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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .