Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Medieval Village of Merthyr Dyfan

Those who have paid a visit to Merthyr Dyfan could be forgiven for thinking that the unprepossessing mass of bland looking houses which occupies this part of the modern town of Barry has little or no antecedents beyond the mid Twentieth Century; these houses, which were built in the 1950's, were to be the first of many modern developments in the vicinity of Merthyr Dyfan which would completely transform the character of the area from a tranquil rural setting to a concrete jungle and effectively absorbed the village of Merthyr Dyfan into the town of Barry obliterating both its medieval and post medieval landscape, the last of which was sadly destroyed at White Farm. 

It would probably come as a surprise to many however to discover that cramped in amongst the modern dwellings is to be found the church of St Dyfan and St Teilo, this medieval building, now sadly an anachronism in its modern setting, is the last surviving remnant of the medieval village of Merthyr Dyfan and the only visible reminder of the Merthyr Dyfan's ancient antecedents.

Merthyr Dyfan during the medieval period was a part of the manor of Cadoxton, which was in turn a part of the lordship of Dinas Powys.  It is possible that Merthyr Dyfan was not a sub-enfeoffed manor like Cadoxton, and was perhaps instead run by a steward or bailiff as a demesne (farm) for the de Sumeri family of Dinas Powys rather than a fief (fee) to support a knightly incumbent, as documentary evidence relating to any resident lord residing at Merthyr Dyfan is conspicuous by its absence from historical sources.

(Church of St Dyfan and St Teilo Merthyr Dyfan)

The exact time the village of Merthyr Dyfan began its existence is unknown but we can say with some certainly is that all of the available evidence points towards a post conquest date.  The church of St Dyfan and St Teilo, which has been dated to the early Thirteenth Century, is the only surviving remnant of medieval Merthyr Dyfan.  The earliest written reference made towards Merthyr Dyfan occurs during the middle of the Thirteenth Century when it was included in the Norwich Taxation of 1254 and was valued at £3.  Merthyr Dyfan is also mentioned in the 1291-2 Taxatio as Ecclesia de Martheldenan and was valued at £2. 13 s. 4d.

The archaeology of Merthyr Dyfan is represented by the remains, and partial remains of fourteen buildings, eight of which were examined by the now defunct  Barry Archaeological Group between 1968-77, and were re-examined, along with a further six buildings by the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust in 1982 in advance of a housing development.  The archaeology is concentrated to the south-east and west of the church with church itself seemingly the centre of the village. The majority of the remains appear to represent dwellings with no less than eleven of the buildings serving this purpose, but also represented is a barn, bake house, forge and corn-drying kiln.  Absent are the remains of a manor house or castle. 

Much of the archaeology of Merthyr Dyfan has been badly damaged by modern housing developments making precise understanding of many of the buildings near impossible, enough however has survived to enable us to at least gain some idea of the dynamic that once existed at Merthyr Dyfan and to allow us as archaeologists some room for interpretation.  We are also fortunate to be able to draw upon a finds assemblage consisting of 16 silver medieval coins, one silver post medieval coin, and a medieval seal matrix found by local metal detector enthusiasts during the development of White Farm which were responsibly reported to the government under the Portable Antiquities Scheme; these finds help provide a valuable supplementary source of evidence.

Two of the best preserved buildings are located to west of St Dyfan and St Teilos church.  The first dwelling, located contiguous to a hollow way, is represented by both a house platform and surviving masonry.  This building, which was aligned east-west and measured 9.10 m by 7.60 m, was a substantial dwelling.  Evidence of a doorway with associated porch was noted on the northern side of the building as well as evidence of the internal walls being plastered; in addition, Pennant sandstone roof-slabs and green-glazed ridge- tiles were found within the building as well as pottery dating from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.

