Catholic Cardiff: Past and Present

Cardiff, a city with a population of over 200,000, and the greatest port in the world for the exportation of coal, has had a very long history. It came into existence in times of which there is no record, as a little station on the Severn Sea, at the mouth of the river Taff. The Taff, after a course of thirty or forty miles from the north, through the gorges of romantic mountains, finds its way to the flat land of the coast through the mud estuary which has been formed in the course of ages. A smaller stream, the Ely, flowing from the west, reaches the sea in the same estuary. It is on the alluvial deposit of these two rivers that the city of Cardiff is built.

Roman Period

Tacitus it was who first mentioned the Silures who dwelt in these parts. They were invaded by Ostorius Scapula, about the year 50 A.D. Roman sway was consolidated in South Wales by Julius Frontinus. It was this well known Roman commander who probably built the “Julia Strata” or “Via Maritima”. This Roman road ran along the north bank of the Severn estuary from Gloucester (Glevum) by Caerwent (Isca Silurum) and Caerleon (Castra Legionum) – The Camp of the Legions – both Roman stations in Monmouthshire. The road entered Glamorgan near Cardiff (Tibia Amnis), and, passing through Cowbridge (Bovium) to Neath (Nidum), went through Carmarthen (Maridunum) on to St. David’s Head in Pembrokeshire. The present precincts of Cardiff Castle enclose the site of a Roman town or fortress of considerable importance. The remains of a Roman walling with elaborate towers are to be seen under the vallum of the Norman Castle.

There are traces of a Romano-British Church in Caerwent if we accept some recent writers on the subject. Two citizens of Caerleon who were martyred in Caerleon—St. Julius and St. Aaron—share with St. Alban the glory of being the first British martyrs, put to in the persecution of Dioclesian. St. Mellon, founder of Rouen (4th century), is said to have been born in Cardiff, Cardilii, the birthplace of the saint as read in the lections of the Rouen breviary, is thought to be Cardiff. A very ancient church near Cardiff is named after this apostle of Normandy. The Norman conquerors of Glamorgan changed its old name to St. Mellon’s. The late Bishop Hedley held that it might well have been at St. Mellon’s that King Lucius lived, who in the second century, sent messengers to Pope Eleutherius imploring him to send missionaries to Britain to preach the Christian faith. King Lucius was called Llewr Mawr—the Great Light—and the old name of St. Mellon’s till the Normans came, was Llanlleurwg (‘Llaneirwg’ is the modern Welsh name for the area - Ed.), or the Church of Lucius. The names of the missionaries too, who were sent by the Pope, are titulars of churches around Cardiff. There is St. Fagan at St. Fagan’s, St. Dyfan at Merthyr Dyfan, and St. Medwy at Michaelstone-y-Fedw. The mother church of Cardiff, Llandaff, is regarded by some as the oldest foundation in Britain.

Celtic/Norman Period

Cardiff itself is not found in extant history until the Norman conquest. It remained for 600 years under the power of Welsh chieftains. The Norman, Robert Fitzhamon, and his knights seized it a few years after the battle of Hastings. From him it passed to the Clares, the powerful Earls of Gloucester, who held the lordship till Gilbert de Clare was killed at Bannockburn. Robert of Normandy, about whose imprisonment Pope Calixtus II. was much concerned, was imprisoned in a tower which no longer exists, in the Castle for twenty six years. King Henry I. assured the Pope that he treated him as a “noble pilgrim”. The earliest existing Cardiff Charter dates from 1147. The Cardiff Archives have four or five originals of Charters granted by the Dispensers, who held the lordship in the reign of Edward III. Edward IV. granted the lordship to Sir William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke, as a reward among other things, for having suppressed with ruthlessness and by foreign mercenaries, the rising of Cornishmen and Devonshiremen in 1549, who took up arms for the restoration of the Catholic religion. The lordship passed by marriage to the House of Bute over 100 years ago. Leland describes Cardiff in 1540 as:

the principal (town) of all Glamorganshire, well walled, and by estimation, a mile in compass. In the wall be five gates.

