The Landscape of Mediaeval Cardiff

No description of Cardiffis available until the sixteenth century when John Leland outlined its characteristic features in his Itinerary in Wales of 1536-39. A far more detailed study was made forty years later by Rice Merrick, who was a notable local historian and landowner of modest means from Cottrell, near St. Nicholas.

His account of Cardiff was written in 1578 but, since it is unlikely that great changes had occurred during the previous 200 years, Merrick is really giving us a portrait of mediaeval Cardiff. His work becomes an even more useful source when it is studied in conjunction with John Speed's plan of Cardiff. Speed was a cartographer who surveyed the counties and principal towns of England and Wales during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. While mapping Glamorgan, he produced town plans of Llandaff and Cardiffin 1610, both of which are valuable illustrative guides to their mediaeval topography.

The boundaries of mediaeval Cardiff were limited by the sea to the south and  the Taff to the west. Two crosses marked the eastern and northern limits of the borough. Long Cross or Payn's Cross was situated where Glossop Terrace meets

Newport Road
, while the "Crwys' to the north of Cardiffstood at the junction of modern Cathays Terrace and
Crwys Road
. Much of the land within these boundaries was no more than open fields, and Speed's plan indicates a little walled town, through which a visitor could stroll comfortably in half an hour.

Visitors from the west approached Cardiff along the ancient Roman road through Ely and Canton. A small bridge allowed them to cross the Turton Brook, as it meandered through meadows on which Cathedral Road would eventually be built, joining the Taff at Brook Street. When the traveller arrived at CardiffBridge, he caught his first glimpse of the river,the castle and the town.

If the river was in a peaceful mood, visitors made their way across the timber bridge which was erected approximately 80 yards upstream from the modern bridge. Not until 1580 was this crossing over the Taff re-built in stone, and throughout the Middle Ages the flimsy wooden structure was frequently in need of repair. Occasionally it was swept away completely, and when such a disaster occurred the alternative route involved a lengthy diversion through Llandaff.

Beyond the bridge, the Taff turned to the east, roughly following the course on which

Westgate street
would emerge in the nineteenth century.  Normally the river lapped gently against the gardens at the rear of High Street as it flowed past the Town Quay towards St. Mary's Church, but there were occasions when it became a raging torrent, sweeping everything from its path, including human life. The peril of flooding, with all its accompanying devastation, was not seriously tackled until the nineteenth century, when the course of the Taff was altered. On a tranquil summer's day, however, coracles were a familiar sight on the river and remained so until the end of the eighteenth century, when it was said that salmon, trout and other fresh water fish were caught in "prodigious quantities'. Other fishermen chose to trap the unwary fish in henges or weirs, which were enclosed with stakes, and were rented along the river banks from the Lord of Glamorgan.

Compared with other Welsh towns, mediaeval Cardiffprobably made a favourable impression on its visitors. Speed's plan depicts a rural environment where  trees grew in abundance and the majority of dwellings enjoyed open spaces and gardens. The houses, usually thatched, were built with timber, wattle and daub. In the fifteenth century the "Daubyng Pits' of Cathays, an area now covered by Colum Road, provided the townspeople with the clay to daub their homes.

The district to the south of

Wharton Street
, or "Porrag Stret' as it was known in 1610, was particularly pleasant. The vegetable and flax gardens were enclosed with hedges or "hayes', a name still given to this extension of
Working Street
.  The burgesses, even those who were craftsmen and traders, produced much of their own food, and some of them kept a few animals which grazed on the common land at Adamsdown or the Heath.


A walk around the mediaeval walls, built by Gilbert de Clare before 1300, provided a salutary reminder that these were dangerous times. Merrickwrote, "This Towne, for the most part, is environned with a faire high Wall, .... saving where the River Taf and the Tyde, undermining it, overturned part thereof, in compasse about a mile'. Six gates gave access to the town and, where the river did not create an additional defensive obstacle, a ditch was dug in front of the wall.

After passing the convent of the Blackfriars on their left, travellers entered Cardiff through the West Gate. This entrance to the town was popularly known as the "Mill Gate', though Merrick referred to it as the "Miskin Gate'. The Lord's mills stood on the bank of the castle moat, just within the wall.

