Susanna Gregory writes

January 19, 2012
Carmarthen in the 1190s: a snapshot in time

Writersare always being told to keep to what they know, so I decided to set myMedieval Murderers novellas in Carmarthen, thenearest town to where I live – a much-loved place, and one with plenty ofhistory and interest. However, modern Carmarthenwith its shops, cars and bustle, is very different to how it would have been inthe late twelfth century, the time I chose for the stories, so I had to goabout finding out what it was like.

Thefirst stage was just to wander, which is something I did (and still do) for theBartholomew novels set in Cambridge,explore the layout of the streets and noting the hills, dips and flat bits. Thetown has a lot of small lanes, and local historians have told me that they dateback to medieval times. There would have been a lot more of them – narrow,atmospheric places that would have been full of small shops and houses, andjammed with carts and people.

Thesecond stage was to look at what buildings survive. The most obvious is thecastle. It was once a huge fortress, one of the most important in south Wales. It wasthe administrative centre of a huge area, and survived until the civil wars,after which it was slighted by Cromwell and “quite demolished”.

Evenin the 1190s, when it would have been fairly rudimentary, it would havedominated the town, which was one reason why it was there. The Normans had arrived in the town at the end ofthe eleventh century, and wanted the locals to know who was boss. It was asymbol of their mastery and control. The security of a castle encouragedmerchants and artisans to live there, and a settlement began to develop aroundit, called New Carmarthen.

Partsof the castle survive, although they are dwarfed by modern buildings,particularly the council offices. However, most remains are later than thetwelfth century, so I had to turn to archaeological reports to know what theplace was like in the 1190s. They provided me with an excellent picture. Thecastle would have been far more simple than the elaborate complex thatdeveloped later. It would have had a motte with a tower on top, and twobaileys. Wooden palisades were all around it, and many of its buildings –barracks for the troops, kitchens, stables, storerooms etc – were probablywooden, too. It stood on the plateau overlooking the River Towy, guarding thebridge.

Thethird stage was to see what historical records could tell me. There is one thatshows Henry II spending the then vast sum if £170 on the castle, which suggeststhat some parts may have been built in stone. The notion of replacing woodenwalls with stone ones is a feature that plays a role in several of my MedievalMurderer stories. Another document records a serious raid in 1215, which wassupposed to have all but destroyed the fortress; this has been interpreted asmeaning that it was still mostly wood.

Thecastle was not the only building of importance. There was also the parishchurch, St Peter’s. Today, its iconic white tower still watches over the town.It is a fabulous building, with a wide nave and spacious aisles, capable ofholding hundreds of people. No one knows exactly when it was founded – it mayhave been pre-Norman – but mention of it appears in a record dating to theearly twelfth century. This shows King Henry I giving it to Battle Abbey – theplace built by William the Conqueror (his father) to commemorate the battlethat won him the English throne. That meant tithes from Carmarthenwould have been ferried back to Battle Abbey, which would have had the right toappoint a vicar for a pittance and keep most of the money for itself. This wasa common practice at the time. However, by 1180, these rights had beentransferred back to Carmarthen, and were ownedby the nearby Augustinian Priory.

Likethe castle, St Peter’s would not have been grand in the 1190s. It wouldprobably have been built of stone, and would have been small, dark andintimate, like many Norman churches.

ThePriory of St Johnand St Teulyddog was also ancient. Excavations suggest there was a religiouscommunity here by the eighth century and perhaps even earlier. It belonged tothe Augustinians in the 1190s, and later became one of the richest foundationsin Wales.It was in the area known as Old Carmarthen, in the area first settled by theRomans, whose walls and ditches would still have formed a major feature in the1100s. Unfortunately, records do not tell us the name of the prior in the1190s.

Therewas a second religious foundation in the town, too, but this belonged to theFranciscans, who did not arrive in the country before 1215. The Greyfriarscould thus play no part in any tale set in the 1190s.

Thecastle, priory and church were the main buildings of note in 1190s Carmarthen. Houses would have been between them, rangedalong the roads. Another important feature was the bridge. The River Towyplayed a vital role in Carmarthen’sdevelopment. It provided a link to the sea, and boats and ships brought goodsto the town for sale in the market. Then, as now, it served a huge hinterland.The Romans raised a bridge over it, and there would have been one in the 1190s,although it is difficult to say whether it would have been destroyed or damagedduring the various raids that ravaged the town in the late twelfth century. Theriver is shallow and fairly sluggish, so doubtless ferries would operate whenthe bridge was unavailable. The tolls collected from people using the bridgesor the boats would have added to Carmarthen’swealth, as well as attracting business to the town.

Sowhat was happening in Carmarthen in the 1190s?A deed dating to 1194–1198 lists its constable as Symon Cole. It was attackedby Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1196, where records suggest he sacked the townand caused a considerable uproar. He died the following year, at which pointhis realm began to fragment under his warring sons. The town would have beenrecovering from the attacks in the late 1190s, as well as keeping a weather eyeon which of Rhys’s sons currently had the upper hand.

Recordsfrom the time give the name of a few of Carmarthen’smore prestigious residents – they were often witnesses to property deeds. Amongthem are William Kyng and Richard Spilmon (and I found it interesting that twostreets in Old Carmarthen are called King Street and Spilman Street). Othersinclude the clerks, chaplains and servants who worked at the castle.

Butas with all historical research, the more you learn the more you realise thereis to know. My investigations into 1190s Carmarthenare still ongoing, and will continue to do so.

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