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Discussing the ancient monasteries of the Vale of Glamorgan

Did you know that it is likely that Christianity in Wales started in Llantwit Major? That monks from institutions in the Vale of Glamorgan between the fifth and sixth centuries established ministries throughout Britain, Ireland and Northern France?

In this video I discuss this fascinating history with author and historian Philip Morris. We look at the ancient monasteries of the county from the fifth century in Llantwit Major, Llancarfan and Llandough and at pioneers such as St Illtyd, St Cadoc and St Doggo and their influence across Europe.

We look at how different the culture and reach of the Celtic Church was from what came after it. How huge institutions were established, how ideas were spread throughout Europe, how inclusive these communities were and the key role of women as well as men at their healm.

We also look at the impact of the arrival of the Normans, the medieval period and in particular Ewenny Priory.

We discuss the legacy these great institutions left. Everything from the establishment of Cowbridge Grammar School to architectural clues at buildings we can visit today. As well as gems like the story of the miracle of Ewenny, how Corntown got its name, why so many towns in Brittany have Welsh sounding names, why the latin inscribed on the Celtic stones in Llantwit Major is inaccurate and many many more fascinating snippets which anyone with an interest in the local history of South Wales will find truly fascinating.

This video is an episode of ‘History on your doorstep’, first broadcast on Bro Radio on Monday 22 August 2022. Presented by author and historian Graham Loveluck-Edwards cataloguing the history of the Vale of Glamorgan. I hope you enjoy them. And if you do, please subscribe to my YouTube channel and share them on social media.

Monks from the Vale of Glamorgan established foundations across Britain and Northern France
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The railways and viaducts of the Vale of Glamorgan

In the video on the link below I chat with train enthusiast and local historian, Gavin Douglas OBE about the birth of the railways in the county of the Vale of Glamorgan.

We look at when they were built? How they were built? Who built them? and why? The scheme to build a railway line and port at the estuary of the river Ogmore at Ogmore by Sea and why it never happened.

We also look at the iconic viaduct at Porthkerry and the disasters which beset it. How it collapsed multiple times and how it was rebuilt and preserved to this day. This video is an episode in the History on your doorstep series. Written, and presented by Welsh author and historian; Graham Loveluck-Edwards and broadcast on Bro Radio. In this series of radio programmes and accompanying videos, I examine a topic of history local to the Vale of Glamorgan and interview experts who give us unparalleled insight and explanation. I hope you enjoy them. And if you do, please subscribe to this channel and share them on social media.

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How the people of Porthkerry preserve their ancient church

It is one thing to appreciate the beauty of ancient buildings but its a different thing altogether to roll up your sleeves and do your bit to keep them looking that way. But here in Porthkerry we are truly blessed to have had this army of volunteers come to our rescue.

St Curigs is a pretty little 15th century church above the country park in Porthkerry and these volunteers have come to help us lime wash it.

Lime washing is an ancient craft. Since the Romans (and possibly before) people have been weather proofing their buildings with one form of lime wash or another. The distinctive matt white appearance it gives everything is a scene one could describe as quite quintessential in the countryside.

In the Victorian era it fell out of fashion. A desire for more Gothic looking buildings led to a preference for bare stone work. Preferably festooned with creeping ivy. Which may look pretty, but sadly does nothing for the walls. Not only does it let the damp in but it often compromises the mortar in the walls and can lead to the most terrible structural problems.

When St Curig’s Porthkerry were in receipt of a grant from Cadw to do some much needed repair work, it was a condition of the grant that the church be lime washed as it would once have always been. Not necessarily to the liking of all attached to the church at the time, they went along with it and all was well until it was time to apply a fresh coat.

No local contractor was prepared to touch lime wash and those who were prepared to put in bids for the work wanted to charge the cost of a small house. So how to progress?

The parish decided to make it a community event.

