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. 👇
With characters like the notorious mass murderer, Cap Coch lurking in our local history, it comes as no surprise that many dark deeds were committed in the Vale of Glamorgan. Many we know about are bathed in the murky waters of hear-say, legend and folklore. Like the story that the white lady who haunts ‘The Old Place’ in Llantwit Major is the ghost of a woman whose husband starved her to death there. Great murder story, but nothing much in the way of evidence.
So, for today’s blog I have strayed into the world of the ‘Glamorgan Plea Rolls’ which were the official records kept by the Court of Great Sessions from 1542. I am delighted to say that many crimes we have actual records for are every bit as dark and weird as the accounts we hear through the ramblings of the bards. And some of the details which were captured in these records are if anything, even more weird. Let me give you an example to illustrate.
The court heard how Lawrence Wick; a labourer from Somerset murdered Katherine David of St Nicholas on the stroke of midnight on the night of 30th March 1566. He killed her by beating her about the head “with a hook of the value of two pence”. He inflicted “a mortal wound of which she incontinently died”. Then, he and an accomplice by the name of David Jevan Dyo set fire to her body and her house to try and cover it all up.
The conclusion of the court was that Dyo should be hung, but there is no record of any punishment being put the way of Wick, so the murderer appears to have got away Scott free. Which seems strange to say the least, but for me, that is not the weirdest thing about this record. Firstly, why do we need to know that the hook he used to murder poor Katherine was only worth 2 pence? Would the crime have been taken more seriously if he had used something more expensive? Secondly the word “incontinently” used to describe how she died – the word means ‘without reasonable restraint’. So, is the judge here saying that she should have made more of an effort to stay alive?
My first quandary is a little easier to answer than the second. Putting a monetary value on a murder weapon dates to early Anglo-Saxon times when it was traditional after a murder trial to sell the murder weapon (referred to as a deodand) so that it might raise some money to be put to a good cause. That way, at least some good might come of the act. As for Katherine’s frankly unconvincing attempts to stay alive on being beaten across the head with a billhook – we will never know.
Often, the punishment meted out by the establishment of the day was every bit as grisly as the crime itself. Traditionally men were hung for murder and women were drowned. Both methods are gruesome, but some justices felt a little more was required of executing someone than simply ending their lives.
For example, the court heard how on the 5th of February 1574, David ap Hopkyn strangled his wife, Matilda, at their Cardiff home with a towel. A heinous crime I am sure you will agree. But what really wound up the judge hearing the trial was not so much what he stood accused of, but that he refused to speak a word throughout his trial. It pushed him to such a peak that in passing sentence he said (and I quote):
“David ap Hopkyn is to be put naked on the ground except his breeches and a hole made under his head and his head put into it and as much stone and iron put upon his body as it will carry and more and he is to be fed on bread and water of the worst kind, bread one day and water another, so kept alive until he dies”.
Given his name, there is every possibility he didn’t say anything as he only spoke Welsh. In the 16th century the Vale was very divided in the language of common people. For example, the townsfolk of Cowbridge all spoke English but the traders in the market stalls who came from surrounding villages like St Hilary, Bonvilston or Colwinston all spoke Welsh. Henry VIII decreed that the only languages permissible in Welsh courts were Latin and English. If ap Hopkyn spoke neither then he probably did not know what was going on. To make matters worse he may even have been innocent but as he was unable to offer an alibi or make a case we will never know. All of which makes the sentence doled out to him even more abhorrent. But that is easy to say looking back with eyes clouded by modern day liberalism.
In the Tudor period, the crime that had all the male judges and magistrates quivering in their boots the most was when a wife rid herself of an unwanted husband by poisoning him. That was considered so serious that it was not classified simply as a murder but as petty treason. In 1564, Gwenllian Morgan of Cowbridge and Johanna Thomas of Eglwysbrewis were found guilty of killing Gwenllian’s husband; Maurice Dee, by feeding him ‘Ratsbane’ concealed in a pudding. In passing sentence, the judge instructed that that they “shall be burned to ashes”.