At the Norman Conquest, Glamorgan passed into the hands of the conquerors. The Church of Llandaff was devastated. Bishop Urban, appointed in 1107, with great zeal restored the Cathedral. The revenues of Llantwit Major and other places were transferred to Tewkesbury Abbey. So did the whole ecclesiastical establishment of Cardiff. Through the de Clares, Earls of Gloucester, this great Benedictine abbey became possessed of the great tithes and the right to nominate vicars to the Parish of St. Mary (the chief church of Cardiff in medieval times), the Chapelry of St. John (later a parish), the Chapelry of St. Thomas of Roath (now disappeared) and other churches in the neighbourhood of the town. St. Mary’s was a Benedictine Priory with Benedictines from Tewkesbury in residence. William of Gloucester built the church, and no doubt the Priory, in 1147. The Priory was outside the West-gate and situated on what is now Cardiff Arms Park. The monks, however, were called home to Tewkesbury in 1221, and secular Vicars were nominated and paid by the Abbey to administer the church, the chapels of St. John and Roath, and the Chaplaincy of the Castle. St. Mary’s was destroyed in 1607; undermined by the tides during “a violent swelling of the sea” and “the overflowing of the waters”, the church was swept away.

The Dominican Friary, Blackfriars, was founded in 1256. It stood on the banks of the Taff, between the Castle and the river. The site of Blackfriars and its great church, 220 feet in length, can still be seen in the Castle ground. The late Marquess of Bute had the foundations traced with great precision and archaeological learning. Greyfriars, the Franciscan Friary, stood in the locality between Queen Street and Cathay’s Park. The foundations of the Friary have been traced with difficulty, owing to the more recent building of the house erected by Sir William Herbert (the ruins of which exist), but the foundations of the church can be seen (the whole area was cleared in the 1970s during the construction of the Pearl Assurance Building - Ed.). In 1404 the town and Castle were almost destroyed by Owen Glyndwr. “At the door of Greyfriars monastery,” this fierce Welsh chieftain, seeing his cause was lost, mounted his horse and rode away never to return. The Franciscans were his friends, being mostly Welshmen and friends of the people. Somewhere there must lie buried two famous Minister-Provincials of the Order, Bro. John Zouche, D.D., who was Bishop of Llandaff, and Bro. John David, D.D., both Cambridge University men. In later times Greyfriars was called “Whitefriars”, which gave rise to the erroneous view that the Carmelites had a friary also in Cardiff. The Cistercian abbeys of Neath and Margam, and the Austin Canons of Bristol, held property in Cardiff.

Medieval Cardiff, to judge by the Records, had great religious life as well as much civic interest. There was the High Cross in High Street, a stone structure with a roof to it. Cardiff had three fairs: “St. Peter’s Fair”, “Our Lady’s Fair”, (8th. Sept.). and “St. Andrew’s Fair”. The trade guilds, the Cordwainers and the Glovers, powerful associations with a religious society (the Guild of the Holy Trinity) figured much in the civic and religious life of the town. The Guilds seized St. Peryn’s Chapel against the will of the sovereign (Edward VI.) when the confiscation of Church property took place. This guild hall (Shoemakers’ Hall) survived with the Guilds till the end of the 18th century. The Lazerhouse, The Spittle, The Poor Folks’ House, and The Hermitage reveal other aspects of civic life. The Hermitage (1492) stood by the old wooden Cardiff Bridge that forded the river near Blackfriars. The hermit had charge of the bridge and was supported, not only by by the alms of the pilgrim and the wayfarer, but by grants of the lordship, and by several burgages of the town. There was a chapel on the bridge.

The Reformation and Persecution

The religious changes of the 16th century brought spoliation. The 17th saw many imprisoned and fined; and many confessors of the faith died in the dungeons of Cardiff. Two Welsh priests were executed during the fury of the Titus Oates plot. The Canons of Llandaff, in the reign of Elizabeth, divided the plate and ornaments of the Cathedral among themselves. Educational and poverty-relieving organisations, like the Matthew Poor School at Llandaff, suffered as much as the ecclesiastical. We have in the Cardiff Records complete details of the plunder. Lights before altars. shrines and images went out; the sacred vessels and vestments were taken; the dirges, obits, and month’s minds ceased. Bishop Kitchen, the only Catholic Bishop who took the oath of supremacy in Elizabeth’s reign, was Bishop of Llandaff through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, up to 1553. He left the place to its fate, living at Mathern, near Chepstow. He suffered the lands of the See to be alienated. His only connection with Cardiff seems to be that he ordered the burning of poor Rawlins White.

