We’re Going West

It may seem that all I do in my spare time is think up clichés and movie references for these blog posts. You’d be right. However, since I also can’t seem to function (at all) without multiple irons in the fire, I’ve been asked to do some research for the AHRC-funded CAER Heritage Project on the untold Medieval story of West Cardiff. This links into my previous post about how research happens, because, unlike Leicestershire which has decades, even centuries, of historical work to help the modern research process along, Caerau and Ely have next to nothing.

So, where do you start in this instance?

Well, despite the considerable lack of  research done into the story of this area in comparison with other places, I’m not exactly starting from scratch. I have an MA dissertation from 1982 and a few archaeological reports by the Royal Commission to go on, as well as a booklet produced by the Friends of St Mary’s  as a starting point in terms of secondary literature, but that’s really about it.


What is the Project about?

In a nutshell, the CAER [Caerau And Ely Rediscovering] Heritage Project, based in West Cardiff, is all about engaging the local community and schools with the area’s lost heritage. It looks at the history of the area from prehistory to the modern day, and runs many interactive educational activities, such as Heritage Trail Art projects that get local school children involved in ‘Signposting the Past‘ and designing way markers for the planned heritage trail that will lead to St Fagans National History Museum. This is the HEART of Cardiff Heritage Trail, which has involved the whole community and centred on the gathering of local memories in a series of workshops, the results of which were displayed last year at the joint project’s Roadshow at the Ely Festival in July.

Last year focused on the Iron Age hillfort at Caerau, which I blogged about here, and here. And here. And also here. This year, I think Olly and Dave have (wisely) decided that letting me loose on their archaeology once was quite enough, and I have been given the task of delving into the documents instead, where I am much happier. As is the archaeology.


It’s funny ‘cos it’s true…


The problem with the document sources is that ‘Caerau‘ means ‘fort’ in Welsh, as in ‘fortification’. (Click on the name to hear the correct pronunciation – kye-rye – though the locals pronounce it kye-ruh).

This map of different types of Medieval fortifications in England and Wales may give an indication of why that is a problem.

Courtesy of http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/distrib.html


Is this the ‘fort’ mentioned in the document but only named as a ‘fort’ actually the ‘fort’ we’re looking for?

And that brings us to the other issue. How many possible ways can you spell one word? Well, in Latin and Old French sources, it turns out that you can spell a name (usually based on what the scribe thought was being dictated to him) any number of ways, even in the same document. It helps if you say the word out loud to yourself a few times (preferably in a room full of people who have no idea what you’re doing, which is usually what I do – but freaking out random strangers is an entirely optional part of the process). That can sometimes help you figure out what the scribe might have heard (or thought they’d heard), and gives you an idea about how they would have recorded it based on the sounds.


The hard ‘c’ is probably rendered as a ‘k’, so I’m looking for variants such as:




(with or without the corresponding ‘rau’ (either ‘rye’ or ‘ruh’) bit on the end, which wouldn’t be there if they tried to give the word a Latin ending to fit with the sentence…)

Er…. Cae-What?


… Which brings us back to What We Know.


The parish church of St Mary’s was built in stone and has a thirteenth century date, which makes me very happy. I’ll be concentrating on the church and ringwork perched on the pre-existing Iron Age hillfort, and considering their relationship to the deserted medieval village of Michaelstone-Super-Ely and its nearby fortified manor house about 2km away from the Caerau site. Michaelstone was known to have belonged to the Fleming family in the fourteenth century, but we’re not 100% on who held the Caerau castle.

Just like Leicestershire, it’s a good idea to look at wider narratives of the time and the area to get a good sense of context, and find out where the Medieval story of this area fits in with the larger, grander narratives of conquest and civil war, against which dramatic background the stone church was built, and through which the locals at the time were living.

To get an idea, there are books like Kari Maund’s The Welsh Kings, R. R. Davies’s The Age of Conquest, Max Lieberman’s The Medieval March of WalesDavid Walker’s Medieval Wales, and a plethora of other works to choose from. The 1250s and ’60s, when St Mary’s church was being built, are brought to life in David Carpenter’s The Reign of Henry III, and if sweeping context is what you’re after, you might try his  Struggle for Mastery

Looking at context gives you questions as opposed to answers, questions you can ask and apply to local contexts. How did that major event affect xyz? You might ask yourself. If so-and-so was active in this area at this time, what does that mean for the locals there? What does this say about where the centres of power were? And so on.


Not only that, but the evidence contained within the sources might provide interesting information on the local context in terms of a micro-study on Caerau and Ely as an area, providing the sources still exist.


And that in turn provides you with other things to check out in the sources. There’s no guarantee any of the sources are still in existence, or that you’ll be able to find anything, of course. But the hunt is the fun part. The banging-your-head-repeatedly-on-the-desk, eyes-bleeding, going-slightly-stir-crazy-while-everyone-else-picnics-outside kind of fun.

And I can’t wait to get started, and top up my library tan this summer.