Come along and volunteer. Get full instruction, all the equipment you need to do it safely, and try your hand at a craft which has been employed by our ancestors right the way back over thousands of years. And as you can see from the photos that is exactly what happens. And it is a lot of fun. Those in the congregation unable to assist directly bring along cakes and rolls, teas and coffees and snacks and refreshments. Everybody tucks in and has a picnic around the ancient cross (where John Wesley is said to have preached) and a great day is had by all.

And the end result; a weather proof church. And one that looks dazzlingly resplendent in the August sunshine. Now just a small matter of the tower. That I fear is an altogether more industrial process with cherry pickers and hard hats. But we do what we must.

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The Miracle of St Donats

The stone cross on the road between Llantwit Major and St Donats marking the site of the ‘miracle’

I was recently contacted by someone living in Australia who was trying to retrace their roots growing up in the Vale of Glamorgan. She was asking about stories she had heard as a child of a supposed miracle in the coastal village of Marcross between Llantwit Major and Wick and wanted to know if I knew any details. As it turns out, I do. Thanks to some rather wonderful local folklore on the subject. In fact, the name of the village; Marcross tells a bit of the tale in itself as it is an abbreviation of ‘Mark-of-the cross’.

The legend goes that a traveller was walking along the road to Wick. His journey had been uneventful until he was just a few yards from St Donats Castle. There he was inextricably struck down to his knees by the sight of an apparition of Christ on the cross on the bow of a tree. When the vision had subsided, he ran to tell the villagers what he had seen. They ridiculed him and laughed at his story, so he took them back to the spot where he claimed it had happened. To everyone’s amazement the crucifixion scene he had described had been indelibly burned on to the fabric of the tree.

Gasps all-round, I’m sure.

Stories like these generally originate from the medieval period. Or older than that again. This one however is quite unusual as it originates from 1559. And in its day, it caused quite a storm.

The time in question was during the reign of Elizabeth I when Britain had for some years been a protestant country. The Stradlings of St Donats Castle however were openly Catholic and when this story surfaced Sir Thomas Stradling sailed dangerously close to the wind when he declared it ‘a miracle’. He then made matters worse for himself when he ordered effigies of this crucifixion scene be made from the wood of this tree and that they be sold to pilgrims. Elizabeth, I had spies everywhere – in fact in the Vale of Glamorgan she must have had Catholics spying on other Catholics as it was Thomas Carne of Ewenny who dobbed him in.

He was arrested and incarcerated in the Tower of London while the remains of his tree were dragged to London and destroyed. But not before a team of esteemed clerics had very vocally debunked any possibilities that there was anything miraculous about it. He would undoubtedly have faced execution as a heretic if not for a very swift and emphatic retraction and apology from Sir Thomas. The queen showed him lenience and agreed to release him if he agreed to pay a fine of £1,000 marks. Which he did.

He can’t have been quite as remorseful as he claimed to be however. Shortly after his release he erected a plinth of dressed stone with a crucifix on it, at the point on the wall around his estate where the ‘miracle’ had supposedly happened. Clearly a man who liked to live dangerously.

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Keeping up with the Joneses in 17th C Fonmon

Fonmon Castle
Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

This often overlooked, gem of a stately home near Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan has an incredible and little known history going back 800 years. And it is still inhabited to this day.

In this video, I talk about Fonmon Castle with Sir Brooke Boothby (BART).  

It is his ancestral home. We also hear about his ancestors who can be traced back to the 9th Century and who have lived in Fonmon since the civil war. He reveals some amazing history covering topics as diverse as:

The Norman invasion of Morgannwg

The early days of the 12th Century castle

The St John, Seyes and Umfraville families

Cousins to Henry VIII live at Fonmon

The English Civil war

The most powerful man in Britain lives at Fonmon

Oliver and Richard Cromwell

The Restoration

John Wesley and the Methodists

‘Wild’ Robert Jones and Rococo architecture

The Viking origins of the Boothby family

The power brokers of pre-industrial Wales

 First broadcast on Bro Radio in June 2022 as part of the ‘History on your doorstep’ series.

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When England was run from a small castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

Colonel Phillip Jones of Fonmon Castle

One of the most fascinating and oft overlooked characters in Welsh and British history is Colonel Phillip Jones. He rose to be one of the most powerful men in the entire kingdom and managed to thrive during one of the nations most turbulent periods in history – the English Civil War.

