Religious Persecution in Cardiff


Freedom of worship was an unacceptable ideal before 1689. In an age when ritual and doctrine in religion were determined by the state, all dissenters were punished. Attendance in church each Sunday was required by law, irrespective of personal belief, and in 1584 Rice Jones of Gelligaer was presented to the magistrates at Cardifffor playing tennis at the time of divine service. In the following year, 11 people were presented for their failure to attend church, each absence incurring a fine of 1/-, a considerable sum in those days.

Some clergymen, such as Anthony Kitchin, adapted their religious philosophy to rapidly changing circumstances. Others were guided by their conscience and suffered the rigour of the law. In its most extreme form, their destiny was a martyr's death of excruciating agony, a fate which befell Thomas Capper in 1542 when he was burnt at the stake in Cardiff. The exact nature of his offence is not recorded, but a document relating to his execution refers to a payment of 4/4d towards the "costs and expenses sustained in burning Thomas Capper, who was attainted of heresy at Cardiff'. The story of Rawlins White, Cardiff's most famous Protestant martyr, is available in much greater detail and is narrated by his friend, John Dane, in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. White came to Cardiff from Somerset and found  accommodation near Quay Street. In 1550 he was renting five fishing henges along the Taff and, at the age of 65, his life so far had been fairly uneventful, but in common with many other people this state of affairs was to be transformed by the Reformation.

Rawlins became "a diligent hearer and seeker-out of the truth'. Since he was unable to read for himself, his son read to him from the Bible. Possessing a marvellous memory, White became an eloquent preacher, able to quote at length from the scriptures. Soon, he was spending more of his time preaching than fishing, as he wandered through Cardiff and its nearby villages, proclaiming the gospel to all who would listen to him.

When Mary Tudor ascended the throne in 1553, she resolved to restore the Roman Catholic religion without making any concessions to Protestant dissenters. The response of Rawlins White was to deliberately flout all laws which inhibited the  preaching of Protestant beliefs. He "looked every hour to go to prison', an attitude which Bishop Kitchin, bearing the responsibility for enforcing religious laws, found  incomprehensible. White was arrested in 1554 and imprisoned, first at Chepstow, and then at CardiffCastle. At this stage he could easily have escaped and Kitchin no doubt hoped he would do so.

In the spring of 1555 Protestants were being treated much more harshly and White was faced with his moment of truth. He was brought to the Bishop's Palace at Mathern and in the chapel he was given a last opportunity to save himself. Neither threats nor pleas could move him and, hoping for a miracle, Kitchin ordered Mass to be taken. Rawlins turned his back on the Bishop and beseeched the people present to "bear witness at the day of judgement that I did not bow to this idol'. The Bishop had no choice but to pronounce sentence of death and White was transferred to the Cockmarel prison to await his execution. John Dane relates that he cheerfully spent the last three weeks of his life praying and singing psalms.

Dane spares us none of the details in the final act of this drama. Rawlins urged the blacksmith to fasten the great iron chain around him tightly, "for it may be that the flesh would strive mightily'. As the wood, straw and reeds  were laid about him in a funeral pyre, he still found time to argue with a Catholic priest who was warning the crowd of the fate awaiting all heretics.The fire was lit and crying out, "O Lord, receive my soul', Rawlins White toppled into the flames. As his body was consumed, Dane observed, "he seemed to shed his and ten years and his head and beard appeared altogether angelical'.

Later, a plaque was erected to his memory and fixed to the Town Hall. It disappeared when the building was demolished in 1747 but in 1903 a new memorial tablet in bronze was placed on the wall of Bethany Chapel in

St. Mary Street
. It reads:- "Near this spot suffered for the truth, March 30th, 1555, Rawlins White, a fisherman of this town'. When the firm of James Howell extended their premises to encompass the chapel, the plaque remained and can still be seen in the men's department. It is a fitting tribute to courage, faith and stubborn determination.

Religious tension was always at its most pronounced between Protestant and Roman Catholic, but divisions were also to be found among Protestants themselves. The Anglican clergy and worshippers, who were abused by Puritan zealots at Llandaff Cathedral, were not alone. The Vicars of Llandaff and Llanedeyrn were ejected from their livings in 1650, in favour of Puritan ministers who received the same treatment after the Restoration.

