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Dissolution of the Monasteries and Friaries in Cardiff


The Reformation not only led to a rupture with the Church of Rome, but also resulted in the seizure of ecclesiastical property by the Crown. Monasteries and friaries were stripped of all their moveable items of value before they were formally closed. Afterwards, in Cardiff as elsewhere, their lands were confiscated on behalf of the King and sold to powerful local families.

In 1533 all friars were commanded to swear an oath which accepted the King as head of the Church. Those, who failed to comply, faced a term of imprisonment or even the death penalty. In addition, the friaries were required to submit an inventory of their treasures and valuables. The King's Visitor, Dr. John Hilsey, journeyed to Cardiff in 1534 to ascertain whether these instructions were being followed. He was also in pursuit of two Friars Observant, so called because they continued to observe their obedience to the Pope. The friars, who were from Newark, had unsuccessfully tried to smuggle themselves aboard a vessel bound for France and had been arrested by the bailiffs. The two friars were perhaps rather fortunate since, after a period of harsh imprisonment in London, their pleas for mercy were heeded and they were released. The Cardifffriaries survived this visitation but their fate was only delayed for a few years. In 1538 Dr. Richard Ingworth, a former Dominican friar but now Bishop of Dover, was authorised "to visit and vex' the friaries of Wales. In theory, his brief was no more than to sequestrate their possessions and depose or suspend any offending friars. Ingworth had no mandate to suppress their orders or seize their convents, but the confiscation of chattels, together with the impoverished circumstances of the friars, left them with little choice but to surrender everything to the Crown.

Ingworth arrived in Cardiff on 6 September. He made his way first to the house of the Blackfriars, who were in mourning as three of their number, including the Prior, had died twelve days earlier. The tolling of the bell summoned the seven brothers still in residence and, "with one assent and consent, without any manner of coercion or counsel', they signed the deed which disposed of all their property. The only valuable item was a silver chalice which Ingworth retained to pay his expenses.

In the afternoon it was the turn of the Franciscans to meet the royal emissary. Unable to accept the impossible conditions of reform, the nine Greyfriars meekly surrendered their convent, "desiring his grace to be good and gracious to us'. They too possessed a few silver ornaments which were weighed and dispatched to London.

John Loveday, a merchant and the Deputy Bailiff, was given the keys of both the friaries and assumed responsibility for the buildings until they were sold. A single day had been sufficient to terminate 300 years of history at the Cardiff friaries. One can only imagine the emotional distress, the fear and the despair of the friars, as the royal servant revealed his master's intentions. We do not know what happened to the ejected friars. Some of them may have become priests but this was a period when the number of churches was in decline. Perhaps others sought alternative work but this was not an easy option at a time of high unemployment. Unlike the monks, friars did not receive a pension and their more elderly brethren probably became beggars for the rest of their days.

In 1546 the friaries were sold to Sir George Herbert of Swansea, a brother of William, the future Earl of Pembroke. Within a few years, the churches and their adjoining buildings had begun to lapse into a state of ruin. In the convent, where the Dominican friars had worshipped, the King's commissioners authorised Lewis Bleddyn to sell its glass, lead, iron, tiles, timber and stone. The official sequestrators were assisted by the local people who looted both the friaries at night, in  searching for stone and timber which would improve their homes. By 1610 only the pitiful shell of two buildings bears testimony to the site of the Blackfriars. The house of the Greyfriars was reduced even more quickly and by 1578 Rice Merrick was referring to, "the Gray ffriars, wherein Sir William Herbert, Knight, hath builded a house of late'.

This "Sir William' was the grandson of George Herbert and should not be confused with his namesake and great-uncle, the first Earl of Pembroke. Speed's map clearly depicts his splendid mansion built on the site of the Greyfriars' Convent and situated in a walled garden. Second only to the castle in size, the house had four lofty gables, high pitched roofs and large Tudor windows. The Herbert family lived at "The Friars', sometimes mistakenly called "White Friars', until about 1730. Then the house , no longer occupied and the subject of a lawsuit, fell rapidly into decay. Its gaunt ruins were said to be haunted by ghosts who enticed the unwary intruder to his doom.

