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Llandaff Cathedral is a site of great antiquity established, so The Book of Llandaff tells us, by St Teilo on the banks of the Taff which gives Llandaff its name. The monastery became a focus of Christianity in the Welsh kingdom of Morgannwg but, after the Norman Conquest, Bishop Urban began the task of rebuilding the cathedral in stone. Progress was slow owing to a lack of funds and so the cathedral combines a variety of architectural styles. Norman and Gothic features are clearly visible, while the 15th century Jasper Tower was built in the Perpendicular style.

                In 1188 Archbishop Baldwin, accompanied by the Welsh bishop and chronicler, Giraldus Cambrensis, stood at the cross on The Green to recruit volunteers for the Third Crusade. Despite the animosity between the Welsh and their Anglo-Norman conquerors, they put aside their differences and, as Gerald observed: “The business of the cross being publicly proclaimed at Llandaff, the English standing on one side and the Welsh on the other, many persons of each nation took the cross”. 

            Both the Bishop and the Archdeacon had their own castles at Llandaff. The Bishop’s Castle, erected in the 13th century near The Green, was likened by a later writer to, “the stronghold of any Norman robber, the lair of the wolf of the fold, rather than the dwelling of its shepherd”. The Archdeacon’s Castle, where Henry II was once entertained, was also impressive. When Owain Glyndwr rampaged through Glamorgan in 1404, he had little sympathy for the hierarchy of the Church and, according to Adam of Usk, he scourged Llandaff “like a second Assyrian, the rod of God’s anger”. Owain left the Bishop’s Castle and the Bell Tower as picturesque ruins but he obliterated the Archdeacon’s Castle completely. The cathedral was spared but 20 years later the Bishop was still complaining that the building, its books, and its ornaments were in a pitiful state after Owain’s onslaught.

            Llandaff Cathedral was never as wealthy as its English counterparts. Even before the Reformation, the bishops were forced to sell church assets to meet everyday needs. The principal beneficiaries were the powerful Mathew family who were among the leading landowners of Glamorgan in the 15th century. The different branches of the family exercised a powerful influence over Llandaff, Pentyrch and Radyr. A number of them rest in splendid tombs at Llandaff Cathedral, one of the most impressive being that of Sir David Mathew, standard bearer to Edward IV at the Battle of Towton. He obtained the lease to the manor of Llandaff and in 1553 his great grandson, Miles Mathew, purchased the estate outright, including the manor house of Bryn-y-Gynnen.

This short-sighted policy of selling and leasing lands at bargain prices did nothing to improve the condition of the cathedral and in 1603 Bishop Godwin gloomily predicted that it would, “in a short time fall to the ground without some extraordinary relief”. Matters were not helped by the absence of bishops who spent most of their time at their palace in Mathern near Chepstow

The Civil War added to the cathedral’s problems. On Easter Sunday 1646, Parliament’s troops burst into the church and, after drinking the communion wine, marched the clergy and congregation to the gaol at Cardiff. There they were forced to listen to a Puritan sermon for three hours, while their books and other treasures were burnt before their eyes. The cathedral itself was turned into a stable, an ale house and a post office. The choir became a calf pen and the font a pig trough.

            Years of abuse inevitably took their toll. In 1696 the great bell toppled from its moorings and seven years later the battlements of the Jasper Tower were damaged in a storm. In 1723 an even worse storm led to the collapse of the South-west Tower and the destruction of 50 feet of the nave. With limited funds, John Wood, the famous architect of Bath, built an Italianate temple within the ruins which B.H. Malkin described in 1803 as “an outrageously, incongruous appendage of modern finery”.    

Throughout these centuries, in keeping with the poverty of its church, the village of Llandaff had few attractions for its visitors. There were some elegant residences but Malkin expressed “considerable surprise and disappointment”, as he contrasted the mean streets and humble cottages of Llandaff with the finer, cleaner cathedral cities of England. John Speed’s map of 1610 shows a village of about 60 houses with plenty of open spaces. The cross, the maypole and the stocks can all be seen on The Green. From the castle a lane leads to the rambling, gabled manor house of Bryn-y-Gynnen. In the 18th century it was rebuilt for Admiral Thomas Mathew and renamed Llandaff Court. The Admiral chose not to live there after commenting that he had spent enough years on a three-decker ship and had no wish to die in one. Llandaff Court served as the Bishop’s Palace from 1850 until 1958.

            The right to hold a Whitsun Fair on The Green was granted to the Bishop by King John in 1205. The fair was an important source of income but by the 19th century it had become a rowdy occasion. In 1880 it was decided to discontinue this annual event and a few years later The Green was enclosed.

