gilbert de Clare, always displayed tact and prudence in his dealings with Llywelyn Bren, the son of the last Lord of Senghenydd. A contemporary chronicler described Llywelyn as, "a great man and powerful in his own country'. He enjoyed a good relationship with Gilbert, who granted him lands at Whitchurch and allowed him considerable autonomy.

Following the death of Gilbert at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, The King appointed Payn de Turberville as administrator of the late Earl's estates in Glamorgan, pending a final settlement. The consequences were disastrous. Turberville treated Llywelyn with contempt, dismissing him from all the offices to which he had been entrusted. Nor was his vindictiveness directed at Llywelyn alone. In 1315 there was severe famine in South Walesand Turberville chose this particular time of hardship to inflict extortionate taxes on the starving people of Senghenydd. Llywelyn himself was accused of sedition, a charge  which stirred him into leading the most serious rebellion seen in Glamorgan since the Norman Conquest.

In January 1316 Llywelyn laid siege to CaerphillyCastle, and for three months the rebels wrought havoc with fire and sword throughout Glamorgan. Llantrisant was devastated and the inhabitants of the castle slaughtered. Mills were razed to the ground at Senghenydd, Miskin and Neath. At Whitchurch, a stone tower built near the church failed to provide any defence against the marauding Welsh. Cardiffwas also attacked and the walls of the town were damaged. Despite the destruction of 23 burgages, the castle remained impregnable and Llywelyn was compelled to withdraw.

Soon afterwards, a force of 150 men-at-arms and 2,000 foot soldiers was mobilised at CardiffCastle to crush the uprising. The troops set out on 12 March 1316to relieve the beleaguered garrison at Caerphilly and Llywelyn decided to confront the royal army at Castell Morgraig, north of Cefn Onn. The castle may have been only partially completed and the Welshmen probably added further makeshift defences. These were of little avail against the superior forces of the King and Llywelyn's warriors suffered grievous losses before they withdrew. After securing CaerphillyCastle, the King's troops returned to Cardiff, destroying the surviving Welsh strongholds along the way. The ruins of Castell Morgraig, not far from the Traveller's Rest, remain a stark monument to Llywelyn's brave stand.

The Welsh leader surrendered to the Earl of Hereford

who dispatched him to the Tower of London. In Glamorgan order was restored and the Earl, aware of the provocation which Llywelyn had suffered, pleaded for clemency on his behalf. For two years he languished in prison. Edward II was inclined to show mercy, but Hugh Despenser the Younger was now Lord of Glamorgan through his marriage to Clare's eldest sister, Eleanor. He persuaded the King to return Llywelyn to Cardiff, where his execution would serve as a deterrent to other would-be rebels. A gallows was raised outside the BlackTower, and on it Llywelyn Bren endured the terrible death of a traitor. After hanging and disembowelling, his head and limbs were severed from his body to be publicly displayed.

Eventually the Greyfriars of Cardiff rescued his remains and gave him a Christian burial in their convent. Those responsible for the death of Llywelyn Bren were also to meet a violent end. When Hugh Despenser fell from grace, William Fleming, the sheriff who executed the death warrant, suffered a similar fate to Llywelyn, and by coincidence he too was interred in the church of the Greyfriars.

For some years Despenser prospered as a royal favourite, and at the height of his power ruled an area from Pembroke to Chepstow. In 1326 the scandalous homosexual activities of Edward II and the greed of Despenser brought nemesis to both of them. Lacking virtually any support from the nobility of England, they were pursued into South Wales by the vengeful Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer.

Both were captured near Llantrisant. Edward died in agony at BerkeleyCastle, while Hugh was taken in chains to Hereford. On a gallows, fifty feet high to ensure that all could see, this infamous Marcher lord met the traitor's fate. In the Banqueting Hall at CardiffCastle, the lords of Glamorgan and their coats-of-arms are depicted in stained glass windows. The portrayal of Hugh Despenser is instantly recognisable as his shield is upside-down, the symbol of a dishonoured knight. After the execution of Despenser, the estates of Llywelyn Bren were restored to his sons, in belated recognition of a cruel injustice.

