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The End of the Middle Ages


The statue of Owain Glyndwr stands proudly among the prominent Welshmen who are commemorated in the Marble Hall at Cardiff's City Hall. Few would dispute his right to be there, but his presence is somewhat ironic in view of the fearful destruction he wrought upon Cardiff in the early fifteenth century.

In 1400, a border dispute in North Wales flared into a full-scale rebellion which engulfed the whole of the Principality. Welsh grievances found an outlet in a charismatic leader who was adept at guerrilla warfare and, for a while, was so successful that his enemies attributed supernatural powers to him. Everywhere, Welshmen flocked to join Owain's banner until by 1404 he virtually ruled the whole of Wales, apart from Pembroke and the great Edwardian castles of Gwynedd. His power was such that he called a Parliament at Machynlleth, made a treaty with the French, and took the title, "Prince of Wales'.

It was in 1403, at the height of his success, that Owain advanced into Glamorgan, where the native Welsh were only too ready to rise in sympathy against their English lords and masters. The destruction of Ogmore and Coety were followed by the complete annihilation of castles in the Vale at Peterston, Wenvoe and Wrinston.

Next, it was the turn of Llandaff to face the wrath of this Welsh visionary. Glyndwr took the view that the Bishop and his principal clergymen were no more than the lackeys of his opponents. One of these clergy, Adam of Usk, wrote of the manner in which Owain proceeded to scourge Llandaff, "like a second Assyrian, the rod of God's anger', as he indulged in "deeds of unheard of cruelty with fire and sword'. The Bishop's Castle offered no defence as its ruins, together with those of the Bell Tower, still testify. A little further north, the Archdeacon's Castle was so effectively obliterated that not a trace of it remains. The cathedral alone was spared but, more than 20 years later, the Bishop and his Chapter were complaining to the Pope that their church buildings were in a sorry state due to plague and rebellion. They also wrote that their books, chalices and ornaments had become diminished. The Pope was sufficiently moved to grant an indulgence, intended to encourage pilgrims to give alms for the repair of the Cathedral.

Owain fell upon Cardiff with equal ruthlessness. Storming through the West Gate, the walls were breached and the town was put to fire and sword. Stone buildings, as well as those made from wood, were destroyed. The Priory of St. Mary's was so badly mauled that the Abbot of Tewkesbury decided it was no longer worth retaining and St. Mary's merely became a parish church.

 The house of the Blackfriars did not escape Owain's anger. Glass found on the site shows signs of having been blackened by fire about the time of the rebellion. Only Crockerton and the convent of the Greyfriars were spared the full savagery of the Welsh assault. Throughout Wales, the Franciscans had been among Owain's most loyal supporters. In Cardiff, as elsewhere, he left their friary unharmed because "of the love he bore them'. At the same time, as the Greyfriars did not completely put their trust in him, they removed their books and valuables to Cardiff Castle for safe keeping. When Glyndwr captured the castle , he reproached the friars for their lack of confidence: "Wherefore did you place your goods in the castle? If you had kept them in your convent they would have been safe'. There is no record to indicate whether or not he returned their possessions.

Soon after the sacking of Cardiff, Owain's star began to wane and in the following year he suffered a decisive defeat at Pwll Melin near Usk. For another three years he continued the struggle in North Wales before disappearing quietly into legend. He was never betrayed by his people, he never accepted the pardon offered by Henry V, while the place and time of his death remain a mystery.

In Glamorgan, the supporters of the Glyndwr rebellion submitted to the King and, on payment of a fine, they were pardoned. For years afterwards, the devastation left its mark on Cardiff. Rents were reduced, burgages were left unrepaired and, as late as 1492, a toll was being levied on traders in the town to pay for the restoration of the walls, "greatly damaged in the time of the rebellion of Wales'.

 

Richard's death in 1413 marked the end of the family's male line and in 1423 Isabel Despenser married Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick. The new Lord of Glamorgan found Cardiff still bearing the scars of recent conflict 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.

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 Cardiffbut their apathy did the borough no real harm. They placed the government of Glamorgan in the hands of trusted officials who 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. Cardiffobviously 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'.