Looking for Caerau
I’m intending to alternate between CAER Heritage Project research and my own research into the gentry families of Leicestershire and their seals, but as I’ve begun on the CAER stuff I thought I would continue with that for a bit.
Like I said in my previous post, looking for a place is not so easy. Leicestershire families are dead easy to find, but a place like Caerau in what is now West Cardiff, subsumed at the time into Cardiff administration, is not so straightforward. Alright: so, we know it’s in the county of Glamorgan. That eliminates all Caeraus, Caers, Kayrs, Kayres, Kayers, Kairs, Kaers and other variant spellings thereof anywhere else. So far I have discovered several in Merionethshire, Denbighshire, Powys, and Cornwall. We don’t want these. However, there seems to be at least one place of this name in Monmouthshire as well, and more than one in Glamorgan, the area we know we need to search. There seems to be one near Miskin, in the Llantrisant area. This ‘Kaer’ appears several times as part of the inheritance of the heirs of the earls of Gloucester, the de Clare family.
We know that the de Clares held Cardiff and Caerphilly, their two main power centres in Glamorgan.
You can see from the map that it’s roughly an hour and a half’s walk between Cardiff Castle and Caerau Fort, and a grand total of two and a half hours from Cardiff Castle to St Fagans, probably less as the crow flies. St Fagans was another important area, and Michaelstone-super-Ely is the site of a medieval village, and the next site for the CAER Heritage Project team to take a look at. If the main administrative centre was at Cardiff, that means that Caerau, while a good strategic point that could take advantage of the pre-existing Iron Age hillfort and the settlement that thrived there, was no longer the power-centre it had once been in the days of its pre-Roman and Roman history.
It was the perfect location to build a castle to command that area, but the real show of de Clare strength was the magnificent castle built at Caerphilly, meant to command the area and demonstrate de Clare dominance in Glamorgan to the Welsh princes.
If we widen the picture a little further, based (very roughly) on the other places the de Clares claimed dominion over in Glamorgan, you will see that, if you travel via Michaelstone-super-Ely and St Fagans, the power centres of the de Clares follow a strategic curve. It’s fairly obvious why Cardiff became the main centre, as it commanded the other end of the valley that was controlled by Caerphilly Castle, and the port.
I am not convinced that the “Kayr” in the documents which appears in relation to Miskin is Caerau, simply because it’s too close to Llantrisant and there was very likely another fort (caer) there. This is going to complicate even archive sources. Not that there are many of those – the oldest in the National Archives of Wales dates to 1671, which is no good to us either – that’s far too late. Even searching for the variant spellings doesn’t leave us with many (or any) options pre-1450.
Ok… all is not lost. If the fort is not an administrative centre, what does that leave us with?
That would be the church of St Marys.
We know that Caerau was mentioned in the 1291 Taxatio, of which I will say a little more below, but it was also apparently a prebend in 1385, as the prebendary of Caerau is named in a royal writ of Richard II. This is a writ ordering the Marcher lords to arrest an enormous list of churchmen who had failed to pay the amount previously agreed that the king should receive from the various churches and religious foundations across the kingdom. The diocese of Llandaff, in which lay the prebendary of Caerau, was part of the resistance to Richard II’s tenth. Note that here “Caerau” is spelt “Kayre”.
Given the proximity to other named locations, surely this time it’s the right “Kayre”? We have the parsons of Peterston, St Fagans and St Georges named, so why wouldn’t Caerau be on this list? The research of R. M. Wools and J. Guy suggests that the church was built in the 1260s and that prior to this, the inhabitants of Caerau walked to Began for their church services. I find this extremely unlikely. Why would you walk all the way to Began, when you could instead go to St Fagans, or even Llandaff Cathedral? The only Began Farm I can find is in St Mellons – a three hour walk, which is possible but I can’t see why they wouldn’t go somewhere closer. Wools and Guy also suggest that St Mary’s was in the Deanery of Newport, but since it is so close to Llandaff, I wonder if there is another Caerau with which our Caerau has become confused. (Unless there is a closer Began I’ve not been able to locate).
I would also suggest that St Mary’s did exist before it was built (or re-built) in stone – don’t forget that Caerau was an established pre-Roman settlement which remained a significant fortified settlement throughout the Roman occupation, and after the Christianisation of the British Isles, it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a Christian place of worship in an area like this. The earliest established church would have served the community but in all probability would have been simple and wooden, not stone. These are questions that only archaeology can answer for us.
It would make sense to build the church in stone, but leave the ringwork as a motte and bailey construction. Just because the administrative and military centres had shifted to Caerphilly and Cardiff, based on the political situation and the need to counteract the power of the Welsh princes, it does make sense to strengthen the church at Caerau.
For a start, Llandaff Cathedral was the ecclesiastic centre of South Wales.
There were only four bishoprics in Wales at this time – Llandaff, St David’s, St Asaph’s, and Bangor. Close proximity to the cathedrals, the seat of the episcopal power in each respective diocese, could be beneficial.
Caerau, so close to Llandaff, would make a desirable place for a prebend. The Taxatio Ecclesiasticus of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) mentions the church in 1291 and valued it at £4; this is not a small sum of money, and suggests that Caerau’s economy was thriving. Using the National Archives’ Currency Converter tool, we can see that £4 of 1290’s money was worth over £2K… and that could buy you a lot of stuff.
So, we know that despite losing the significance it had in the Iron Age and later Roman times, Caerau still had a healthy economy as late as the thirteenth century. We know that it was a prebend, and we know that it must therefore have been a significant spiritual site in order to be built in stone in the middle of the century. Stone churches had a permanence within their society that a wooden church did not, and it would have cost a lot of time and money to construct it (or reconstruct it!). I find it interesting that the church was built in stone around a time of social upheaval known as the Barons’ Wars, during which the Welsh princes took advantage of the chaos in England and pursued their own violent and expansionist agendas.
This is just a cursory glance at the problems of researching the site, and I hope provides an explanation as to why very little research has been done previously, and the questions that can be raised by such research. I may even have to come back and refute some of my own points in this post, potentially – this is only the beginning, after all! For now, we have a lot of issues to look at, and quite a few questions that need answering.
I’m taking a break from the CAER research for now to concentrate next on my own project, the Leicestershire gentry, and I will return to blog a little more about that before I resume my research into West Cardiff.
Any comments and suggestions on the Caerau research would be appreciated in the meantime!