Trading and Commerce in the Middle Ages

The Town Hall in High Street was the focus of commercial activity in mediaeval Cardiff. The two-storeyed building, standing in the middle of the road, served a variety of purposes. A stone stairway led to the upper floor, "a faire great chamber where ye Aldermen and Magistrates use to consult'. The room was also large enough to hold public meetings for the guilds. On the ground floor was the Cockmarel or Cwchmoel, a Welsh expression commonly used to describe the tiny, poky cells of the prison. It was a hideous, stinking place, where miscreants, including those owing debts within the town, were committed. In time, the meat market or shambles was moved to this lower storey.

Outside the building, the stocks were a constant reminder of rough and ready mediaeval justice. In a community where everyone knew his neighbour, exposure to public scorn was a real deterrent, whether it was the brewer who sold sour ale, the baker who added sawdust to his flour, the shop-keeper who gave short measure, or even the drunkard making a public nuisance of himself.

At the crossroads to the south of the Town Hall, Merrick describes "a faire Crosse, Quadrant, with gristes, covered over with lead'. Here, in the sight of God, bargains were made, debts were repaid, and contracts were exchanged. On market days the Town Crier called out the latest national and local news, or proclaimed new bylaws and health regulations which the Aldermen in their wisdom had decreed.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, folk from the nearby villages and hamlets came to trade at Cardiff Market. A Rowlandson cartoon, though it is dated 1797, portrays all the excitement and bustle of a mediaeval market day around the Town Hall and its neighbouring streets. The Clerk of the Market was responsible for collecting the tolls due to the Lord of Glamorgan, and business commenced when he rang his bell. Thereafter, the cries of vendors selling meat, butter, cheese, eggs and vegetables mingled with the noise of animals and poultry. Townspeople and visitors dodged between wandering beasts and carts, searching for a bargain before retiring to slake their thirst in one of the local taverns.

Twice a year, when the annual fairs came to town, the population of Cardiff was swollen to several times its normal size. Each of the fairs lasted a fortnight and, in the early days, they were held in the graveyards of the two parish churches. This practice aroused the wrath of  clergymen such as Giraldus Cambrensis, who condemned the use of holy ground as "the seats of the money-changers and the places of them that sold doves'.

While local traders profited from the fairs, it was the merchants and packmen from far afield who attracted the  greatest attention. In their wagons and caravans they brought raisins, figs, cinammon and ginger from the east, as well as fine cloth and jewellery, luxuries which could only be purchased on these special occasions. The fair was also an opportunity to hear news of what was happening in the wider world, while the performing animals, jugglers and other entertainers brought amusement and colour to people's rather humdrum lives.

The Lord of Glamorgan reaped the greatest financial benefit from the fairs. The Constable collected the tolls paid by the merchants for their right to trade in the town. Through his "Piepowder Court', a term which originates from the French "pieds poudres' or "dusty feet', the Constable maintained law and order during the fair. This court, which existed until the end of the feudal borough in 1835, adjudicated on all disputes arising from the fair and executed its own summary justice.

It is likely that the shops of mediaeval Cardiff were constructed in timber and plaster. The living accommodation was in the upper storey, while the ground floor was invariably used as a workshop where prospective clients could view the craftsman at work. One can merely speculate about the variety of shops to be found in Cardiff but, as it was the principal town of Glamorgan, they were presumably capable of meeting the everyday needs of the burgesses and their families.

The local population knew all the tradesmen but, since the majority of people were unable to read, there was a sign above the shop to reveal the nature of its business. The picture of a loaf singled out the baker, a boot indicated where the cobbler could be found, and a pair of scissors pointed the way to the tailor's shop. The ale-stake, a pole protruding into the street, was the sign that a fresh brew of ale was available for the thirsty customer. It was the duty of the official Ale-taster to vouch for its quality.

All commercial activity in the town was governed by the guild which met regularly in the Town Hall. It set prices; controlled the quality and standards of merchandise; fixed rates of pay; and regulated the conditions of apprenticeship. A newcomer was only allowed to establish his business when he became accepted into the guild as a member.

