The Shifting Sands

Originally in Country Quest

A picture of Kenfig Castle taken in the nineteen-twenties. More pictures can be seen below.

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Acknowledgements and picture gallery: see below.
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As the eleventh century progressed, it looked as if Wales, despite the barriers of geography, might soon fall under the Norman Conquest almost as quickly as 'Angle-lond' had done. But the key figure in the westward expansion, the Marcher William Fitz Osbern, was to meet an early death in 1071. Four years later his son, Roger, was to be implicated in a rebellion against the Crown. Without an Earl of Hereford to organise the military advance, no further territorial gains were made.

Things were to change in the next century. The restless and ambitious invaders sought a wider dominion in Wales. Earl Roger of Shrewsbury had established an important castle in Montgomery, and used this stronghold to penetrate further into Powys and beyond. He was even to establish a castle and a settlement of Flemings in Pembrokeshire. The linguistic and cultural effects to the north and south of the Landsker line are still evident in our westernmost County to this day. Robert Fitz Hamon, Earl of Gloucester, occupied part of Glamorgan, building Cardiff Castle on the site of a Roman fortress to be the administrative and military centre of a shire in imitation of the English model.

The advance was to be far from straightforward. There was a co-ordinated uprising in 1094, which had most success in Gwynedd, but also had an impact in the south. Castles were attacked and captured, and these included even the most important garrison for Norman advance in Montgomeryshire. Pembroke Castle, in its highly defensible position, was just about the only castle to the west of Glamorgan to remain in Norman hands. Most of the castles in Glamorgan were themselves under serious threat. This was the embattled position at the opening of the twelfth century, when Henry I ascended the throne. The Normans were nothing if not dogged soldiers, and continued to press westwards. When, in the middle of the century, they established a fort and borough at Kenfig between present-day Bridgend and Port Talbot, it was to have a torrid time - from nature as well as from the native Welsh. If ever a site for colonisation was poorly chosen, then it was this one.

The castle at Kenfig was erected before 1147. Like most other structures of the time, it was built of wood, and was not reconstructed in stone until 1186-7. Those who initiated the new building were Earl Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate half-brother of Matilda, the 'Empress' of the period of anarchy in England, and his son, William, who finished the construction work after his father's death. The wars of succession in England meant that the colony at Kenfig was largely left to its own devices in its vulnerable early years.

One of the earliest references to the settlement is contained in an arbitration of 1154 by the Archbishop of Canterbury on a dispute by Geoffrey Sturmi - 'Sturmistun' or Stormy Down is still a small settlement just off the A48 trunk road. The dispute was one concerning tithes as between the older St. Leonard's church at Newcastle, Bridgend (the church sited there now has been consecrated for St. Illtud) and the new church of St. Mary Magdalene at 'Kenefege'.

A borough was established, and this seems to have thrived reasonably well at first, despite the hardships that it faced. These were many. The first record of the town being burnt was in 1167, when Morgan ap Caradog led a prolonged uprising in South Wales. In 1185 the wooden castle was destroyed for the last time, and was replaced by a stone construction during the following two years.

The attacks continued throughout the thirteenth century, but the Borough of Kenfig slowly became established. One of the most intriguing things about Kenfig is the survival of some of its early charters. These provide a fascinated glimpse into medieval town life. Decree number 26 of the 1397 charter granted by Thomas le Despenser, Lord of Glamorgan at 'Kaerdyf', for instance, specifies that a woman found guilty 'of scoulding or railing any burgess or their wives, or any of their neighbours' was to be placed on the 'cucking stool'. The first offence earned one hour on the stool; the second two; and for the third the offender was 'lette slip'.

There are estimates that there were as many as seven hundred inhabitants of the town. These may be over-generous. In 1316 one hundred of 142 burgages were recorded as destroyed in an attack; in 1349 the number of burgages had increased by two, but then it had fallen to 106 by 1375. This was a plague year, but by then the townspeople may have already been facing a more permanent opponent in the shifting sands that threatened to engulf the area. There is no record as to when the sands finally caused the castle and its borough to be abandoned, nor indeed whether this was a sudden or a gradual event. But by 1485 the new St. James Church at nearby Pyle had become the Parish Church. This was partly built with materials taken from the former church at Kenfig, and the year '1471' is inscribed on the roof at Pyle. It seems a fair bet that Kenfig had ceased to be anything like a thriving Borough by the second half of the fifteenth century. In 1538, John Cleland recorded 'For the rages of Severn Se castith ther up much sand' and 'a village on the Est side of Kenfik, and a Castel, both in Ruines and almost shokid and devourid with Sandes that the Severn Se ther castith up'.

