Welcome to Kenfig Times. This website has been created to tell the story of Kenfig and its surrounding villages from prehistoric times to the twentieth century. On this website you will discover what really happened to Elizabeth Williams, the ‘Maid of Sker’, how a Roman road still dominates the village of Cornelly, whether the medieval town of Kenfig is under the pool or under the sand, how a famous sportsman helped to shape Cefn Cribwr’s industrial landscape, the first person to legally build a house in Kenfig Hill and much more.
Every week a new article and pictures will be placed on the website so that over the coming weeks the full story of Kenfig’s history will be told.
Latest Article: Kenfig during the reign of Elizabeth I, which can be found on the Post Medieval page. Also, more pictures added to the Gallery.
Stop Press: Pendragon, a novel set in the Kenfig landscape will be published shortly. You can pre-order a copy of Pendragon now by clicking on the book cover on the right of this page. A link will then take you to Amazon.co.uk. Meanwhile, you can read more about Pendragon on http://pendragon497.com.
A Brief History of Kenfig
Archaeological evidence suggests that there has been a settlement at Kenfig since Roman times. Pieces of Romano-British pottery, a roofing tile and a coin depicting the emperor Constans (337 – 350 A.D.) have been found. In addition, a Roman road runs through the borough complete with mile stones. The mile stones are situated in Margam and Pyle and they carry inscriptions to the emperors Postumus (259 – 268 A.D.) and Victorinus (268 – 270 A.D.) respectively. In the wider landscape Neolithic arrowheads, scrapers, a dwelling and a burial urn have also been uncovered suggesting that Kenfig has been a home to people for at least four thousand years.
In the Iron Age, settlements were constructed to the north and to the east of Kenfig providing a continuity of occupation into Roman times. The Iron Age people of Kenfig were known as the Silures and they were led by Bodvoc, son of Caitegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus. Bodvoc was killed in the struggle against Rome by legionaries commanded by Julius Frontinus. The ‘Bodvoc Stone’, a tribute to the Silurian leader, now stands in the Margam stones museum.
The Romans were converted to Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. and the pagan tribes of Kenfig were forced to abandon their gods and worship the god of Rome. As Christianity took hold among the Silures, and Britain as a whole, monasteries were built, including an early structure at Margam. To this day, an abbey exists at Margam, thus providing a link to those early Christian founding fathers.
By 410 A.D. the Roman Empire was in decay and the troops stationed in Britain were called back to defend Rome. The vacuum left by the Romans was filled by numerous raiders over the coming centuries, including the Irish, the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings. It is suggested that the Vikings settled in the area and that local place names such as Sker, and Kenfig itself, are of Viking origin.
By the 11th century a new power had emerged in Europe: descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, invaded Britain and led by Robert Fitzhamon they took control of Kenfig, c1100 A.D. A castle was built, initially of wood, to help suppress any local opposition and that was followed by a church, dedicated to St James. A town was established, made up of Norman and English settlers, and a system akin to apartheid was set in place. Needless to say, the indigenous people, who were largely excluded from the town, took exception to this imposition and the town was raided on the 13th January 1167. As a result of this, and subsequent raids, the wooden castle was replaced by a stone tower and the donjon that would come to dominate Kenfig for the next 300 years was born.
The town, protected by its castle, initially covered an area of eleven acres. As the town developed, this area increased to eighty acres with further settlements springing up outside the town walls. For the price of a shilling per year a burgage plot could be purchased within the town, the money swelling the purse of the local lord. The burgesses who took advantage of these burgage plots formed themselves into guilds so that they could control the town’s trade. A charter was granted and this bestowed upon the burgesses a number of rights, including the right to hold a fair for eight days commencing on the 24th July. In addition, a fair was held on the Tuesday of Whitsun week.
Despite numerous attacks by the indigenous people, Kenfig became a prosperous town. The burgage plots provided a home to Walter Molendinarius, the miller, and his daughter, Amabilia, to Adam the baker, Philip the cook, Nicholas Rotarius, the wheelwright and Henry the forester, among many others. Also housed in the town was Alice, an anchoress, who resided in a cell, a narrow chamber, built against the chancel wall of St James’ Church.
Kenfig was attacked, again, in 1232. This attack was led by Morgan Gam of Afan. The chronicler of Margam Abbey notes that at Easter, 1232, the people of Kenfig received warning of the impending attack and so were able to lead their cattle to a place of sanctuary. Morgan Gam’s men rushed into the town and attacked the donjon. They met with stiff resistance and a bloody battle ensued. The men within the donjon defended bravely and Morgan was compelled to return to the mountains. It is easy to think that such attacks were inspired by ideology, but the reality was that many of these attacks were motivated by a basic need: the need for food. Relatively speaking, the burgesses in the town led comfortable lives while the people outside, the people of the ‘Welshry’, were largely impoverished; they were literally fighting for their lives. Despite their desperation, Morgan and his men spared the women and the children who had taken refuge in the town’s church, thus suggesting that the ‘rebels’ retained a degree of control and coordination.
Further attacks were reported throughout the 1200s and into the 1300s. Most of these attacks were perpetrated by the Welsh, while some were carried out by barons opposed to the Despenser family; the Despensers being the lords of this particular manor.