By the fourteenth century, the number of craftsmen had grown sufficiently to justify the formation of several guilds. There must have been organisations for metalworkers, tailors, carpenters, butchers and many other trades, but the most important guild, and the only one whose records have survived, was that of the Cordwainers and Glovers. A charter of Edward II in 1324 granted the monopoly of the leather trade, "to the burgesses of the arts or crafts of Cordwainers and Glovers of the town of Cardiff, and to their successors for ever'

The charter shows the power wielded by a mediaeval guild. No person could commence his trade until he had served an apprenticeship of seven years. The credentials of a stranger, seeking to practise his craft in the town, were carefully investigated. Even then, a year's residence was an essential requirement before he was admitted into the guild. If any person attempted to trade without the guild's consent, he was liable to a fine of 40/-  each month his offence continued. A journeyman, who tried to steal an advantage by setting up his stall in the street, incurred a fine of 20/-.

The rules were equally strict for guild members. Every Michaelmas, the Cordwainers and Glovers elected two masters and two wardens, one for each trade. These officers were empowered to search the shops of their members, thus checking whether they were obeying the regulations of the guild, and any attempt to obstruct them in their duty resulted in a fine of up to 40/-.

Though recognised as a single organisation, the Glovers and Cordwainers retained their individual identities, as each guild elected its own master and warden and  separately admitted its members. Trinity Street obtained its name from the Trinity Chantry of St. John's Church, once used by the Glovers as their hall and chapel. The Cordwainers worshipped at the  chapel of St. Piran's which formed a part of their hall in Shoemaker Street. According to excavations and documentary evidence, the building was sited near the junction of the Duke Street and High Street Arcades.

The mediaeval guilds played an important role in the social life of the town. The Cordwainers and Glovers each levied contributions separately from their members for festive occasions. There were banquets, served on the best plate, over which the master and warden presided with a paternal air. On Church feast days, the guilds displayed their banners and formed a procession through the streets before taking Mass at one of the churches. At other times,  individually or collectively, the guilds presented either miracle plays, representing episodes from the Bible, or morality plays which stressed Christian virtues. These colourful occasions were both entertaining and educational to the people of Cardiff and its neighbouring districts.

Whenever a member fell ill or met with an accident, it was incumbent on his colleagues to give assistance to him and his family. Really, the guilds combined the activities of a trade union, an employers' organisation and a charity. Despite their restrictive practices in stifling competition and ignoring the interests of the consumer, they  exercised a benevolent role in an age when charity was usually the only lifeline for those who had fallen on hard times.


In addition to its function as a market town, Cardiff was a busy port. The winding course of the Taff was only navigable to small vessels and, for some time after the conquest, they probably unloaded their cargoes near the castle. The Town Quay, originally a timber structure,  was in service by the thirteenth century at the point where Quay Street joins Westgate Street. Eventually, the quay was rebuilt in stone and, while detailed information is lacking until the sixteenth century,  it seems to have been in constant need of repair. A jury report of 1552 reveals that the quay had been repaired three times in twenty years, probably because of erosion due to flooding. In the Middle Ages, the Lord of Glamorgan assumed responsibility for its maintenance since it was he who benefitted from the harbour dues levied on the cargoes.

Much of Cardiff's seafaring trade, together with cargoes from Aberthaw, Barry and Newport, passed through the quay at Bristol known as "Welsh Back'. None of the ports in South Wales was very large but Cardiff was the most important of them in Glamorgan. In 1315 its reputation as "the town of merchants' indicated its growing influence as a trading centre. Passengers too found the journey by sea a convenient method of travel between the two ports. One such passenger was Leuky Bren, the wife of Llywelyn, who was transported from the port of Bristol in 1319 to a prison in Cardiff.

Wool was the most valuable of all commodities in the mediaeval world, and in the early fourteenth century it appeared that Cardiff was about to become a leading port in the Bristol Channel. In 1326 Edward II, because of his friendship with Hugh Despenser, bestowed on Cardiff the status of a staple port for the export of wool and hides. After only six years, following  the downfall of the Despensers, a Parliament at York revoked the privilege in favour of Carmarthen, on the pretext that regulation of the wool trade rested solely with the King, and Cardiff was not a royal borough.

Travel by sea could be fraught with peril. A French document of 1460 recorded that "John Derell of Cardyff in Wales, merchant', was held to ransom in Brittany until Henry VI gave permission to dispatch a cargo of Welsh wool as payment for his freedom. The Bristol Channel was equally dangerous and Colyn Dolphyn, a pirate from Brittany, used Lundy Island as his base to harass local shipping in the early fifteenth century. Among his victims was Sir Henry Stradling of St. Donats, who was taken captive and only released after a ransom of £1,400 had been paid.