The evidence points towards this being a building occupied by one of the more affluent inhabitants of Merthyr Dyfan; certainly it was one of the larger dwellings examined and at this point in history roof slabs were not a common sight in many domestic buildings throughout medieval Glamorgan, with most dwellings at this point in time exhibiting thatched roofs; certainly no evidence of roof tiles was found in any of the other buildings examined at Merthyr Dyfan.  Wall plaster was also a commodity enjoyed by those with means.  It would appear that this building was extant around the beginning of the Fourteenth Century; a prosperous time for many in medieval Britain.  It would seem however that this building was not in use for very long as it was abandoned during the same century it was constructed in as no dating evidence beyond the Fourteenth Century was found on the site. 

Another building, aligned north-south and located nearby to the west of the previous building was also a substantial structure constructed with dry stone walls measuring approximately 12.20 m by 7.60 m.  This building was only partially excavated, but showed that it probably also contained a plastered internal wall; pottery dating to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries was also found.  Given the buildings size and that it was probably plastered internally its possible that someone of more means than the average serf lived here.  Once again from the pottery evidence we can infer a terminus post quem of no later than the Fourteenth Century. 

Located close to both buildings and near the Cold Brook stream were the remains of a corn drying kiln.  Kilns of this type would have existed in every village in Glamorgan as agriculture was a key element to the local economy. This kiln consisted of a circular pit with flue and like the houses contained fragments of Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century pottery.

The remaining archaeology is located on the south-east side of the church with much of it being covered/destroyed by modern housing making interpretation difficult.  For example, the remains of two medieval buildings were examined near Collard Crescent but due to the extant remains being but a tiny portion of the overall structure and the confusing sequence of features encountered, conclusions that could be drawn from these remains were limited. Four buildings examined near Marloes Close suffered from similar conditions, namely the fact that only a tiny portion of their structure was available for examination, all of these buildings however were thought to be dwellings.

Another, more complete medieval dwelling, was excavated near the Ffynnon John Lewis well, which like most of the other buildings, had been robbed of its stone.  Internally the building was divided into two parts, with the inner room containing a clay floor and a stone lined hearth adjacent to the wall; the hearth measured just under 1.00m.  The outer room also contained a clay floor and contained a slab lined drain which emptied outside a doorway located within the west wall. 

Of the utilitarian buildings examined there existed the remains of a barn, this structure was located near to the four medieval dwellings on Marloes Road.  This building probably served as an outbuilding related to one of the nearby dwellings; once again, Thirteenth to Fourteenth Century pottery was found in the vicinity, and interestingly, a spur rowel.

Near the barn structure were located the remains of a forge, like many of the other buildings, it had mostly been destroyed. Finally, the remains of a substantial building were uncovered in close proximity to both barn and forge; this building, measuring 12.30 m by 6.00 m, contained a keyhole shaped oven or kiln, leading archaeologists to deduce that as well as serving as a residence this building might also have served as a bake house.  Pottery of Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century date was also found here.

All of the buildings examined thus far at Merthyr Dyfan showed no evidence of being occupied beyond the Fourteenth Century.  This is no surprise, as the catastrophic events of this point in time such as plague, famine and war, hit Wales hard and killed much of the population.  Excavations at the nearby villages of Barry and Cosmeston have confirmed the velocity and severity of these events as none of the buildings examined thence showed any signs of occupation beyond the Fourteenth Century.

(Depiction of an innocent being molested by plague dating to the mid Fourteenth Century.  Medieval society was at a complete loss to explain let alone to combat the various epidemics that swept across Europe)

At Merthyr Dyfan there was however one possible exception. One building showed evidence of being continuously occupied until the Eighteenth Century.  The building, also located next to the Ffonnon John Lewis well, showed a stratographic sequence of three floor levels, the lowest being of clay and almost certainly medieval in date, the second consisted of a cobbled surface set in clay, and the final layer being composed of limestone flags and of probable Eighteenth Century date; this building is incidentally shown on an estate map dating to 1783.