His influence and power was such that it led to questions being asked in parliament as to why it was that “England was being run from a small castle in Wales“.

So who was he? How did he become so powerful? and how was it that despite being a major player under Cromwell during the Commonwealth, that his status continued unhampered when Charles II came to the throne during the Restoration? And how did he manage to achieve that unthinkable goal of any power broker in this period of history; to die of old age in comfortable surroundings with his fortunes and reputation in tact?

And more to the point – how is it that hardly anyone has ever heard of him?

He was born in Swansea in 1618 to a middle ranking ‘county’ family who lived at the Great House (now long gone). They were Calvinist protestants and this influence gave him a natural affinity towards the parliamentarians. As the seeds of dissent were being sewn which led to the English Civil War in 1642 he joined the ‘New Model Army’ under the command of Lord Fairfax where he made quite a name for himself.

Many of the more senior aristocratic families and establishment figures of South Wales were fighting on the King’s side of this war, so when the parliamentarians made gains in the area it was a great opportunity for the likes of Phillip Jones and his more famous counterpart Bussey Mansel to earn fast promotion and patronage.

Jones was appointed Governor of Swansea in 1645, he was promoted to Colonel in the New Model Army in 1646, was made Governor of Cardiff in 1649, became MP for Breconshire in 1650 and then was simultaneously voted MP for both Monmouthshire and Glamorgan in 1654 (he chose Glamorgan) and again in 1656 he was simultaneously voted MP for Brecon and Glamorgan (again he chose Glamorgan). He was appointed Governor of Charterhouse in 1658 and Commander of the militia of Cardiff Castle in 1659.

He also became very close to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell rather famously fell out with most of the people who were close to him prior to the Civil War once it was over. Even Fairfax turned against him and was instrumental in the second civil war that culminated in Wales at the battle of St Fagans. But Jones was close to Cromwell before, during and after the conflict. We know this because there are records of him visiting Jones at his home in Swansea in 1648 when his armies were moving west to Pembrokeshire (a major royalist stronghold). Then after the civil war in 1654 Cromwell appointed Jones ‘Comptroller’ of his household – which effectively put him in charge of the running of his personal estates. He also appointed him to the privy council and he made him Phillip Lord Jones on 10th December 1657 so he could sit in the upper house of Cromwell’s parliament. So they clearly remained ‘pally’ throughout. In fact Oliver Cromwell was Godfather to Phillip Jones’ son (also called Oliver!)

It was Phillip Jones who organised Oliver Cromwell’s funeral as superintendent on 23rd November 1658.

All of these promotions did wonders for Jones’ income. In 1640 he was estimated at earning £20 a year. By 1658 that had risen to £2,000 a year. Something which put him in a position to be able to upgrade his residence to something more in keeping with a man of his station. And so it was that he bought Fonmon Castle near Rhoose in the Vale of Glamorgan from the StJohn family who had fallen on hard times and were selling off quite a few of their estates at the time.

Being so close to Oliver Cromwell had served him well, but when you are close to a figure so powerful and divisive, it would be easy to find yourself vulnerable and exposed after their death. But Jones, if anything, wound up being even closer to Oliver Cromwell’s successor; his son Richard Cromwell. It was from this period that we get the quote about England being run from a small castle in Wales, and it was also said at the time that “Richard Cromwell will only take advice from Jones and Thurloe and would do nothing without them” – referring to John Thurloe who had been English Secretary of State under Oliver Cromwell.

It was not all plain sailing however. These were very volatile times and you cannot become so powerful a man in the seventeenth century without making some enemies along the way. When Richard Cromwell had his spectacular fall in 1659 (earning him the nickname ‘Tumble Down Dick’) Jones was very much exposed. History was about to overtake him in a twist of events which saw many of his counterparts destroyed but which he – rather miraculously it would seem – not only survived, but actually benefitted from.

The restoration.

