Mediaeval Churches of Cardiff

The Normans were enthusiastic builders of churches and monasteries. In 1100, a prior was sent from Tewkesbury Abbey, the favourite ecclesiastical foundation of Robert Fitzhamon, to establish St. Mary's Church for the growing population of Cardiff. Subsequently, it was enlarged and rebuilt by Earl William in 1175. St. Mary's church, according to Speed, was cruciform in shape and possessed a square, lofty tower, but its other buildings, once occupied by the Prior and his monks, had disappeared by 1610. While the church itself has now vanished from sight and the course of the Taff has since been altered, we can deduce from the map that St. Mary's Church stood on the east bank of the river, at the junction of modern Wood Street and St. Mary Street.

Before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, there were tithe barns near the church and in Wharton Street, where  corn, hay and animals were stored on behalf of the Abbot of Tewkebury. A short distance away from the church, near  the Town Hall in High Street, Speed shows another building surmounted with a cross. It came to be known as the "Middle Pinion' and, since a document of 1576 refers to it as the "Clerk house of St. Mary', it seems likely that the building was the vicarage of St. Mary's Church. As the Normans colonised the countryside around the town, they provided chapels for the local people. St. Margaret's Chapel in Roath, which served the community until the nineteenth century, was a simple whitewashed building with a single bell turret. Other chapels were established at Llanedeyrn, Llysfaen and Llanishen. All of them have undergone extensive alteration and renovation since the Middle Ages but their towers bear testimony to their Norman origins.  The property of all these chapels existed for the benefit of Tewkesbury Abbey, and St. Mary's was their mother church. The only exception was Llanedeyrn which the Abbot of Tewkesbury bequeathed to Llandaff Cathedral in 1236.

St. Mary's church is gone, but another mediaeval church, St. John the Baptist, still occupies its original site in the centre of Cardiff. The Chapel of St. John's was erected about 1180 and was intended to be a "chapel of ease' for the benefit of those parishioners who lived in the most densely populated part of the town. St. John's soon became so popular that it was given the right by the mother church to hold its own christenings, marriages and funerals. In 1242, the prestige of St. John's had reached a stage where the Archdeacon of Llandaff contemplated the creation of a separate parish, but Richard de Derby, the Prior of St. Mary's, successfully protested to the Pope against this proposal and St. John's remained a dependent chapel until the Reformation.

By the sixteenth century, St. John's was not only attracting a larger congregation than its mother church, but the revenue from its tithes was also greater. The church building was impressively transformed between 1453 and 1473 and a magnificent perpendicular tower became its crowning glory. Designed by John Hart in the Somerset style, the tower was the gift of Lady Ann Neville, the wife of Warwick the Kingmaker, and remains the outstanding feature of St. John's Church to this day. Rice Merrick certainly appreciated "the workmanship of it, being carried to a great heighth, and above beautifyed with Pinnacles'.

There were other places of worship scattered around the mediaeval town. In the outer bailey of the castle, Fitzhamon built a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. The exact date of its demise is unknown but it seems to have existed throughout the Middle Ages.

Soon after the murder of Thomas a'Beckett in 1170, a chapel was erected to the memory of the martyred priest somewhere in Cardiff. It is not clear where it was sited and, as the date co-incides with the renovation of St. Mary's Church, the chapel may have been a part of that restoration.

Near the town end of the Taff Bridge, stood another tiny chapel where a hermit collected alms from passing wayfarers. He was also supported with gifts from the Lord of Glamorgan and the local churches, the parish accounts of St. Mary's recording a payment of 4d"to the Bridge of Cardiff' in 1393. The chapel still survived in 1578, though Rice Merrick observed that it had fallen into a state of decay.

According to a tale told by Giraldus Cambrensis, St. Piran's Chapel in Shoemaker Street appears to have been more than just a place of worship for the cordwainers. When Henry II was returning from Ireland in 1172, he visited Cardiff to hear Mass at St. Piran's.  As he was leaving, a man in a white robe spoke to him in German, urging him to ensure that the Sabbath was properly kept throughout his realm. Henry was also exhorted to lead a more Godly life for, "unless thou shalt do so, and quickly amend thy life, before the expiration of one year, thou shalt hear such things concerning what thou lovest best in this world, and shalt thereby be so much troubled, that thy disquietude shall continue to thy life's end'. When the King sought further conversation with the man, he could not be found, but within a year the prophecy was being fulfilled as Henry's sons began to intrigue against their father.