There are records of Borough activity after this date, and indeed right up to the nineteenth century. These, though, seem to have had more to do with politics than the maintenance of a living community. The Borough of Kenfig, which could still elect an MP, was one of the 'Rotten Boroughs' swept away by the Reform Act of 1885.

It looked like the 'buried city of Kenfig', as it was to be called in an early twentieth-century book, was to be consigned to history. There was a partial and not very scientific or well-documented excavation led by a Port Talbot schoolmaster, Arthur J. Richards, in the nineteen-twenties, otherwise the Borough appeared to be headed for a future as no more than a curious footnote to the superb (despite the proximity of the steelworks and motorway) nature reserve that the dunes area of Kenfig was to become.

It might by this time have been completely buried by the sands, but the story of the Borough was far from over. Although the modern village had to be re-sited to the south of the original one, the Corporation continued to meet on the basis of the still-surviving medieval charters. Then, in 1959, during the hot, dry summer, the then British Steel Company became anxious for water to beat the drought. This they piped from the 70-acre Kenfig Pool, just to south of the old Borough, and firmly in 'Kenfig lands'.

The Margam Estate, the big local landowner, wrote a letter to the Corporation claiming ownership of the pipe work and water of the pool - there were substantial moneys involved. The scene was set for a very modern conflict, this time in the High Court. Advised by their Clerk, Mr. Ted Plumley, the Corporation decided to dispute this claim for ownership of the pool and land. The legal process being what it is, it was not until the early summer of 1971 that the matter came to court. It was a brave act for the small Kenfig Corporation to be taking on a giant like the Margam Estates. Ted Davies, who became Chairman in the previous year (he still is the Chairman), told me that he was disconcerted to find that a valuer had called to assess the worth of his own house - the members of the Corporation would have been personally liable for costs if the legal arguments had gone against them.

They need not have worried. After a hearing of four weeks and involving 3,000-odd documents, the judge found in the Corporation's favour. Things did not end there. Margam Estates announced that they intended to appeal and the date was set for October, 1971.

Then, just before the date scheduled for the appeal, Margam Estates put forward to the Corporation a 'compromise' solution under which they would share ownership of the Kenfig lands. The Corporation was informally offered the advice that 'if they're ready now to concede that you've got 50% of a case, then you've probably got 100% of a case'. The Corporation decided to reject the offer and in the event the appeal did not take place. Today, the Corporation is secure in its title. The ownership of the 'Prince of Wales' Public House, the Golf Links, and other property means that it is now more financially secure, too. It can consider making grants to local 'worthy causes' and regularly meets for just this purpose. The shifting sands of Kenfig finally did some good for the local population.


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Acknowledgements

I used a variety of written sources for this piece. The most important of these was The Buried City of Kenfig, by Thomas Gray (T Fisher Unwin, 1909). This will shortly be available on-line. I would very much like to thank Mr. Ted Davies for his time and his courtesy. He has been a member of The Kenfig Corporation since 1956, and its Chairman since 1970, so was closely involved in the court case to which I have referred. Mr. Arthur Smith made available to me a variety of written material, including a 1971 press report of the court hearing.

Picture Gallery

The pictures below are [l to r]: [1 to 3] Modern views of the castle remains*; [4] A distant view of the castle remains*; [5] The Kenfig Town Hall (upstairs in the Prince of Wales PH, early 20c); [6] A court paper from 1971; [7] The castle gate today*; [8] The Kenfig Corporation mace; [9 & 10] The Kenfig Castle moat*; [11] Kenfig Pool* [12] Ted Davies, Chairman of the Kenfig Corporation.

Pictures marked * are ©Ewart Davies.

[1] Kenfig Castle in 2005.  [2] Kenfig Castle in 2005.  [3] Kenfig Castle in 2005.  [4] A distant view of Kenfig Castle in 2005.

[5] The Kenfig Town Hall (upstairs in the Prince of Wales PH, early 20c)  [6] A court paper from 1971  [7] The castle gate in 2005  [8] The Kenfig Corporation Mace

[9] Kenfig Castle moat in 2005  [10] Kenfig Castle moat in 2005  [11] Kenfig Pool  [12] Ted Davies, Chairman of the Kenfig Corporation


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