The balance of power had moved dramatically against the commonwealth and Charles II was crowned king. Britain was once again a monarchy, and Charles II was a pretty vengeful king. He wasted no time rounding up those parliamentarians who had executed his father for treason 11 years earlier. It was not a good time to be known for having been close to the Cromwells.

At first things didn’t look too great. A group of his enemies brought a series of charges of embezzlement against him, accusing him of having stolen £139,000 in ‘Tythes’ owed to the church. He was also rather randomly accused of “having carried away the organ of St Mary’s Church, Swansea”. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support any of these charges but the justice system back then was not quite so reliant on such things as it is now. He came dangerously close to a very sticky end.

He was impeached but never stood trial.

Somehow, Jones found himself in the clear. The new king had intervened on his behalf, and went on to appoint him to be High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1671. He was more than likely saved by the fact that he was not personally a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant, nor did he play any part in his trial. Also, throughout the period he was in governance he did not take the opportunity others had done, to plunder the king’s estates, nor to take lands from the defeated royalists. In fact he had treated them rather well.

Co-incidentally John Thurloe (who we mentioned earlier) also came out of this new order unexpectedly well. He was initially arrested for treason but never went to trial. He was ultimately given responsibility for foreign policy in Charles II government.

Phillip Jones saw out his days in the leafy and secluded splendour of Fonmon Castle where he died peacefully in his bed on 5th September 1674.

If you want to know more about this amazing character from the Vale of Glamorgan’s history, I will be interviewing one of his direct descendants; Sir Brooke Boothby (Bart) Vice-Lord Lieutenant of South Glamorgan as part of my next episode of ‘History On Your Doorstep’ for Bro Radio which will be all about Fonmon Castle. It is going out on Monday 27th June at 7pm.

If you want to hear that interview and learn what else he has to say about this most wiley of ancestors tune in, or listen again on line or on the app or on my YouTube channel which is packed with videos and podcasts about Welsh history. Please subscribe to it.

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The quirky family of Cadoc

No matter how embarrassing your father may have appeared to be when you were growing up, compared to St Cadoc, you had it easy. ‘Who is St Cadoc?’ you may be asking. I am sure you have noticed the many references to ‘Cadoc’ or ’Cadog’ around South Wales. In the names of churches, streets, wells, houses, schools, community centres and hospitals. To say nothing of the village of Cadoxton.

Historically, he was one of the most revered saints in the early Christian church. It gives you an idea how significant a figure he was when you consider that he was born in the latter quarter of the fifth century. Over 1,500 years ago. And we are still naming things after him today.

The life of St Cadoc is recorded in the ancient works of the Cambro British Saints. His story is the first ever to reference the now legendary King Arthur ‘the Great’ of Camelot. Amongst his achievements are the founding of the ‘Clas’ monastery at Llancarfan near Cowbridge as well as many churches throughout Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany. He also managed to fit in time for the odd miracle. Even as a baby it is claimed that he made the water in the font he was baptised in turn into milk.

All these achievements, however, were in spite of a really dysfunctional upbringing. It was so weird, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Channel 5 documentary

First of all, he was not the only saint in the family. Pretty well his whole family were saints. Then you have his father. All I can say is, I think the bar for sainthood must have been set low back then.

He was a brute, a drunkard, and a pirate. And randomly; a king. He was called Gwynllyw although somehow that got Anglicised in later history to Woolos. He is credited with being the founding father of the city of Newport and the cathedral there is dedicated to him to this day. He fell head over heels in love with Gwladys, the daughter of King Brychan (later Anglicised to Brecon). He wanted to marry her, but Brychan refused him. So Gwynllyw took an army of 300 men to knock on his castle gates and kidnapped her.

His passion for her never seemed to faulter, even in old age. There is an account that in later life after being converted to Christianity by his son; Cadoc, he tried to seek a prayerful retreat on a desolate mountain. His endeavours however would perpetually fail as he could not overcome his carnal urges towards her and could not help himself from continually running back down the mountain to her bed.