The Spital, which was  probably built in the thirteenth century by "the burgesses and commonalty of the town of Kaerdyf' to provide 24 beds for "leprous, poor and feeble persons', was also a religious foundation. Its chapel was that of St. Mary Magdalene and for more than a hundred years the hospital served the community well. As the fear of leprosy receded, its value to the community and its income began to decline. Little was received in revenues from its 15 acres of land, or from alms, and in 1393 the hospital was placed in the hands of its chaplain, Simon Worgan, to be used for the benefit of the poor and destitute of Cardiff. At the Reformation, the property was confiscated and sold to William Bawdrip of Splott. A thatched cottage occupied the site until 1886 when it was replaced by the Spital Building, a Victorian Gothic structure. In 1988 this last tangible reminder of Cardiff's first hospital was demolished to make way for the Capitol Exchange Development.

While Tewkesbury Abbey was the greatest beneficiary from the Norman Conquest of Glamorgan, liberal endowments were also made to other religious houses. Margam Abbey, founded by Robert the Consul, profited from the acquisition of two granges or farms near Cardiff. William Doggevel of Roath bequeathed a grange at Cathays, not far from where St. Monica’s  School is now sited. The Moor Grange, granted to the abbey by the Bishop of Llandaff in the early thirteenth century, has given its name to Grangetown and, among the Victorian dwellings of Clive Street, the fifteenth century farm house can still be seen. In 1170, Earl William granted lands to Keynsham Abbey. The estate, extending from Roath towards Penylan Hill, included a fishery and fishponds. Finally, the district of Mynachdy, meaning the "Monastery', probably derives its placename from the lands within the manor of Llystalybont, which were once owned by Llantarnam Abbey.

 For more than 300 years the highest form of worship appeared to be the monastic ideal of withdrawal from the world. In the thirteenth century, however, enthusiasm for this way of life waned, as the monasteries became corrupted by the wealth showered upon them. In 1221 the Annals of Tewkesbury record that,"Our Priory of Kerdif,the monks having been withdrawn, is let to farm on no definite lease'. The reason for recalling the monks is not given but the Prior of St. Mary's continued to act as a steward for the abbey's property in Cardiff.


About 1216 a fresh spiritual movement swept across Europe. It was inspired by St. Dominic and St. Francis who, after gaining the consent of the Pope, established two new holy orders. Within fifty years, Dominican and Franciscan friars were a familiar sight throughout western Christendom.

The Dominicans were the first to arrive at Cardiff in 1242, settling on land granted to them by Richard de Clare between the river and the West Gate. A contribution towards the building of their convent was forthcoming from the King and their earliest friary was a simple construction of wood, wattle and daub. Later, they built much more substantially in stone and, in the castle grounds, not far from the modern western entrance, lie the remains of their friary. The Marquess of Bute excavated the site in 1887 when floor tiles and stained glass, decorated with pictures of animals, birds and flowers, were found. Near the foundations of the church lie the meagre fragments of other buildings, among them a dormitory, a refectory and an infirmary. It is just possible to identify the cloisters where the friars took a daily walk in complete silence.

The Dominicans were more commonly known as the Blackfriars on account of the black cloaks which they wore over their white tunics. Dominic himself was a scholarly intellectual from Spain who believed that prayer and learning were the basis of a Godly life. Daily worship began at 2 a.m. with the first service of the day when all the friars, including the sick, unless they were seriously ill, were expected to rise from their beds and join the congregation. Thereafter, services continued at regular intervals throughout the day. When time was not being given to prayer, it was used for study, silent meditation and preaching. A reading from the scriptures accompanied their simple meals which were otherwise eaten in silence.

The followers of Dominic tended to be preachers, writers and scholars, upholding the dignity of the Church. In spite of their undoubted piety, the aloof, aristocratic manner of the Blackfriars often created a gulf between them and the more humble members of society.

The Franciscan friars were much more popular, especially among the poor. Francis of Assisi was a gentle, loveable man, whose faith rested on the simple belief that it was enough to love God and preach his gospel. Numerous tales tell of his loving nature, not only towards people, but also to the birds and beasts of the wild.