The originators of Nonconformity in Cardiff were William Erbery and Walter Cradock, the Vicar and Curate of St. Mary's Church. In 1634, the Bishop of Llandaff accused them of preaching, "very schismatically to the people' and a year later he referred them to the Court of High Commission. Soon afterwards, Erbery left the Anglican Church to seek the truth as an Independent. His daughter, Mary, became a Quaker and, when Puritan ministers refused to give a Christian funeral to  Quakers  during the Commonwealth period, she granted them a burial plot at Soudrey, near the South Gate.

In spite of persecution, the Quakers were firmly established in Cardiffby 1655 and that autumn, led by a hatter from Cardiff, they created a disturbance at St. Andrew's Church near Dinas Powis. In 1658, following a public protest against the payment of stipends to the clergy, several Quakers were put in the stocks or sent to gaol. The Quakers fared no better after the Restoration. The Anglicans loathed them with a relish which equalled that of the Puritans, and in 1661 there were 40 Quakers in the prison at Cardiff. Suffering seems to have strengthened their faith and, when George Fox visited the town in 1668, he discovered that more than 150 of his fellow Quakers were meeting in Canton with a further 40 at Llanedeyrn.


Persecuted and ill-used as they were, the Quakers never faced the danger which was an everyday occurrence to Roman Catholic priests. The penal laws directed at them could be extremely harsh, and a Catholic priest practising his religion was deemed to be guilty of high treason. The extremity of the law was rarely enforced except at times of great peril, such as the threat from the Armada in 1588 or from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. But, for a recusant or dissenter, commitment to prison was often enough to cause his death from gaol fever, a fate which befell Lewis Turberville in 1598.

In 1679 came the final bloodletting in the name of religion. It arose from the Popish Plot, a fantastic falsehood promoted by Titus Oates which alleged that the Pope planned to invade England with an army of 50,000 men. It was claimed, that after assassinating Charles II, the Papists intended to place his Catholic brother, James, upon the throne and so restore Roman Catholicism. The tale was preposterous but it led to an hysterical response.

In South Wales, two priests were arrested at the end of 1678. They were John Lloyd, who was chaplain to John Turberville of Penllin, and Philip Evans, who was a priest at Sker House, the home of Christopher Turberville. Initially, both men were incarcerated in the gaol at Cardiffand their trial was set for the Assizes of May 1679. The result of the trial was a foregone conclusion since the accused were Catholic priests, and that was sufficient justification to convict them. There were several witnesses, but the most damning evidence came from Mayne Trott, a deformed dwarf who was also a former Catholic. He was well informed about Catholic activities in Glamorgan and was now in the service of Justice Arnold, an ardent hunter of priests. Later that year, Trott dropped dead in the street in London, a fate which Catholics naturally interpreted as a divine punishment.

Evans and Lloyd were sentenced to death but a stay of execution was granted while a reprieve was under consideration. During this period, Philip Evans is said to have passed his time strumming the harp and playing tennis near St. John'sChurch. In July the Popish Plot produced a new wave of hysteria and the death penalty was invoked. The two men were allowed to spend their last days together in fairly comfortable conditions at the BlackTower, but on 22 July 1679 they were dragged on hurdles to the Gallows Field. The final words attributed to Philip Evans might just as easily have come from the mouth of Rawlins White:- "I die for religion and conscience' sake. Sure this is the best pulpit a man can have to preach in ... if I had never so many lives, I would willingly give them all for so good a cause.

The anguish of John Lloyd and Philip Evans is remembered on a plaque at the National Westminster Bank in

Crwys Road
. At St. Peter's Church, near
City Road
, another memorial takes the form of a stained glass window. Roman Catholic schools in Cardiffalso bear the names of the martyrs, and in 1970 both men received the ultimate recognition of their sacrifice when they were canonised by Pope Paul VI.

Not until 1689, when the Toleration Act became a healing contribution to the "Glorious Revolution', was it finally accepted that tolerance in religious belief is the only alternative to fanaticism. Even after this act, Catholics did not enjoy full rights of citizenship until the nineteenth century.