The Civil War


When the Civil War began in 1642, the  majority of the gentry in South Wales were Royalist in their sympathies, and for the moment forgot their personal squabbles to fight in unison under the King's banner. Wales earned the dubious reputation of being, "the nursery of the King's infantry ... a continual sacrifice to the sword', as lowly tenants, labourers and peasants had little choice but to follow their masters. Ill-trained and badly equipped, these poor wretches were the cannon fodder for the Royalist army.

Inevitably the Civil War created divisions in some families. Philip Herbert, The Fourth Earl of Pembroke, was a man of peace, attracted to the Parliamentiary cause but giving it no more than passive support. In the Royalist camp were his kinsmen, William Herbert of The Friars, and his namesake, William Herbert of Cogan, the MP for Cardiff.

The men of Glamorgan suffered heavy casualties at Edgehill in the first major conflict of the war on 23 October 1642. William Herbert of Cogan was killed and Edward Stradling was taken prisoner. But Miles Mathew, the King's standard bearer, emerged from this battle as a hero. Despite the loss of his horse during a skirmish, he helped the King and the Duke of York to safety, before making his own escape to the Welsh hills.

The Royalists were able to occupy Cardiff Castle soon after hostilities began. The Marquess of Hertford, left with no choice but to surrender his castle at Sherborne, retreated with a force of about 400 men to Minehead. Aware of the Earl of Pembroke's leanings towards Parliament, and realising the strategic importance of Cardiff Castle, the Marquess commandeered the Welsh coal boats in the port. He sailed his troops across the channel and, when Herbert of The Friars succeeded in opening the gates of the castle, the Marquess was able to take it without opposition. Cardiff remained a royal garrison for the next three years and saw little, if any, action.  In other parts of the country, however, the war turned in favour of the Roundhead army, now led by a brilliant general in Oliver Cromwell.

Following his defeat at Naseby in 1645, Charles I came to South Wales, searching for fresh soldiers to continue the struggle. The Welsh had taken cruel losses in the King's battles and the gentry of Glamorgan were in a resentful mood. Much of their animosity was directed at Sir Charles Gerrard who had been appointed Royalist commander in preference to a local man. Tactless and brusque, he had levied contributions of money and men in a high-handed manner, treating all protests with contempt. Charles stayed at Cardiff Castle from 29 July until 5 August. While he was there, his nephew and chief lieutenant, Prince Rupert, was dismissed from his service after urging the King to begin peace negotiations with Parliament. Charles loftily observed with his characteristic obstinacy, "a King must never yield to traitors'. Reluctantly, he was forced to replace Gerrard with Sir Jacob Astley but morale among the war-weary people of Glamorgan remained low. As Charles departed from Cardiff in disgust, he ungratefully reflected, "the hearts of the people of Wales are as hard and rocky as their country'.

The time was ripe for changing sides and Astley advised Prince Rupert, now reinstated, that "the county of Glamorgan is so unquiet, as there is no good to be expected'. He proved to be right as the local gentry installed Edward Pritchard, a Puritan and a supporter of Parliament, as Governor of Cardiff Castle.

Ardent Royalists, led by Sir Edward Carne and Sir Charles Kemys, launched a final attack in an attempt to regain the castle for the King. Pritchard appealed for assistance to Major-general Laugharne in Pembrokeshire, and to the Parliamentiary  army based at Bristol. The Cavaliers were successfully held at bay while a warship from Bristol, firing its gun at regular intervals,  signalled that reinforcements were on their way. In February 1646, after a fierce encounter on the north-eastern outskirts of Cardiff, Kemys was driven in headlong retreat towards Cefn Mably and Raglan. Edward Carne was accused in a Roundhead pamphlet of cowardice, "glad he had a nimble horse to fly with (as he) stayed not to keep his men together'. Meanwhile, Laugharne secured Cardiff Castle for Parliament and, when Royalist troops at Raglan surrendered, it seemed that the blood-letting of the Civil War was over.


Such hopes proved to be false. Charles I, now a prisoner of Cromwell's Model Army, rejected compromise and plotted with former adversaries to restore his royal power. Differences, mainly about questions of religion, soon created a rift between the Army and the Presbyterian supporters in Parliament, giving the King good reason to hope he could play off one side against the other.