The Greyfriars, so called because they wore rough tunics of greyish-brown cloth, renounced all worldly wealth.  They begged for their daily bread but only took sufficient alms for their needs, truly believing that poverty would bring them closer to God. When Francis died in 1226, his simplistic ideals died with him, and the Pope insisted that the Franciscans must live within the order of a religious house. Even so, the Greyfriars remained true to the example of their founder by working among the poor, the sick and the destitute. They were the evangelists of the thirteenth century, preaching to anyone willing to listen, whether it was at the Town Cross in High Street, the annual fairs, or along the highway. They were respected by the local clergy and were often invited to preach in their churches.

The arrival of the Greyfriars in Cardiff cannot be precisely dated but, like the Blackfriars, they were given land in Crockerton, either by Richard or Gilbert de Clare. Their friary too was just outside the town wall near the North and East Gates, and the nineteenth century excavations uncovered a late thirteenth century church of five or six bays, but no transepts. Contemporary evidence draws attention to a steeple with a single bell at the east end of the church.

The excavations also revealed about thirty graves in the church, among them the stone tomb of Sir William Fleming, the executioner of Llywelyn Bren. The wooden coffin of Llywelyn had been defaced in the sixteenth century and was probably no longer recognisable. Another corpse, within the precincts of the church, was that of a warrior, killed by a blow from an axe. Outside the church, a burial ground contained the remains of those citizens of mediaeval Cardiff, who had chosen the Convent of the Greyfriars for their final resting place.

The North Door of the church gave access to the domestic quarters, where Herbert House was later built. In the nineteenth century there was still evidence of a hall, a dormitory and a kitchen, but it is uncertain whether there was a cloister. Indications of a stable and a barn were found near the church and the complex was enclosed with a stone wall. To the north of the convent, two fields, Friars' Close and Cow Close, were just large enough to graze a few animals. The entrance to the convent was through a single gateway which remained a local landmark until the nineteenth century, when the land was required for the building of St. John's School. The site in The Friary is now occupied by a restaurant.

Five bishops of Llandaff were chosen from the ranks of the friars, though only two of them had links with Cardiff. John Eaglescliffe or Ecclescliffe was imposed on the Chapter of Llandaff by Pope John XXII in 1323. A Dominican friar, he had recently been appointed Bishop of Connor in Ireland, and the Papal decision to transfer him to Llandaff incurred the wrath of Hugh Despenser. Certainly, he seems to have performed his duties conscientously, and when he died in 1346 he was buried in the Blackfriars Church at Cardiff. His tomb can still be seen among the ruins but close examination, a hundred years ago, revealed that the lead coffin had been forced open to steal the ring and chalice interred with him. Of the four Franciscan friars who became bishops of Llandaff, only John Zouche was a local man. Descended from William Zouche, the Lord of Glamorgan, he was bishop from 1408 to 1423, eventually being laid to rest in the Greyfriars' Convent.

The affection shown towards the Franciscans was often earned at a high price, as they never shrank from helping the afflicted in an age of dreadful infectious diseases. No documents exist to show how Cardiff was affected by the scourge of the Black Death in 1348-49 but, as the mortality rate was always high on marshy land near an estuary, it is safe to assume that a third to a half of the population perished, as in other parts of Britain. It is also likely that the Greyfriars, as records elsewhere indicate, remained true to the teaching of St. Francis and sacrificed their lives to help the stricken victims of the plague in Cardiff.

For three hundred years the friars were a familiar sight in Cardiff, their numbers reaching a peak at the end of the thirteenth century, when there were 18 Franciscans and 30 Dominicans in the local friaries. Occasionally they were aided in their work with gifts and small bequests. In 1360 Elizabeth de Clare left £6 in her will to the Cardiff friaries, while Lewis ap Richard, Constable of Caerphilly Castle, bequeathed £7 to the Greyfriars in 1521 on condition that he was buried in their church.

Such gratuities and endowments were rare, and by the sixteenth century both of the Cardiff friaries had fallen on hard times. Unlike other religious houses in England and Wales, they had never been wealthy and the Black Death hastened their decline. The Cardiff Greyfriars sent a letter to the Pope in 1487, relating that they were forced to travel ever greater distances in search of alms to repair their convent. Consequently, they had difficulty in maintaining the same level of services and charity work as in the past. The friars no longer seemed to have a useful role in society and their extinction became inevitable in the upheaval of the Reformation.