In 1576, the Bishop of Llandaff presented the first Catholic for recusancy. In 1594 occurs the first record of many deaths in Cardiff County Gaol, in the King’s Castle. This must have been the Black Tower with its two dungeons, the Harrow and the White Chambers. They were noisome dens of filth and disease, and they were filled to excess with Catholic victims of the penal laws. In 1597, thirty-one prisoners, mostly, if not all Catholics, died in gaol. In 1598, eighteen more died, including two members of that splendid Catholic family, the Turbervilles, who, during the whole century, suffered so grievously. In 1615, Nicholas Spencer, a Catholic gentleman of Cardiff, died in prison. About 1630, Fr. Thomas Vaughan, of the Vaughans of Courtfield, a secular priest, “after very hard usage aboard Captain Molten’s ship, oon after died at Cardiff.” Two Welsh priests, Ven. Fr. Phillip Evans, S.J. and Ven. John Lloyd, a secular priest, having suffered weeks of solitary confinement, were sentenced and eventually executed on July 22nd, 1679. They were dragged on hurdles to the gallows in Gallows Fields, the site of their martyrdom being at that corner of Crwys Road and Richmond Road where the Bank now stands. About 200 Catholic recusants were committed between the years 1602 and 1679. Both es and every grade of society and all parts of Glamorgan were represented on the lists. Over the border, the Ven. Fr. John Kemble was hanged at Hereford, on 22nd August, 1697, and four days later Ven. Fr, David Lewis, S.J., was martyred at Usk. Ven. Fr. Roger Cadwallador was executed at Leominster, in Aug. 1610; and Fr. Wm. Lloyd, of Brecon, under sentence of , died in chains in 1679. So well had the penal laws worked in Glamorgan, that the Cardiff Custom House was able to report to Trinity House in October, 1745: “Thank God, we han’t one gentleman in this county of any figure or fortune that as a Papist or Non-juror, and we are told there are very few of the meaner sort.” The few were served by secular priests resident at Llanarth Court, in Monmouthshire, and by itinerant missioners, mostly Jesuits, who served the South Wales mission. In places like Brecon and Cowbridge, a small number of welsh Catholics were found at the end of the 18th century. In Monmouthshire and Herefordshire, however, in the homes of the county families who had clung to the old faith, large numbers were able to practice their religion, and had kept the faith.

The Catholic Revival

From the middle of the 18th century, Cardiff and Cowbridge were visited by priests from Bristol four times a year. When “that jolly worthy Jesuit” Fr. Thomas Brewer, who travelled as far as Haverdfordwest, died in 1787, he was succeeded by Fr. Robert plowden, S.J., at Bristol. Late in 1797, we find him active in Cardiff and at Swansea, he established a chapel in a room of the old chapel of the Knights Templar. After 1804, he gave up his visits to Glamorgan; but he took an interest in the building of a new church in Nelson Place, Swansea, which was opened in 1813, and he helped the resident French Abbé, Albert Séjan, with his advice and money. A Franciscan, Fr. Richards, from Abergavenny, Fr. Williams, of Brecon, and Fr. Spooner, of Chepstow, came to help occasionally. Fr. Séjan, who had been Confessor of Louis XVI, went back to France in 1814. Fr. Plowden founded the mission at Swansea as “the most central position for the faithful scattered between Monmouthshire and the extremity of Pembrokeshire.” He noted too, that it was much frequented by the Irish. Swansea did not flourish at first, and in 1813, Bishop Collingridge, the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District and Wales, reported to Rome that if Monmouthshire was excepted, there were only two missions in the whole of Wales, Brecon and Holywell.

In 1828 a priest went to reside at Merthyr, Fr. Patrick Portle. He came down to Cardiff occasionally to say Mass for the handful of Catholics to be found here at this time. Merthyr became vacant, and Fr. Portle (or Portal) went to Newport in 1831. He served Cardiff from there. Between 1830 and 1840, the first Bute Dock was constructed, and it was opened in 1839. This attracted a large Catholic population. Mass was first said in a private cottage, then in some of the inns of the town. Fr. Joseph Dwyer came to reside here for some six months in 1839. In the following year, Fr. Patrick Millea took the house No. 38 Bute Street. He, living upstairs, converted the ground floor into a chapel (describing it):

In one of the rooms was the altar, the congregation being crowded into the other, and into a temporary shed building at the back.

A new chapel had to be built. Here is what Bishop Brown, O.S.B., who had, in 1840, become Vicar Apostolic of the new Vicariate of Wales, writes about the condition of things in Cardiff in 1841:

At Cardiff, where the congregation fluctuates between 1,000 and 1,700, owing to the charity of Mrs. Eyre, of Bath, and her son and executor, Thomas Eyre, Esq., a chapel has been commenced to replace the densely crowded ground floor of the cottage, from which the window frame must be removed on Sundays in order that hundreds exposed to the weather in the roofless backyard, may discharge their religious duties.

