A View into Medieval Cardiff

     Cardiff today is a city that is not well known for its medieval ancestry, but for its rapid development during the industrial revolution, a city built on the proceeds of coal. As a result of this growth Cardiff became the largest town in Wales, became a city in 1905 and became capital of Wales in 1955.  From one point in Cardiff we explore medieval Cardiff, stripping back the layers, revealing a thriving medieval town and port which reached population of over 2000 inhabitants by the end of the 13th century (1).

Cardiff Castle’s 12th century stone shell keep and towers

     Climbing to the top of Cardiff Castle’s 12th century shell keep tower we can experience medieval Cardiff and the intangible concepts held within it. Viewing the varied landscape of medieval Cardiff full of imagery symbolism of lordship, religion and trade. We find glimpses of this colourful and varied landscape as we climb the motte and walk around the inner side of the shell keep, climbing the tower we see further glimpses through arrow slits emitting light which cuts the darkness of towers rooms. Finally from the top we have a 360º view revealing rich tapestry of hills, parkland and urbanism. Our medieval heritage unites them, if we look to the North we see Llandaff and Castell Coch.

The view to the North from Cardiff Castle: Looking towards Llandaff Cathedral and Castell Coch

     The view towards Llandaff and Castell Coch is extensive and varied, dominated by the treeline of Bute Park and the hills beyond which mark the edge of the Glamorgan uplands. In this we can see different segments of the medieval landscape. Most notably the significant cathedral settlement of Llandaff and border castle of Castell Coch guarding Cardiff and extending the lordship of Glamorgan along the Taff valley.

Llandaff Cathedral: A religious centre for over a 1000 years the current structure dates from 1120

     Llandaff has origins beyond the form we see today, the site is associated with early Christian activity some think from the 6th century. Sitting on a crossing point upon firm land alongside the Taff, opening Llandaff to trade routes crossing the Bristol channel and beyond. The first religious settlement at Llandaff according to tradition was founded by St Dubricius, with the first church built by St Teilo (2). The later medieval cathedral- the one we see today, was founded in 1120 (2) and would play a major role in the area and dominate the landscape north of Cardiff as it does today. Llandaff Cathedral’s bell tower would have been visible from Cardiff, illustrating the importance of the religious centre to the surrounding landscape and when the wind blew in the right direction the sounds of the church could have been heard in Cardiff .

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Llandaff Bishop’s Palace: A statement of power and wealth by the Bishops of Llandaff

     The fact the settlement was so close to Cardiff and the centre of the Diocese of Llandaff created an alternative centre of power and spiritual alternative to religious establishments in and around Cardiff. A potential rival to the Lords of Glamorgan who resided at Cardiff Castle.  The construction of the bishop’s residence adjacent to the cathedral would have been a clear display of the bishop’s power and would have been visible from Cardiff Castle, demonstrating the religious power of the bishops and the alternative centre of power he offered.

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Inside the Bishop Palace: Where buildings of the bishop’s residence once occupied

     Beyond Llandaff we see stuck to the hillside where the river Taff meets the Glamorgan lowlands is Castell Coch. Founded in the 11th century to control the Taff valley and protect Cardiff to the south (3). The valley acted as a point of access to the Glamorgan uplands and would later provide access to the de Clare castle of Caerphilly. The first castle was a simple wooden topped motte. This motte was later reused by Gilbert de Clare (1267-1277) as the base for his stone built castle (which the castle we see today is based on) (4).  This castle enabled the control of this part of the Glamorgan uplands and beyond, linking Cardiff to the new de Clare castle,  the magnificent Caerphilly Castle. The view from Cardiff  when it was in its brief use in the 11th and in the last quarter of the 13th century this would have been a statement of the lord of Glamorgan’s power to any guests brought to this private part of the castle. The display of power would be seen through the fact the lord had castles so close by, showing who was in charge whilst the knowledge of where this route leads to brings further perception of power and the martial prowess of the de Clares builders of Caerphilly and lords of Glamorgan.

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Castell Coch rebuilt by the Bute family in the 19th century


     If we turn direction to the west over the present day Bute park we would have seen another religious establishment, the Blackfriars. This was a Dominican friary. One of only two Dominican friaries founded in Wales, the friary was established in 1256 and included an infirmary (5).