In South Wales, Major-general Laugharne was a staunch Presbyterian who found himself at odds with Cromwell and the Independents in the Army. When ordered to disband his forces, he switched his allegiance to the King who, out of expediency, had become an unlikely ally of the Presbyterians. In making his decision, Laugharne enjoyed the support of his close friend, Colonel Rice Powell, and of his brother-in-law, John Poyer, the Governor of Pembroke Castle.

These former Roundheads linked arms with diehard Royalists, and marched towards Cardiff with the intention of capturing the castle as the first stage in setting the West Country ablaze. From the Prince of Wales in Paris came a promise of ample supplies, and a guarantee that success in South Wales would be followed by a Scottish invasion of England and a general uprising of all Royalists. It was all very euphoric and doomed to failure.

The Welsh Royalists and their new allies eventually assembled an army 8,000 strong but it was impressive only in terms of size. The cavalry were few in number and half of the troops were country yokels who had never seen a battlefield in their lives. Laugharne marshalled his motley forces at St.Nicholas and other nearby villages but, upon hearing that Cromwell was  hastening to Wales, he decided to make an immediate advance towards Cardiff.

Meanwhile, the task of meeting the Royalists fell to Colonel Horton whose army was based at Brecon. Horton was ill at the time, but that did not prevent him from marching rapidly through the Rhondda before crossing the Taff at Llandaff. "After many tedious, hungry and wet marches over the steep and craggy mountains', he placed a heavy guard at Ely Bridge, forcing the Cavaliers to take the alternative route to Cardiff through St. Fagans.

Horton had reached the conclusion that the open countryside between St. Fagans and Peterston offered the best opportunity for his cavalry to destroy the Royalist forces. He made his headquarters at Pentrebane Farm and mustered the horses in a field near St. Fagans Church. It became known as "the field of warhorses' and St. Fagans Drive is now built on the site.

Monday 8 May 1648, was a raw, unpleasant morning when Horton's scouts brought word that the Royalists were advancing. Battlewas joined at as the "forlorn hopes', the shock troops of each side, clashed with their pikes. The only contemporary account of the battle comes from the dispatches of Horton to Parliament. He reveals how the Welsh conscripts, armed with a few pikes, pitchforks and other farm tools, were driven to their slaughter by the horsemen at their rear. Despite numbering only 3,000, the Model Army was superior in cavalry and all its soldiers were hardened, disciplined professionals. Their opponents were relentlessly pushed into a running retreat which soon turned to a rout, as the Roundhead cavalry pursued the Royalists more than ten miles beyond Cowbridge.

The battle had lasted just two hours and Horton's veterans suffered few casulties, though many of their horses had been killed. It was a different story for the ill-fated Welsh Royalists. Nearly 3,000 of them were taken prisoner and, of these, 1,000 were sent to fight as mercenaries in Italywhile 240 bachelors were transported to Barbados as slaves. Most of the remaining captives were released on giving a pledge, "never to engage against the Parliament hereafter'. Four officers were executed and those Royalist families, which had taken an active part in the battle, were heavily fined.

The ringleaders retreated to PembrokeCastle which was surrendered to Cromwell on 11 July. Laugharne, Powell and Poyer were sentenced to death but then mercy of a kind was shown. Two of them were spared and, as a child drew lots on their behalf, Laugharne and Powell were handed a paper with its message, "Life given by God'. Poyer drew the blank and was shot at Covent Garden in April 1649. A few months earlier, Charles Stuart, "that man of blood' as Cromwell branded him, had gone to the scaffold, and Horton was killed a year later in Ireland. Laugharne, on the other hand,  not only lived to tell the tale, but also became MP for Pembroke after the Restoration.

Apart from some occasional fragments of pike and flintlock turned up by the plough, there is no trace of the Battle of St. Fagans. Yet it was a fierce encounter and, according to tradition, the River Ely ran red with blood. From St. Fagans alone 65 men were killed, and in that year of 1648 the harvest was gathered in by their widows. The battle is rarely mentioned in English history books, but in Wales it was the greatest and most significant clash of the Civil War.