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
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
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
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.
J.B. Llandaff Past and Present (J.B.
Society Llandaff (Chalfont Publishing
Morgan D. The Cardiff Story(Dennis Morgan 2001)
E.S. Llandaff Cathedral, A Pictorial
History (Pitkin Pictorials 1970)