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ST FAGANS

 

Population: 760

 

St Fagans was probably inhabited in prehistoric times, as a number of axe-heads and a spear head have been found in the Plymouth Woods. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ffagan, after whom the village is named, and his companion, Dyfan, brought Christianity to Britain and “purged away the paganism of well-nigh the whole island”. This high praise is based on a very dubious tale of the 2nd century, though a church, dedicated to St Fagan, once stood in the grounds of the castle.

Peter le Sore came into the possession of St Fagans after the Norman Conquest and built a motte and bailey castle to control the crossing of the River Ely. The le Sores held the estate for over 200 years before it passed through marriage to the le Vele family from Gloucestershire. In 1475, again because of a matrimonial alliance, David Mathew of Radyr became lord of the manor. At that time the original castle was already crumbling. Nothing of it now remains but one relic from those mediaeval days is the holy well of St Fagan, situated between the two lower fishponds in the Museum of Welsh Life. According to Richard Symonds, who visited the site with Charles I in 1645, people came to drink at the well as a cure for epilepsy and, “ after they have drank of it they relate their health ever since”.

            Dr. John Gibbon bought the manor in 1560 and began to build the castle which is now part of the museum. He sold the property, still only half built, to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Herbert, who lacked the funds to complete the work. His son, William, desperately needed money to join Raleigh’s ill-fated expedition to South America in 1616 and accepted an offer for the estate from Sir Edward Lewis of The Van.

            This family, which could trace its ancestry back to the lords of Senghenydd, was one of the most influential in Glamorgan. Different branches of the family acquired estates in the Taff and Rhymney valleys, Llanishen, Whitchurch, Radyr, Penmark and St Fagans. Their wealth was probably the reason Charles I met the gentlemen of Glamorgan at St Fagans in 1645 in the hope of reviving his flagging fortunes.

Usually St Fagans was a sleepy, agricultural community, similar to others in the Vale of Glamorgan, but on 8 May 1648 this tranquillity was brutally disturbed. The Civil War, apparently at an end two years earlier, flared up again as Charles I plotted to regain his power. A motley crew of disillusioned Roundheads, who had fought with Parliament earlier in the war, joined forces with diehard Royalists against Cromwell’s Model Army. In South Wales, the Royalists, led by Major-general Rowland Laugharne, planned to seize Cardiff Castle as the first stage in setting the West Country ablaze.

His army was 8,000 strong but many of them were no more than bewildered farmhands, armed with pikes and pitchforks. They assembled at St Nicholas but, on hearing that Cromwell was hastening to Wales, Laugharne marched on Cardiff. When Colonel Thomas Horton forestalled him by mounting a heavy guard at Ely Bridge, Laugharne was forced to look for an alternative route through St Fagans. Monday 8 May was a raw, unpleasant morning when the armies clashed on farmland to the north of the castle. Despite superiority in numbers, the Royalists were no match for Horton’s hardened, professional army. Within two hours, Laugharne’s makeshift forces were put to flight, relentlessly pursued by Horton’s cavalry. From St Fagans alone, 65 men were killed and the harvest that year was gathered in by their widows. The River Ely was said to run red with blood and, though the battle is rarely mentioned in English history books, it was the greatest and most significant clash of the Civil War in Wales.

The castle dominated the village of St Fagans which at that time consisted of little more than the green, the church, the mill near the bridge, and a few cottages and farm houses. The church was dedicated to St Mary and its history can be traced back to the 12th century. Improvements in the14th century produced a nave and chancel which are superb examples of mediaeval work. A restoration was carried out in 1860 and one of the stained glass windows from that period depicts the ministry of St Fagan.

In 1730 the property passed to Other Windsor, the Third Earl of Plymouth, following his marriage to Elizabeth Lewis. During the 18th century, the new owners were usually absentee landlords and this was a time of stagnation, both for the castle and for the village. The situation changed in 1852 when Robert Windsor-Clive, heir to the estate, chose to live at St Fagans with his new bride, Mary. He died seven years later but Lady Windsor continued to live at the castle, and in 1868-69 carried out an extensive restoration.

Considerable improvements were also made in the village which one visitor described as, “one of the prettiest and cleanest little villages in the Vale”. St Fagans was virtually a model estate, where new homes were built for its workers, old cottages were refurbished and a national school was built in a Tudor style. By contrast, the Plymouth Arms was rebuilt in 1895 in a Jacobean style. To ensure that there was no unruly behaviour, a former butler from the castle was installed as landlord. He kept a strict regime, making it clear to customers that two pints of beer was their limit.

A paternal system existed until well into the 20th century. The parish was virtually self sufficient with one pub, one butcher, one shoemaker and one shop, one of each being sufficient for the village’s needs. Most of the people in the village were employed on the estate. There was a great occasion in 1878 when Lady Mary’s son came of age. A special train brought 400 of the family’s Glamorgan tenants to St Fagans for a banquet at the castle, followed by a fireworks display and other entertainment. The festivities went on for two days, in which 300 chickens, four tons of meat and 25 hogsheads of ale were consumed. So much wine was drunk that extra supplies were required.

During the 20th century, the Plymouth family continued Lady Mary’s paternal role at St Fagans, using the castle as a summer residence. More than 50 staff descended on the castle when it was used to entertain important visitors. Queen Mary stayed there in 1938 and a few years earlier the Prince of Wales had been among the guests. Before World War One, a banqueting hall for 40 people was built in the grounds which, during that war, became a military hospital.

            Another notable house in St Fagans, just off Michaelston Road, was The Court. This became the chosen residence of two families connected with the world of racing. When Lord Glanely, one of the foremost shipping magnates in Cardiff, lived there after World War One, his horses won every classic race including the Derby. After Glanely retired to Newmarket, the Llewellyn family lived at The Court. Harry Llewellyn was a keen horseman and finished second in the Grand National of 1936. His greatest moment came in 1952, when he was the captain of the equestrian team that won Britain’s only gold medal in the Olympic Games at Helsinki.

In 1947 the Earl of Plymouth and his mother donated St Fagans Castle and its grounds to the National Museum of Wales as a site for a folk museum. Since that time, the Museum of Welsh Life has become one of the top tourist sites in the country, as buildings of all kinds have been acquired from every part of Wales. Among those rebuilt in the grounds are old farm houses, miners’ cottages, a chapel, a miners’ institute, a postwar “prefab” and even the “house of the future”. Visitors can see craftsmen, such as the cooper or the blacksmith, practise their traditional crafts in an authentic setting. There are also three indoor museums and the castle itself, overlooking lovely gardens and parkland, is a great attraction.

When the Earl of Plymouth made a gift of 45 acres of woodland between the new Ely housing estate and the river in 1922, it became a popular place for picnics and ramblers. Sadly, the Plymouth Woods have gained a notoriety for crime and vandalism in recent years. St Fagans itself has remained a charming village since becoming a part of Cardiff in 1974. Housing development has been restricted to the areas around St Fagans Drive and The Court and, in terms of population, the suburb is the smallest in Cardiff. There are few more delightful ways of spending a summer’s afternoon than to watch a game of cricket at the picturesque ground of the local club, the home of a team which a few years ago won the National Village Cricket Final at Lords.

 

Further Reading:

 

William E. St Fagans Castle and its Inhabitants (National Museum of Wales !988)

Shepherd C.F. The Parish of St Fagans in Glamorgan Historian Vol.VIII p.75-88

(Stewart Williams 1974)

Tilney C. The Battle of St Fagans in Glamorgan Historian Vol. VIII P.89-104 (Stewart Williams 1974)