Eventually, the remains of the old friary were lost to view, but in 1887 the Third Marquess of Bute excavated the site and uncovered the foundations of the convent. As late as 1967, a portion of the ruined house of the Herberts, including a fine bay window, was still a landmark in central Cardiff.

Then the bulldozers moved in and the Pearl Assurance tower block, completely out of character with every other building in the area and dwarfing both the castle and the City Hall, was erected on the site. At the time the developers claimed, "There were fears that it might spoil the general appearance of the area but we are convinced it will add to, rather than detract from, the appearance of the district'. Few people in Cardiff share this opinion and now only the placename, "Greyfriars Road', reminds us of the gentle Franciscans who once prayed and worked there. At least the site of the Blackfriars, while little of it survives, can be seen in a beautiful setting in the castle grounds.

 

Other monastic lands in and around Cardiffwere sold by the Crown and several families, especially those enjoying royal favour, were able to extend their estates and enhance their social status. Sir Edward Carne, who served the Tudors as a distinguished diplomat, invested wisely in Church property. Ewenny Priory was his most important purchase, and in Cardiff he was content to acquire the Margam Grange at Cathays, together with the nearby manor of Llystalybont. This manor was sold to the Earl of Pembroke in 1622 and became a part of the castle estate. In

Parkfield Place
, off
North Road
, an eighteenth century farm house has been converted into offices for the Training and Development Centre and retains the name of the original manor.

The Lewis family of the Van, near Caerphilly, were an old-established Welsh family who could trace their ancestry back to the indomitable Ifor Bach. The Moor Grange, appropriated from Margam Abbey, was sold to Edward Lewis, and in 1616 his grandson, Edward, purchased the manor of St. Fagans to add another valuable acquisition to the family estate. Edward made its castle his principal residence and, when the male line of the Lewis family expired in the eighteenth century, the heiress to a considerable fortune married the Third Earl of Plymouth, whose descendants retained an association with St, Fagans until 1947.

The lands of Keynsham Abbey at Roath, Llanedeyrn and Llanrumney exchanged ownership on a number of occasions before they were acquired by William Morgan of Tredegar House. These districts to the east of Cardiffremained in the possession of the Morgan family until the twentieth century, and at Llanrumney they owned a fine hall which has now been converted into a public house. The famous buccaneer and privateer, Henry Morgan, was no relation of theirs but he is said to have spent his early life at Llanrumney.

Inevitably, the Herbert family derived the greatest advantage from the disposal of Church assets in Cardiff. The Earl of Pembroke made only modest additions to his property, but his brother, George, apart from acquiring the two friaries, also procured the Tewkesbury Abbey lands in Llanishen, Llysfaen, Cardiffand Roath. The property in Llanishen and Llysfaen was sold to Sir Roger Kemys of Cefn Mabley in 1557 but, before the end of the sixteenth century,  Sir William Herbert of "The Friars' had inherited a position of great wealth and influence in Cardiff.

The mediaeval chapels of Llanishen and Llysfaen henceforth served their communities as parish churches. The parish of St. John'salso came into existence after the Reformation, a long overdue recognition of the church's importance. However, the Trinity Chantry of the Glovers was dissolved as the guilds were now considered to be religious foundations. From 1548 the Glovers' Guild met with the Cordwainers at their hall in

Shoemaker Street
. The Chapel of St. Piran was also suppressed as a religious organisation but, following a pitched battle with the King's officers, the Cordwainers surprisingly retained their chapel for secular use.

Now that Tewkesbury Abbey was dissolved, St. Mary's Church passed into the keeping of the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral. This remained the situation until the Second Marquess of Bute purchased the living in the nineteenth century. St. Mary's never really recovered from the flood of 1607 and by 1678 its fabric was in a state of advanced deterioration. The tower had collapsed and the roof had fallen into the nave. Services had ceased and parishioners worshipped at St. John's, though St. Mary's continued to be used for burials and baptisms until the early eighteenth century.