If you thought he made a rotten husband, he was hardly parent of the month either. There is also a story that one day, he gave his infant son: St Cadoc away to a total stranger in exchange for a cow while out on a drinking spree. We’ve all done it. Oh no. Hold on, we haven’t, have we?

But against all the odds, Cadoc grew up to be a cornerstone of early Christian mission in northern Europe and became famous across the known world for his wisdom. In the modern Catholic church, he is still patron saint of burns and skin complaints, so he is the one to pray to if you are bothered by such things. His father is patron saint of Newport and pirates. No words needed.

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The murder of Colyn Dolphin at Tresilian Bay

One of my favourite bits of folklore from the St Donats end of the Vale of Glamorgan is a tale of how a disgruntled aristocrat had his revenge on a pirate on a beach near Llantwit Major.

A notorious seventeenth century pirate from Brittany in Northern France who was the scourge of merchant ships in the Bristol Channel went by the name of Colyn Dolphin. But his greatest haul was not silver of gold, it was when he kidnapped Harry Stradling, son of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats Castle.

The riches he gained for the ransom lay heavy in his pocket until the day came when Stradling got his revenge at Tresilian Bay between St Donats and Llantwit Major. He buried the pirate up to his neck in sand and forced him to watch his crew hang from the gallows in front of him. Then the final horror as the incoming tide finally engulfed him as he lay powerless in the sands at the mouth of Reynolds Cave.

Watch the video on the link below for the full story. 👇

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Two sunny days and a light breeze please

In the 1700s if you wanted to be sure of some good weather for the weekend, there were people from whom you could buy it! And according to some new research, Barry was full of them.

Most people back then, sailors and sea farers in particular, were extremely superstitious. This played into the hands of a small group of people who you might either call ‘enterprising’ or ‘unscrupulous’ depending on your own moral compass.

They would ‘sell’ weather and I have found records of three such people who operated in the Barry and eastern Vale area in the eighteenth century. 

The first was called ‘Modryb Sina’ (which means Aunty Sina). She lived somewhere in the parish of Cadoxton. If you sailed out of Lavernock or Sully, for a fee, she would sell you ‘a fair wind’. Enough to fill your sails and give your vessel speed on the waves, but not enough to put you in danger. It seems that she peddled her wares for over 20 years so she must have been good.

But she obviously was not quite as good as another chap who lived on Barry Island called ‘Ewythr Dewi’ (or Uncle David). He not only sold weather to local sailors but was known to travel as far a field as Swansea as his ‘fair weather’ was in such demand. His reputation for doing a good line in weather was impeccable amongst the superstitious sailors of the Welsh ports on the Bristol Channel. 

Both of these people lived and worked in Welsh speaking parts of the Vale, and therefore catered for Welsh speaking sailors. But what if you were an English speaking sailor? Have no fear, you were catered for by another local man going by the name of ‘Bill O’Breaksea’ who offered a similar service in Aberthaw (which was an English speaking part of the Vale). However, we cannot be sure when he operated as records of him are more sketchy. Chances are it was around the same point in history or slightly earlier, when Aberthaw was having its boom years, trading with the merchants of Minehead and providing the people of Bristol with their supply of butter.

There is also folklore of wives who had grown weary of drunken, slothful or abusive husbands going to these people to pay for a good storm the next time they put to sea. To rid themselves of them once and for all. Probably cheaper than a divorce. Like I said, depending on your moral compass.

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The RAF in the Vale of Glamorgan

Vulcan bomber and ground staff maintenance at RAF St Athan

Since 1931, military aviation has played an ever changing role in the county of the Vale of Glamorgan. At its height, tens of thousands of people were employed either as military or civilian contractors across four bases. Yes four! I always though it was three.

In this discussion, first aired on Bro Radio on 23rd May 2022, we examine the history of the RAF in the Vale and hear accounts of those who served. Both in the early days and more recently. To get a flavour of what life was like on our bases and also the role they played in the wider military context. In particular during WWII, the Cold War and the Falklands.

We also look at the work being done by the South Wales Aviation Museum to keep that legacy alive.