In the 1340s it was recorded that there were 144 burgage plots in Kenfig. This compares with Cardiff, 423 plots, Cowbridge, 276 plots, Newport, 228 plots, Llantrisant, 145 plots and Neath 128 plots. By 1375 the number of burgage plots in Kenfig had reduced to 106, the arrival of the plague in 1349, in 1361 and in 1369 being largely responsible for the diminished number.
Water has played an important part in the development of Kenfig; indeed, the medieval town probably owed its existence to its coastal location. Before the advent of the railways in the 19th century it was easier to transport people and produce by water. From the days of Rome, Kenfig traded with the Mediterranean, with Iberia and with Ireland. As well as assisting trade, the River Kenfig also provided protection to the town and the castle. When the castle was built, the river was diverted to form a moat around the castle and the inner bailey adding a natural defence to the town’s stone walls. Springs and wells provided fresh water and some of the springs were noted for their healing properties. One of the springs claimed a cure for bone fractures while another provided relief to people suffering from eye problems. The greatest expanse of water within the borough of Kenfig is the pool. Situated to the south of the town the pool is fed by freshwater springs. Covering an area of over eighty acres in medieval times, Kenfig Pool was a home to several varieties of fish, thus making the pool a rich source of food.
On the 2nd November 1365 John Philip of Kenfig, Rees ap Gruff Gethyn of Afan, Howel ap Gruff Hagur, Jevan ap Philipot, Thomas de Browneswolde of Afan and others were cited for unlawful fishing in Kenfig Pool. The case was brought by Margam Abbey and the defendants were compelled to stand before the Dean of Groneath. At the proceedings Rees ap Gruff Gethyn confessed that he had helped himself to the fish, claiming that he did so justly because the fishery had belonged to his ancestors. He went on to admit that after the Normans had conquered the land they had presented the fishing rights to Margam Abbey in compensation for damages the abbey had sustained due to raids by Rees’ ancestors some 217 years previously. On the 22nd June 1366 Rees stood trial before a jury of twelve men at Glamorgan County Court. At the trial Margam Abbey won 40 shillings damages, Rees was fined three pence and it was confirmed that the abbey, and not Rees and his contemporaries, held the rights to the fishery.
A charter, issued by Thomas Despenser on the 16th February 1397, reaffirmed the burgesses rights as issued in earlier charters with additional provision made for the encroaching sand. Storms and sand had been a recurring theme with lightning striking the town and gales carrying the sand on to the streets of Kenfig. Efforts were made to try and control nature with sedges planted in an attempt to hold back the sand. However, these efforts were only partially successful as the charter issued by Thomas Despenser demonstrates, for he felt obliged to grant the burgesses extra tracts of land.
Nature was having her say, and she would be the ultimate winner, but not before the town had endured a further assault, led by Owain Glyn Dwr in 1405. Once again, the town was left in ruins and the burgesses were left to pick up the pieces and this they did, carrying the town into the middle of the 15th century. By 1460 the streets of Kenfig were choked with sand and the residents were seeking fresh pastures, relocating further inland. A settlement was established to the east at Pyle and, c1471, the church of St James was rebuilt there.
Possibly the greatest mystery, of many that surround Kenfig, is when was the medieval town abandoned? Although it is not possible to offer a precise date, it is feasible to suggest a period during which the people of Kenfig left the town and made new lives for themselves elsewhere.
The final charter that was bestowed upon the town was issued by Isabel, the Countess of Worcester, on the 1st May 1423. Obviously, this suggests that the town was still in existence at that date and that the pattern of the burgesses’ lives would have been recognisable to their ancestors from the 14th century.
By 1471 the church of St James had been transferred from Kenfig to Pyle. This fact is confirmed by a wall-plate in the nave of St James’ Church in Pyle. However, 1471 was also the year in which Richard Neville, the Lord of Glamorgan, was killed at the battle of Barnet. It would appear that Richard Neville intended to recreate the borough of Kenfig centred on Pyle, but that plan died with the Lord of Glamorgan on the battlefield.
The period between the granting of the final medieval charter in 1423 and the construction of St James’ Church in Pyle, c1471, offers a window during which the town was abandoned. Further clues are offered by a Margam Abbey charter issued in 1440 which states that Kenfig had been overwhelmed by ‘inundations of the sea for upwards of four miles’ and by a land grant issued in 1450 by Maurice Muric to Thomas ap Jeuan Gethyn which indicates that some people, at least, were still living in the town at that time.
A further, and perhaps decisive clue, is offered by the death of Richard Beauchamp, Lord of Glamorgan and Kenfig, on the 30th April 1439. His heir was a fourteen year old son, Henry. Under medieval law the boy was considered too young to manage his estates and so that duty went to his overlord, King Henry VI.
With the lordship of Glamorgan in a state of flux and Kenfig suffering from the ravages of nature it seems reasonable to suggest that the burgesses of Kenfig had started to drift away from the town in considerable numbers during the 1440s. The land grant issued by Maurice Muric in 1450 indicates that some people decided to stay; however, by 1460 it is highly likely that the town had been abandoned.
With its coastal location, its river and its fertile land, Kenfig has long proved attractive to settlers. From the Romans to the Normans they came, some in peace, many in war, all leaving their mark. As is the way of the world, the man with the biggest sword, the man with the most money, assumes control and he rules, sometimes with justice, sometimes with benevolence, but often with greed and corruption. And medieval greed and corruption bred resentment which fed the frequent revolts against the town of Kenfig. People fought each other to the death over that strip of land, a strip of land that is now at peace with nature.
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