Here in St Fagans, you can walk through hundreds of years of Welsh history.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Here, at the village of St Fagans, the St Fagans National Museum of History brings together buildings from across many centuries of Welsh history.
The name St Fagans alludes to a putative second-century Christian missionary and saint, Fagan, though the legends surrounding him didn’t really develop until many centuries later. The twelfth-century (though heavily restored) church of St Mary in the village is worth a visit. A castle existed at St Fagans from the thirteenth century, but was ruined by 1536. In its place today (within the grounds of the National Museum of History) is an impressive Elizabethan manor house, with some surviving medieval fortifications.
A walk around the St Fagans Museum puts the medieval heritage of Wales into its wider historical context. Several buildings, in particular, illuminate the life and culture of Wales in the Middle Ages.
St Teilo’s Church was moved here, stone by stone, from Llandeilo Tal-y-bont, near Pontarddulais. The building dates from around 1100 to 1520. It was in regular use until 1850 and for occasional services until 1970. Just before the church was removed to St Fagans, wall paintings were spotted showing through beneath its plaster. These were carefully removed and preserved: the oldest is a mural of St Catherine, thought to be fifteenth century. The reconstructed building is presented as it would have appeared around 1530. The wall paintings on display are copies of the originals, with some additional images devised by experts, based on surviving paintings in other churches.
Llys Llewelyn is a spectacular recreation of a medieval court: specifically, the Royal Court of the Princes of Gwynedd in the thirteenth century.
It is based on the surviving remains of Llys Rhosyr in the south-western corner of Anglesey, excavated in the 1990s. The Llys was the administrative centre and part of a large complex of buildings: at St Fagans, the main hall and an adjoining chamber have been recreated. The magnificent Llys evokes Welsh princely power, wealth and culture around the time of the Anglo-Norman campaigns into Wales. Llys Rhosyr, which inspired this building, fell into English hands after the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd – the last Welsh prince – in 1282.
Other buildings to look out for include the late-medieval Hendre’r-ywydd Uchaf Farmhouse, with its open hearth in the centre of the hall, and the Tudor Trader’s House (from Haverfordwest) with living space on the first floor, echoing the layout of medieval castles in Wales.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
The story of the hanging and miraculous revival of William Cragh gives us insights into a range of different medieval buildings and spaces, and the different ways in which they were used.
Swansea Castle is central to the story, with the Anglo-Norman Lord and his stepson watching the execution from the windows of the first-floor hall. The Lord’s wife, Mary de Briouze, on the other hand, remains in her chamber with her women, and sees none of the action. This gendered configuration of space is typical of castles in the period.
Another striking space in the story of William Cragh is the house of the burgess Thomas Mathews, where Cragh’s body is taken and where he gradually recovers.
From the detail in the witness statements, it seems this would have been a very busy place, as visitors crowded in to see Cragh and share in the intriguing events. This hectic ‘open house’ might seem very strange to us, when we’re used to thinking of our homes as private places where we invite chosen guests. But, in the 14th century, the idea of ‘domestic’ space was just emerging, and the house of a burgess like Thomas Mathews could function as a setting for social engagements, business and public display, as well as for more private activities.
One other space in the story of William Cragh is particularly intriguing.
After the hanging, Cragh’s friends try to take his body to the Chapel of St John, outside the walls to the north of the town. Although founded by the Knights Hospitallers in the 12th century, the Chapel had a much longer history as a religious site, and probably had particular links with the Welsh community. But, on the day of Cragh’s execution, his friends find it locked. What did it mean for them to be shut out of this space? Perhaps, by refusing entry to this executed outlaw and his supporters, the Chapel aimed to stay out of dangerous local politics.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
The miracles of St Thomas offer a fascinating window into medieval domestic life.
Alienora, the wife of William ap Hywel, near Hay-on-Wye, was busy cooking in her kitchen at home, when, suddenly, the fire got out of control. The blaze threatened to consume the entire house, and, despite their efforts, no one was able to put it out. William bent a penny to St Thomas – the practice of folding a coin in half as a votive to the saint – and prayed for his intervention.
Immediately, the fire was extinguished, just as suddenly, the medieval text tells us ‘as if the flame of a candle had been blown out’.
Other miracles also give glimpses of the many hazards of medieval domestic life.
In two poignant cases, drowned children were restored to life by St Thomas. A boy from Tewkesbury had, apparently, died in a cask of beer, while a London child had drowned in a rain barrel by the hall door. A certain Robert Russell prayed for the intervention of St Thomas when he accidentally ran over the head of his infant son with his cart. The boy was restored to life, but the papal commissioners, several years later, commented on the strangely narrow and peaked shape of the boy’s head, attributed by his father to the accident.
