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History of St Mary the Virgin Church, Caerau, Cardiff

St Mary's was probably not the first church on this hill fort site. On 25th July 1913 it is reported in Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. 13, pp.103 that "there are indications that the original Church was to the north of the present building, almost on the edge of the cliff". It states in the Iolo MSS that Gweirydd ab Brochfael, King of Glamorgan, built the Church at Llanweirydd, now called Y Caerau, where he had a mansion, although he held his court at Cardiff.

Repaired in 1950's, prior to its re-opening for services. With the kind permission of the Western Mail & Echo.
St Mary's was built between 1254 and 1291. It is not mentioned in the Norwich Taxation of 1254. The Taxatio Ecclesiasticus of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) mentions the church in 1291 and valued it at 4. A.D. 1260 is a probable date.

St Mary's was built in the Early English style and is Grade II* Listed. Churches surviving with this type of roof represent about 5%.

Nothing is recorded between 1291 and 1535. In 1535 it is recorded that tithes of Caerau were paid to the Prebendary of Caerau at Llandaff Cathedral. Dr. Gwent, the Canon of Caerau was the Prebendary from 1535-1561.

The next significant event was Henry VIII breaking away from Rome, but it was during his son's reign in 1547 that Protestants wrecked the interior of churches including St. Mary's where they ripped out and destroyed the rood loft, they covered over the wall murals with whitewash and replastered over them. During restoration work in October 1959 Mr R M Wools discovered a remnant of a mural on the south wall of the nave and on the chancel gable. The Protestants also destroyed church ornaments and sold off all of the Church's vestments.

The work to rebuild the church nears completion. With the kind permission of the Western Mail & Echo.
In 1553 Mary I acceded to the throne and the Parish once again became Roman Catholic, the curate being Hugh Pritchard. He was also Rector of Wenvoe. Upon the accession of Elizabeth I the Parish again became Protestant and Pritchard lost his living. There is no record of his successor.

In 1591 the sum of one shilling was left by Howel Jenkin to the church. Howell Adams was Rector of Wenvoe and Caerau between 1615 and 1641. The Battle of St Fagans took place in 1648 and legend has it that some of Cromwell's soldiers hid in the church during the battle.

Only one of Caerau's canons has ever become a Bishop. This was Hugh Lloyd who became Canon of Caerau in 1645. He was married and had a large family. In 1649, during Cromwell's rule, he lost his livings, but later became Archdeacon of St David's until 1660 when he was appointed Bishop of Llandaff, which position he held until his death in 1667.

Over the centuries the church has needed constant repair: for instance in 1771 it cost 30 to repair the structure. The funds came from the bequest of a Mrs Stephens and the interest earned was to be distributed amongst the poor, but when the repairs had been completed and paid for, there was nothing left for the poor. The church also received 1,200 from Queen Anne's Bounty to augment the stipends of poor clergy.

Many parishes, Caerau included, suffered from non-resident incumbents and pluralism. For example, Canon Lisle of Caerau Parish was also Rector of St Fagans and Vicar of Llantilio Pertholey, St Mellons and Llandeyrn at the same time. During the 19th century attempts were made by passing Acts of Parliament to regulate the number of livings the clergy could hold.

Caerau became a Perpetual Curacy in 1835 which in practice is the same as a benefice. The incumbent gained his benefice by licence from the Bishop instead of having to be instituted or inducted.

Father Jones takes a moment to reflect. With the kind permission of the Western Mail & Echo.
The following paragraph is an extract from Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1901, Vol. 1, 6th Series pp 247-248.

Caerau (St. Mary). September 27, 1848.

A small church on an abrupt eminence, where was a Roman encampment. It consists of a nave and chancel, west tower, and south porch. The tower is small, of rude construction, with pack-saddle roof, having the east and west sides gabled. The belfry windows long and square-headed, and a few other slits for openings, and some traces of a west door. Against the north wall of the tower are some rude steps. On the north side this tower has no opening whatsoever. The porch is large, and entirely vaulted in stone; its doors very plain. On the south side of the nave is a window, formed of two trefoil-headed lights. On the north, near the east end of the nave, a low single, labelled window with trefoil feathering, apparently Third Pointed. The tower opens to the nave by a low Pointed arch. The chancel arch is Pointed and continuous. The chancel has some square-headed windows of two lights, of debased character. The font has a cylindrical bowl on a shaft of like form. On the north side of the nave is a stone bench. The walls are white washed.

St Mary's was restored at a cost of 760 in 1885 (a lot of money then).

In 1888 the sexton found a skeleton and some 17th century silver buttons plus a coin of the same date whilst digging near the yew tree in the graveyard. These items were thought to be from a grave, but this grave has not been found and no grave dates before the 18th century. The extent of the churchyard in 1804 was one rood and two perches. Due to the increase in population the graveyard was extended in 1910.

The yew tree to the south of the churchyard was said to be 2000 years old when it was destroyed by vandals setting fire to it on 6th July 1937. Fortunately it did not fall onto the church. It was reported in the local press that the Reverend R.C. Evans had a lucky escape as the tree fell. He told the press of the vandalism being directed at the church. At about this time thieves stole the church plate, the altar ornaments, a small silver chalice and paten, two silver mounted glass cruets and the contents of the offertory box. Near to the remains of the yew tree are the remains of an ancient churchyard cross which consists of a large stone base with a square indentation for the shaft.

St Mary's was closed in 1957 when St Timothy's Church was opened. Large-scale vandalism occurred at St Mary's during the year that followed and it was decided to turn St Mary's into a ruin. The roof was removed and the windows and doors bricked up, but the vandalism did not cease, in fact it became worse, with the wall in the north-east corner of the nave being pulled down almost to ground level. Thieves stole the ancient bronze bell from the tower by knocking a big hole through the east side of the tower. This bell has never been recovered.

Father Jones takes a break. Photographer unknown.
The communion rail, however, remained in place and the sight of this caused two men, one of whom was the Reverend Victor Jones (generally known as Father Jones at that time), to set about restoring the church. A group of men from St Timothy's set about the task and Reverend Jones camped at the church during reconstruction so that materials would not be stolen and to protect the ongoing work.

A vestry was added in 1960 on the north side (opposite the porch) giving the church a cruciform shape but this was a very useful addition to the church no longer exists.

The inside of the church during reconstruction. With the kind permission of the Western Mail & Echo.
The church was rehallowed and the altar reconsecrated on the 22nd April 1961. Thereafter regular church services were held including Holy Communion and evensong; also christenings, weddings and funerals . A few years later Reverend Jones left the parish to become a padre with the Royal Navy. He now lives in West Sussex.

Rosemary Lewis and Delia Jay
11 July 2006.

If you're interested in the history of St. Mary's Church, Caerau Celtic Hillfort have a look at the CAER Heritage Trails, walking trails around Caerau and Ely focused on the history and heritage of this amazing area.

References

1. Archaeologia Cambrensis 1901 Volume 1, 6th Series pp 247-248.
2.
Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Caerau. R.M. Wools & J. Guy. 1960.
3. Archaeologia Cambrensis 1913, Volume 13, pp. 103-106.