The new church was dedicated to St. David, and was solemnly opened in October, 1842.

In the forties and fifties, the town grew at an amazing pace. It was 31,000 in 1861, being only 1,000 in 1801. In 1861, there were 10,000 Catholics in Cardiff, a third of the population. In 1853, Bishop Brown entrusted the whole town to the missionary care of the Fathers of Charity. With zeal and success, they laboured to deal with a difficult situation. They built St. Peter’s, Roath, “in the fields” in 1860, and opened it in 1861. Thanks to the enterprise of Fr. Signini particularly, the educational needs of the Catholic children of the town were met. Schools and school chapels were opened in Canton (1865), Grangetown (1866), Roath (1868), New Town (1873). St. David’s School, begun in 1845, built in 1847, was extensively enlarged in 1856. They were condemned in 1898, and the present fine schools were built by Fr. Alphonsus Van den Heuval, the Infants being opened in 1902, and the ’ and s’ in 1906. By 1883, the Fathers of Charity handed over St. David’s parish to the Bishop. The late Mgr. Williams, with substantial help from the late Marquess of Bute, erected the new St. David’s Charles Street, which was consecrated in 1887. Old St. David’s was converted into a Parish Hall. the Sisters of Providence, who came to Cardiff in August, 1856, were at the same time installed in the old Presbytery to visit and minister to the poor. The three Schools had become the active centres of new missions, and were also given to the Bishop, Canton in 1881, Grangetown in 1883, and New Town (Tyndall Street) in the same year. The Benedictine Fathers (Ampleforth) eventually took over Canton and in 1909 built the handsome church of St. Mary’s, Talbot Street. Grangetown (St. Patrick’s) has been making sure progress, and Provost Irvine hopes to start building the church of St. Patrick’s next year. Fr. Butler built St. Paul’s, Tyndall Street, and it was opened on 21st August, 1893, Cardinal Vaughan preaching at the opening.

To accommodate the increasing Catholic flock in East Moors, schools and a temporary chapel had been opened by the Fathers of Charity in the last decade of the century, and in 1911, the fine parish church of St. Alban’s was erected and opened there. In that year, the temporary iron church was transferred from St. Alban’s to Cathays, and the new mission of St. Joseph was begun. In 1921, Fr. Ottway went into residence as parish priest.

Thus in the Cardiff of today, there are seven parishes and one Chapel of Ease (St. Cuthbert’s at the Docks) ministering to over 30,000 souls. In Cardiff too there are several houses of Religious Women. The Sisters of Providence have a large house in Roath, where they have a Secondary School and Pupil Teachers’ Centre. Nazareth House Nuns have care of a large Home for children and the aged in the North Road. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd carry on their noble work at their convent in Penylan. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, at Cathedral Road, have charge of a Hospital founded by the Dowager Marchioness of Bute in memory of her son Lord Crichton Stuart. A foundation of Ursulines from Swansea are teaching in St. Mary’s School, Canton.

A New Era

St. David’s, from being the Mother Church of Cardiff became the Metropolitan Church of Wales in 1916. Dr. J.B. Bilsborrow, O.S.B., became the first Archbishop in succession to the late Dr. Hedley, Bishop of the former Diocese of Newport. The Cathedral Priory Church at Belmont, Hereford, was, in 1920, made an Abbey Church. Archbishop Bilsborrow, in the same year, installed the new Cathedral Chapter of secular canons at St. David’s Cathedral, Charles Street. He resigned the See towards the end of the year owing to persistent ill-health. The present Archbishop, Dr. Francis Mostyn, was translated from Menevia, the other Welsh Diocese of the Province, on the 7th March, 1921. Today, Catholic Cardiff, with its new metropolitan dignity and loyalty to the Holy See, looks with confidence in God to the future of the Church in Wales.

By the Rev. J. M. Cronin, I. C. and published in a 1922 edition of the St. Peter’s Magazine, Cardiff. This otherwise interesting and informative survey is notable for the absence of any reference to the Great Famine in Ireland and the large‑scale migration to South Wales which it caused, a circumstance which has had a lasting effect on Catholicism in Wales.

Reprinted in The Green Dragon No 6, Spring, 1998 .