In medieval saints’ lives and records, like those of St Thomas of Hereford, we see the harsh realities and dangers of daily life. But, in contrast to other medieval records, such as Coroners’ Rolls, these misadventures meet with happy endings.
A place to remind us that life was hard
The ancient Welsh houses at St Fagans, rebuilt as they would have been in times past, remind us that life was hard for those who came before us. Cold stone, smoke stinging people’s eyes, no comfort. We wonder how people lived, and understand why many died so young. The houses speak of tougher people than we are, of lives that were far harder, of work that was exhausting, of food that was sparse. To William Cragh, and perhaps even to William de Briouze, these ancient houses would have seemed adequate enough, perhaps even comfortable.
Lord, forgive my readiness to complain about my life, and the selfishness that takes so much for granted. My forebears lived lives that shame my complacency, so make me thankful for their endurance. Enlarge my heart towards those today who have poor shelter and little food, that I may respect them through acts of kindness and generosity.
Taming the natural world: medieval farming
Among the many highlights of St Fagans National Museum of History is the diverse collection of Welsh farmhouses and buildings, including the Iron Age Farmstead, the sixteenth century Hendre’r-ywydd Uchaf Farmhouse, the bright red seventeenth century Kennixton and the comparatively modern (1890s) Llwyn-yr-eos Farmstead. These buildings reflect the realities of rural Welsh life throughout the ages. A fantastic range of farm buildings can be discovered as you explore the St Thomas Way.
Town and Country
Although urban settlements developed rapidly in the Welsh Marshes during the Middle Ages, the majority of the native Welsh population and the Anglo-Norman settlers lived a predominantly rural lifestyle. Welsh literature of the period often associates towns and urban culture with the English – but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Many parts of the Welsh countryside were wet and mountainous, making it idea for the grazing of livestock, but unsuitable for arable cropping. As a result, the major exports included cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. One of the witnesses to the hanging of William Cragh was a local man called Henry Skinner, his name reflecting his involvement in Swansea’s thriving leather industry. However, the Welsh Marches and the Vale of Glamorgan were suitable for ridge-and-furrow open fields. Around most medieval villages, farmers in this region employed a three-field crop rotation: two to grow crops while one was left fallow. The villages would also have had hay meadows and common land for grazing animals.
The rural lifestyle meant that the climate could have a dramatic impact on the population.
Good weather conditions and a growing economy from 1050-1300 resulted in a rapid increase in the population of Wales. This caused a more intense use of lands and led to the development of many villages and the clearing of forests in South Wales. However, deterioration in the climate from around 1300, known as the ‘Little Ice Age’, and the arrival of the Black Death in 1349 resulted in a decrease in the population over the next 250 years. This reduction in population led to the decline of many previously thriving villages, such as Kilpeck along the St Thomas Way. Despite their best efforts to tame the natural world, the inhabitants of the March of Medieval Wales were very much at the mercy of their environment.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral.
Distance: Approx. 2 miles
Time: Approx. 2-3 hours
Access: Easy, mostly flat with some gentle slopes up to Llys Llywelyn and St Teilo’s; occasional steps, although routes without steps are signposted; fully paved, suitable for wheelchairs and buggies.
- Start your walk at the Main Building of the St Fagans National Museum of History. As you exit the Main Building towards the rear, turn left and follow the path past Kennixton Farmhouse, a red, stone-built farmhouse dating back to 1610, on your right. As the path bends to the right, take the right hand fork past Hendre’r-ywydd Uchaf Farmhouse.
- Walk around Hendre’r-ywydd Uchaf Farmhouse, a late-medieval cruck-framed hall-house built in the early sixteenth century, keeping the buildings to your left. Turn right and head uphill towards the Tannery.
- After the Tannery,turn left down some steps towards the Art Gallery. Alternatively, if level access is required, continue straight ahead to Llys Llywelyn (Medieval Prince’s Court).
- Llys Llywelyn is a recreation of a thirteenth century Royal Court, which will be completed and open to the public from September 2018.
- From Llys Llywelyn, take the path on the right towards St Teilo’s Church. St Teilo’s dates from around 1100-1200 and has been refurbished to include the brightly-coloured wall paintings that used to cover the interior of medieval churches.
- Leave St Teilo’svia the rear entrance and turn right and then left towards Gwalia Stores and Rhyd-y-car Terrace.
- As you leave the final terrace house, turn right and then continue straight towards Abernodwydd Farmhouse, a timber-framed, thatched farmhouse dating from the late 1670s.
- From Abernodwydd Farmhouse, follow the path as it bends right around the far side of the house and then down hill past the Pen-rhiw Chapel. From here, turn left to go under the underpass and either take the steps up to the Elizabethan St Fagans Castle, or follow the path as it bends uphill to the left and then the right to take the level access route to the castle and finish your walk.