As Speed's map does not indicate a wall along the river bank, it has been widely assumed that the Red Earl regarded the Taff as a sufficient barrier against any Welsh attack. However, Rice Merrick states categorically that a wall existed at this point but had become eroded by the river. Possibly, incursions by the Welsh contributed to its collapse, the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr in 1404 being especially ferocious.  There is additional archaeological evidence pointing to the presence of a wall adjoining the river. Traces of it were found when the new Town Hall was built on the west side of St. Mary Street between 1849-53, and further proof was to emerge when the former South Wales Daily News premises were erected at the Golate in 1885.

Two gates guarded the approach to the Taff. Blount's Gate, taking its title from a gatekeeper of the fourteenth century, provided the means of entry from High Street to the quay. The other river gate was the Gulley Gate or Golate. A wall plaque at the Golate recalls the history of this narrow alleyway which is the "Frogg Lane' of Speed's plan, possibly so named because its proximity to the river created wet and slippery conditions.

Near St. Mary's Church, two watch-towers were situated, presumably to give a warning of any threat from the sea. The wall then skirted St. Mary's Churchyard to the South Gate. According to tradition, the Milkmaid's Bridge crossed the ditch near this point and, when the maid rang her bell, the cows would gather for milking. Outside the South Gate, the origins of the modern roads can be traced, one of which led towards Penarth and the Dumballs. This treacherous area of marshland was frequently flooded and through the centuries many people lost their lives in drowning accidents. The South Gate was widely known as the Moor Gate from which Whitmore Lane, the later Custom House Street, led to the Soudrey, or "South Town', and the Great Meadow.

From the South Gate the wall turned towards Cock's Tower. The Marriott Hotel and the buildings along the rear of the Hayes now stand upon this section of the wall, while the eastern end of the Oxford Arcade occupies the site of Cock's Tower. In the Middle Ages, as it overlooked and projected into the moorland, this tower was an ideal vantage point from which to spy unwelcome intruders. It remained a local landmark until the nineteenth century, when the canal boatmen complained of  difficulty in steering around it. Cock's Tower was demolished about 1860 and its last foundations were destroyed during building work in 1962.

One of the arcades in the St. David's Shopping Centre is named after the town wall, and outside the Pastimes shop a thick black line traces the path of its route towards the East Gate. In the same manner, a line of black and red bricks, separated where the openings of the gate would have been, marks the site of the wall across pedestrianised Queen Street. In the Middle Ages, the East Gate was the beginning of the road which continued along Crockerton Street towards Roath.

The North Gate, where the wall joined the castle defences, was only a short distance away in North Street. Leland referred to this gate as "Porth Senghenydd', as it marked the first stage of a journey to Caerphilly and the once untamed territory of the Lords of Senghenydd. The gatekeepers of the town were given living accommodation above the North and West Gates, together with a payment of 2d a day. It was their duty to close all gates every night at the time of the curfew, and  re-open them again in the morning when the bells of St.Mary's or St. John's Church proclaimed the lifting of the curfew. The gates and walls were not merely a defence against a major assault. Indeed, in this respect they were of limited value, as the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr was to prove. No restriction seems to have been placed  on people's movements during the day-time but, even when times were peaceful, the town walls were intended to keep intruders out of the borough at night. The population of the town was small enough for people to know one another and view all strangers with suspicion. Yet, in the absence of a police force, it was essential that watchmen patrolled the streets at night, not only to prevent crime but also to sound the alarm in the event of fire.

This particular peril was always present in the Middle Ages, when most buildings were made from inflammable materials. While there are no records of fire-fighting techniques in mediaeval Cardiff, it can be assumed that it was a collective responsibility. The ringing of the church bell was a summons to form a human chain with buckets and, in the event of a serious blaze, long poles were provided to pull down burning timbers.

Inside its walls the town was laid out in a grid pattern. The main thoroughfare and the widest street in the town was High Street. Buildings were erected in the centre of this road, the most important of which was the Town Hall or, as Speed names it, "The Towne House'. One of the crossroads at the Town Hall led to the quay, while the other gave access to St. John's Church which, apart from the castle, is the only surviving mediaeval building in central Cardiff. The parish church of St. Mary's, which can be seen on Speed's plan, was later to give its name to the southern end of High Street.