Looking westwards towards blackfriars
Blackfriars: Immortalised by late 19th century brickwork

     Whilst to the west beyond the outer ward of the castle there was another friary, greyfriars, a Franciscan friary founded in the 1280’s (6). These two religious establishments add a new layer to our medieval image of Cardiff and illustrate the important role religion played in medieval and everyday life. These establishments beyond the city’s walls offering religious benefits to the masses with friars working in the local community offering opportunities for education and care. They also offered an opportunity for people to give patronage, display their wealth and ensure spiritual wellness beyond death.  Set along roadsides they could attract donations from passer-bys as well as enabling their role as providers of medical treatment, separating the ill from the urban area. From the castle we can see both reflecting the interplay between the two and the role the lord would have had in the foundation of both.

Greyfrairs: Immortalised by a car park and office building

     Finally we come to the medieval town of Cardiff, today the landscape is dominated by world famous landmarks such as the Principality Stadium. In this area would have been the original parish church of Cardiff St Mary’s. Founded just before 1100 by Robert Fitzhamon to serve the town with the local street being named St Mary’s. We see here the final religious dimension of the town here, and when in 1180 it was placed in the pastoral care of the Benedictine monastery of Tewksbury Abbey we see the involvement of an additional religious establishment in the town focused at St Mary’s which had become a priory (7). Here we see alongside Llandaff to the North, and friaries to the East and West a complex landscape of religious orders competing for patronage and patrons which is witnessed here in Cardiff in the change of patronage reflecting changing religious concepts, for example the movement from patronage of monastic organisations such as the two friaries to the patronage of civic institutions such as parish churches.

     This story does not however explain where St Mary’s church is today. St Mary’s was built on the banks of the Taff over time the river Taff eroded into the river bank until it forced the abandonment in the 17th century and the subsidiary chapel of St John’s, established as a chapel of ease to become the new parish church (7). St John’s was founded in the 13th century and developed extensively in the late 15th century. ,


The parish church of St John the Baptist


     The layout of the centre of Cardiff is still dictated by the former medieval layout of the town, the streets we see today are where they are as a result of the medieval street plan. We see the organisation of the streets coming from an axial street in front of the castle which goes beyond Cardiff past the two friaries and beyond towards the east and west, making Cardiff a major connection point for people travelling along the south Wales coast. Whilst its position on the Taff made it a major navigable port, transporting goods across the Bristol channel, notably raw material such as iron ore to Bristol in return for imported goods from Europe as we have witnessed with the importation of goods such as Saintonge ware and wine from Gascony. Evidence from the likes of the Newport ship may indicate evidence of direct trade to Europe, especially when involving local lords and potential to avoid costs of going via Bristol.

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Queen Street
St John Street
High Street

     So  Cardiff… a city today not well for its medieval heritage we see a city which at its heart is a city heavily influenced by a medieval street layout a city heavily influenced by medieval people and the concepts of medieval era. This emerges to us as we see the preserved fragments of the medieval period across the city rise. They illustrate medieval concepts including medieval power play between secular lords and between secular and ecclesiastical lords, varying religious activity as a result of multiple religious organisations and Christian ideology and finally the role of the people of Cardiff and the trade they established trading to Bristol and beyond, making Cardiff a city which in reality as a rich medieval heritage which has to some extent become over shadowed by the riches of the 19th century.

Sources Used

All Photos by Author

1.Campbell  B, 2006, Benchmarking medieval economic development: England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, circa 1290, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, The Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast

2. Llandaff Cathedral, Llandaff Cathedral: A Short History, (internet source https://web.archive.org/web/20071217100106/http://www.llandaffcathedral.org.uk/history.htm

3. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (2000). An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Glamorgan. Volume III, Medieval Secular Monuments, Part 1b, The Later Castles from 1217 to the Present, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.UK:  Aberystwyth,

4. Thomas J, 2009, Castell Coch, (internet source http://www.castlewales.com/coch.html)

5.History Poiny.Org, Site of Blackfriars’ Friary, Bute Park, (Internet Source http://historypoints.org/index.php?page=site-of-blackfriars-friary-bute-park)

6.National Museum Wales, 2007, Medieval Cardiff (Internet Source https://museum.wales/articles/2007-05-04/Medieval-Cardiff/)

7.Diocese of Llandaff, The Historical Roots of Cardiff City Parish, (internet source http://www.cardiffstjohncityparish.org.uk/Parish_history.htm)


Author: thevisualpast

Emerging Museum Professional advocating for FoH in Museums and preserving intangible cultural heritagge, co founder @FoHMuseums and @EMPCymru Follow me on twitter @TregaskesW

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