The assemblage of metal detected finds is of particular interest and comprises a completely new resource unavailable via conventional archaeology.  The spatial distribution appears to have been restricted to a small area located in the field immediately west of the church of St Dyfan and St Teilo, which was most probably the site of one of the many village fairs that occurred in Merthyr Dyfan throughout the medieval period.  Most of the finds consist of coins and are represented by penny, half-penny and farthing denominations which would have been used for small transactions.  The earliest coin in the assemblage is a half penny coin of king Stephen (1135-54) which was minted around the middle of the Twelfth Century, nearly a full century before the earliest written evidence and architectural survivor at Merthyr Dyfan; however, coins during the medieval period tended to be in circulation for a long time with this example being very worn making it very unlikely that it was lost at the time it was minted.  The majority of the coins in the assemblage however date from the early Thirteenth through to mid Fourteenth Centuries thus reflecting the earliest written, architectural and archaeological dates giving us a neat terminus post quem of early Thirteenth Century for the genesis of Merthyr Dyfan.  

The latest medieval coins in the assemblage consist of three pennies of Edward III (1327-77).  After this date there is a gap of nearly two centuries before any more coin finds, with the latest silver coin in the metal detected assemblage being a debased silver groat (four pence) of Henry VIII (1509-47) dating to 1544-47, thus corroborating the archaeological evidence of a mid Fourteenth Century decline of Merthyr Dyfan.  

(Some of the coins from Merthyr Dyfan)

The  seal matrix, which dates to the Thirteenth/Fourteenth Century, is also of great interest, as this item gives us two names associated with Merthyr Dyfan, names that given the scant documentary evidence from the medieval period, would have been otherwise lost to us.  The encircling legend reads  S-WILLIEI FIL ROBERTII seal of William son of Robert.  Who was William and his son Robert?  Chances are we will never know, but this seal was obviously the property of someone with a certain amount of standing in the village as literacy was very rare during the Thirteenth-Fourteenth Centuries. 

It would appear from the archaeological evidence that Merthyr Dyfan was in many ways the typical nucleated Glamorgan village and contained all the elements needed to sustain itself in an economy that was for the most part agrarian; corn drying kilns, a bake-house, a smithy as well as numerous domestic buildings were extant and in keeping with a community that worked with the seasons and was for the most part self sufficient.  The absence of a manor house or castle lends credence to the theory that Merthyr Dyfan existed as a demesne manor for the lords of Dinas Powys and run by a reeve or bailiff rather than a fee holding knight, although it is possible that there was a lordly residence such as a manor house at Merthyr Dyfan which is still waiting to be discovered. It would seem that the inhabitants of Merthyr Dyfan also liked to participate in social gatherings as the numerous coin losses attest to. 

Merthyr Dyfan seems to have recovered somewhat from the catastrophes of the Fourteenth Century and survived into the late medieval-post medieval period in a shrunken form; architectural evidence for the recovery of Merthyr Dyfan comes in the form of the crenelated tower attached to St Dyfan's Church which was constructed sometime during the early Sixteenth Century; interestingly, in the year 1553 commissioners of Edward VI paid a visit to Merthyr Dyfan and appropriated a number of items of value from the church, including a copper-gilt cross, thought to be worth 20s, and a number of costly ecclesiastical vestments.

The Subsidy Act of 1543, which was enforced throughout the 1540s, gives us a reasonable idea of the population levels at Merthyr Dyfan during the early post-medieval period; for example, this tells us that there were approximately 23 people eligible to pay tax in 1543.  In subsequent years we see that number diminish slightly, however there were almost certainly more people residing in Merthyr Dyfan who were too poor to pay this tax and thus absent from the lay subsidy returns.

(View of Methyr Dyfan around 1900)

Much of the land around Merthyr Dyfan during the Sixteenth Century was still in the possession of the lordship of Dinas Powys which itself was split into two, and like many other villages during the post medieval period, and was enclosed and leased to a succession of farmer tenants.  Merthyr Dyfan thus fell into a sleepy post medieval existence, an existence which remained unchanged for centuries as successive generations lived out their lives within the parish fields and farmsteads they called home, were baptized, married and finally buried in the church of St Dyfan and St Teilo.  This rural way of life lasted until up until the middle of the Twentieth Century when continuity with the medieval past was finally broken and the land around the village was concreted over in the name of progress and thus destroyed. 

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