Water pumps were located near the Town Hall and at the East Gate. Drinking water was obtained from underground wells but, in common with all mediaeval towns, Cardiff suffered from the problems of poor drainage and a polluted water supply. Not surprisingly, these primitive facilities contributed to sporadic outbreaks of disease, especially in the most congested area of the town near the castle. By-ways such as Smith Street, Shoemaker Street and Back Street were little more than narrow alleys and, during the course of time, became assimilated into Duke Street and Castle Street.

The walled borough, with a few changes, remained the heart of the community from the thirteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. Yet, as early as 1171, Cardiff was bursting beyond its walls. William of Gloucester, in making a gift to St. Mary's Church, drew attention to, "my new borough which I have made where was my garden outside the town of Cardiff'. He is referring to the suburb of Crockerton or Crockherbtown. The  placename is said to have arisen from the custom of selling herbs and vegetables in china dishes or crocks and, with its preponderance of kitchen gardens, the district seems to have been very similar to the Hayes. Its main thoroughfare was Crockerton Street, now the principal shopping area of Cardiff. The Greyfriars established their convent to the north of Crockerton Street and  the mediaeval leper hospital, known as the Spital, stood at its eastern end.


About a mile to the east of the castle, lay the manor of Roath which Robert Fitzhamon had kept for his own use. In the years immediately following the conquest, the manor was worked almost entirely by serfs, bound to their lord in feudal service. In theory, it was a system similar to the bond between Robert and his knights, except that the serfs were given few privileges.

On the strips of land granted for their own use, they grew oats, barley and wheat, and lived in primitive dwellings of wattle and daub. In return for such modest boons, the peasants were expected to give service to their lord at fixed times throughout the year. As late as 1316, the serfs of Roath were obliged to offer their labour for 5 days of harrowing, 3 days of threshing, 3 days of hoeing, 6 days of reaping in autumn, 1(1/2) days for raking hay, and a day at Christmas to carry brushwood to the manor.

The serfs worked under a reeve, appointed from their number, who ensured that their duties were properly performed.  Every few weeks, the tenants of Roath were required to attend the customary court, where they decided how to carry out their tasks and how to organise their labour.  The court also dealt with minor misdemeanours among the workforce hence the name, "Roath Court', which is still given to the present building on the site, nowadays  used as a funeral home.

Within a hundred years of the conquest, the majority of the peasants were free men, paying rent for their land. In 1307 at Roath, 51 of the tenants were free and only 17 were bound by customary service. Specialist tasks were performed by permanent employees, among whom were a reaper, a cowman and two ploughmen. The emancipation of the serfs was to be further hastened by the grim toll of the Black Death which created a labour shortage throughout England and Wales.

The manor at Roath in 1307 consisted of 305 acres of arable land, 102 acres of meadow and 100 acres of pasture. The estate extended east to the River Rhymney and south to the sea. The emphasis was upon dairy farming and the accounts show, that from April to December 1316, the manor produced 18 stones of butter and 144 stones of cheese, most of which was sold in Cardiff Market.

 By 1316 Roath Manor had diversified to an extent where it was providing a fulling mill for local weavers. A document of 1314 records that a lease was granted to Richard the Tucker and his son, "to hold for the term of his life'. The power required to work the mill was harnessed from the stream which flows through Waterloo Gardens and Roath Park.

A fishpond was constructed near the mill and a further supply of fish was always available from the sea, only a short distance away. In 1349, eighteen tenants were paying rent for their fishing rights along the banks of the river and the coast. It was not always advantageous to live so near the sea, and periodically it became necessary to shore up the sea defences with timber, turves or clay soil.

To the south of the Manor lay the Great Meadow and the common land of Portman Moor, where the burgesses of Cardiff cultivated hay for their animals. The moorland was originally the property of Roath Manor, but by the fifteenth century individual estates were emerging. One of these was Adam's Down, named after Adam Kyngot, a gatekeeper at the castle in the fourteenth century.