In little more than a decade, the Despenser family recovered from Hugh's disgrace and regained the lordship of Glamorgan. Eleanor de Clare outlived Hugh and her second husband, William Zouche. When he died in 1337, the title reverted to Eleanor's eldest son, Hugh Lord Despenser, who had been imprisoned for four years at the time of his father's downfall. He regained the favour of the new monarch, Edward III, through his distinguished service as a soldier baron in the war against France. His most heroic exploit was at the Battle of Crecy in August 1346, when he fought his way across the Somme to capture the town of Le Crotoy.

Hugh and his successors took little interest in the mundane, everyday administration of Cardiff. They were absentee landowners who were pre-occupied with great issues of state and were content to draw their seigniorial revenues from their property in Glamorgan. Local government was delegated to officials, the most important of whom was the Constable of Cardiff Castle. From 1340 he also became the Mayor of Cardiff, and in that same year Hugh issued a fresh charter to the burgesses of the town, which confirmed their earlier liberties  and added to them.

During the troubled years of the early fifteenth century, the Despensers continued to keep a tenuous hold on the lordship of Glamorgan. In 1401 Thomas Lord Despenser followed his ancestor to the scaffold after foolishly joining a conspiracy to restore the deposed Richard II to the throne. However, in Glamorgan, his family was allowed to retain its estates, though Richard Despenser, as a minor, remained in the custody of the King. Richard's death in 1413 marked the end of the family's male line


The Later Lords of Glamorgan


In 1423 Isabel Despenser married Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick. The new Lord of Glamorgan found Cardiff still bearing the scars of the Glyndwr Revolt and he decided to strengthen the castle along its west wall with a formidable octagonal tower. A range of new domestic apartments, including the  Great Hall, were also built along the wall about this time. (See also; The Glyndwr Revolt)

Again through marriage, the lordship of Glamorgan passed to Richard Nevill, known to history as "Warwick the Kingmaker'. He played a prominent role in the Wars of the Roses and, when he was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, the title came into the hands of the Yorkist dynasty. George, Duke of Clarence and younger brother of Edward IV, held the demesne until he was arrested for allegedly plotting to seize the Crown. George was imprisoned in the Tower of London and, according to tradition, was later drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, a most unusual form of execution. Thus, the Lordship of Glamorgan passed to his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, who was to become  King Richard III.

When he died a violent death at Bosworth Field in 1485, the Tudor monarchs ensured that this important region remained in their firm grip until the kingdom recovered from the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses.The era of the Marcher lords was over. Their special privileges were no longer required to maintain order along the Welsh border, and the Tudors reduced their status to the same level as other peers of the realm.

The powerful nobles of the fifteenth century had little interest in Cardiff but their apathy did the borough no real harm. Inevitably, when the region became more settled, the later lords of Glamorgan delegated the administration of the town to their stewards, aided by the leading citizens of the borough. This pattern of government, with some modifications, was to survive until the nineteenth century.

Trusted officials were given office as a reward for loyal service. The Sheriff of Glamorgan and the Constable of Cardiff Castle were rarely local men and in 1474, for example, the positions of Constable and Sheriff were held by Sir James Tyrrell. He was appointed by Richard of Gloucester and was later suspected of murdering the Princes in the Tower on Richard's orders.

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, Cardiff appears to have recovered from the worst effects of the Black Death and the Glyndwr Revolt. The number of burgages had fallen to 269 in 1542, suggesting that the population had decreased in the last 200 years, but the town remained one of the largest in Wales. It was a trading centre, a port and a busy market town, vital to the surrounding countryside which it would eventually absorb.  High Street was the commercial focus of the borough, where merchants and traders of substantial wealth, among them eight Aldermen, lived in fine houses. Cardiff obviously made a favourable impression on Rice Merrick, when he wrote in 1578, "This Towne is very well compacted, beautifyed with many faire Houses and large Streetes... Within the Walles is little or noe vacant or wast Ground, saving for Gardens, and those very small, because it is so well replenished with buildings'.

Some of the lords of Glamorgan are buried in Tewkesbury Abbey in very fine tombs but there are reminders in Cardiff of the part they played in its history. They appear in stained glass windows at St. John's Church and the castle. Street names in Riverside, such as Fitzhamon Embankment, Clare Road and  Despenser Gardens also recall the associations of these great nobles with Cardiff.