The task of restoring the cathedral after its long years of neglect was entrusted to John Prichard, the diocesan architect, whose father was the vicar of Llandaff. He demolished Wood’s Italian temple and reconstructed the presbytery and nave in a sympathetic manner to blend with its mediaeval characteristics. The tower which had collapsed in 1723 was replaced with a graceful spire which bares Prichard’s name. One interesting feature was the row of sovereigns’ heads, beginning with William I on the south wall and continuing along the north wall. Prichard’s partner was J.P. Seddon who commissioned a number of fine art works from the pre-Raphaelite School, the most splendid of which is Rossetti’s “Seed of David. On 13 July 1869 a great thanksgiving service was held to celebrate the restoration of the cathedral.

            Prichard’s contribution to the architecture of Llandaff was not restricted to the cathedral. Other examples of his work in the village include the Probate Registry and St Michael’s College in Cardiff Road. Many of the buildings on The Green were designed by him and the result is one of the most agreeable views in Cardiff.

The Cathedral School occupied premises on The Green when it was re-opened by Dean Vaughan in 1880. An earlier school had been abandoned in the 17th century because of the cathedral’s poverty but the new premises offered an education to “the sons of gentlemen”, with choral scholarships offered to boys chosen for the cathedral choir. In 1958 the school moved to the former Bishop’s Palace at Llandaff Court and it is now the only surviving choir school in Wales.

Roald Dahl was a pupil at the Cathedral School between 1923 and 1925. In his autobiography, Boy, he recalls how he and his friends put a dead mouse in a sweet jar at the detestable Mrs. Pratchett’s shop which may have been next to Spencer’s Row in Bridge Street. Inevitably painful retribution followed and Roald’s mother was so shocked by the beating he received, that she took him from the school and sent him as a boarder to St Peter’s in Weston.

Howell’s School for Girls in Cardiff Road is named after Thomas Howell, a 16th century merchant of the Drapers’ Company in London. His charity to provide dowries for orphan girls became redundant 300 years later, when a Parliamentary commission decided that the money should be used to provide schools for girls in Llandaff and Denbigh. Howell’s has won a great reputation since it opened in 1859 and among its famous pupils is Charlotte Church who, at the age of 17, is an international celebrity possessing, so it has been said, “the voice of an angel”.  

By the early 20th century, Cardiff Road and Palace Road were splendid thoroughfares within walking distance of the cathedral. Even more exuberant were the splendid mansions of Cardiff’s wealthier citizens. James Insole was a coalowner who used some of his fortune to build Insole Court, now owned by the city council. Sir Edward Stock-Hill , whose father had constructed one of the earliest dry docks in Cardiff, built Rookwood House which was renowned for its magnificent gardens and is now used as a hospital.

Following its incorporation into Cardiff in 1922, it was inevitable that Llandaff lost some of its rural charm. Houses were built in and around Western Avenue and, as this new highway was constructed, the ancient Llandaff mill was demolished. The road also cut into the stretch of open countryside which had hitherto extended from the centre of Cardiff to the cathedral.

The chequered history of Llandaff Cathedral continued in World War Two, when it was struck by a landmine on 2 January 1941. Ancient graves and tombstones were hurled like missiles more than half a mile away. The summit of the Prichard Tower was dislodged and its truncated appearance became a notable landmark for years afterwards. The roof of the nave collapsed and the beautiful Great West Window was shattered, but fortunately the Rossetti Tryptych and 12 priceless stained glass windows had been safely stored.

Not until 1960 was the cathedral restored to its former glory. Generally, the restoration was based on Prichard’s design but the opportunity was taken to build a processional way and a memorial chapel dedicated to the Welsh Regiment. The nave was given a more open appearance, though Epstein’s statue of Christ in Majesty aroused some controversy.

Inevitably Llandaff has changed since World War Two. BBC Wales moved into new studios in Llantrisant Road and a large housing estate has been built at Danescourt. New educational establishments include the Bishop of Llandaff High School and the Llandaff Technical College, now amalgamated with other colleges to form UWIC. Amid these changes, the heritage of the past has been better protected in Llandaff than in many suburbs of Cardiff. The narrow streets of Heol Pavin and Heol Fair, together with the ruins of the Bishop’s Castle and the Bell Tower, evoke memories of a bygone age. Above all, the essential spirit of Llandaff is reflected, as it has been for so many centuries, through its ancient, indestructible cathedral.


Further Reading:


Hilling J.B. Llandaff Past and Present (J.B. Hilling 1978)    

Llandaff Society Llandaff (Chalfont Publishing Company 1996)

Morgan D. The Cardiff Story(Dennis Morgan 2001)

Thomas E.S. Llandaff Cathedral, A Pictorial History (Pitkin Pictorials 1970)