Articles of Faith 1: Stone Corbel Head

One of a series of posts allowing individual articles here at St Mary’s to unfold a story!

Better Days

This first object has seen better days. And I say ‘seen’ better days because this object has a face with a nose and a mouth . . . and eyes!

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It’s a simple, stone corbel head measuring about 10 inches tall and 5 inches wide, fixed into the interior wall of the church. It’s above a door that leads into a disused porch on the south side the steps of which are sometimes scattered with discarded needles.

Just before being placed here, it seems to have been fixed into the wall of the church gardens.  A photograph of a former Vicar, Fr Oman, who was here in the late 1950s, shows him staring curiously at the stony face.

Corbal head
Fr Oman was Vicar at St Mary’s from 1955

The head now is rather weathered but you can see the feint features of a face, and a crown upon his head. In the photograph, which shows clearer, un-weathered contours, the face is solemn and regal disinterested in the world around him, used to being stared at and admired, like a proud cat purring his way through the world.

But this weathered face has seen far more than simply two centuries of history associated with this present church building in Butetown. This corbel head came from the original and long disappeared Priory Church of St Mary which stood near the present day Cardiff Central Railway Station, its site marked in stone on the side of a Wetherspoons Pub.

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The Prince of Wales pub which stands on the site of the former Priory Church

Norman Conquest

The Priory Church was built after the land was conquered by William of 1066 fame. Robert Fitzhamon was the first Norman Lord of Cardiff and the church he built stood on the banks of the River Taff which was later diverted in the nineteenth century by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

At one time, the Taff would have flowed the course of Westgate Street which straddles the Principality Stadium, kissing the edge of the Priory graveyard, before it turned towards the present run of the river a few hundred yards away. The area now is dominated by the Stadium and the new BBC Studios which, along with other high rise office blocks forms the new Capital Square with its building site reserved for a new transport hub. The city, like the river, never stands still.

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Robert Fitzhammon, the first Norman Lord of Cardiff, represented holding Tewkesbury Abbey

Prior Warnings

The font is filled with Easter water, waiting for a few baptisms after a very secluded Holy Week and Easter Day. Next to the font, pinned to one of the large pillars, is a framed list entitled ‘The Twelfth Century Parish of St Mary the Virgin: List of Incumbents.’

The first Prior was simply named ‘Robert’ who arrived in Wales with his Norman Lord namesake.

In 1180, the Priory Church was taken under the wings of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewksbury who stocked it with monks and a prior. As well as a Priory Church it served as a Parish Church for the community of Cardiff and other areas which extended as far as Roath and Lisvane, Llanishen, Llanedeyrn and Llandough.

But forty years later, the monks were taken back to Tewkesbury leaving just a solitary Prior.  A century later (in 1318) this situation was forbidden by the Pope and Simon, the last known Prior, was quickly shuffled back to the Mother House. St Mary’s was left to the care of a Vicar who was in receipt of the stipend of four monks.

Cardiff was changing and, closer to the castle, the population had been rising and the need for a new church emerged in the late 12th century when the Church of St John the Baptist opened its doors. By 1242, its standing was such that the Archdeacon of Llandaff attempted to prise it from St Mary’s to create a separate parish.

The Prior, Richard de Derby, was having none of it. He successfully appealed to the Pope, and so St John’s continued as a dependant chapel of St Mary’s right through to the Reformation when it became a separate benefice sharing a single vicar right up until 1843.

Floods and Fire

Standing as it did at the turning of the Taff, St Mary’s was prone to flooding and, in 1607, it was severely damaged by the large flood which swept across South Wales and South West England.

There had been prior warnings and earlier floods but the money meant for the upkeep of the weirs and walls, the bridges and quays had been diverted elsewhere.

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The 17th century map of Cardiff by John Speed showing St Mary’s (bottom right) and its proximity to the River Taff

Three decades later and there is war, the English Civil War to be precise, which played its destructive part: St Mary’s was caught up in the crossfire of Royalists and Parliamentarians seeking control of the castle.

It was to the Parliamentarians that William Erbery flocked when he lost his living as Vicar of St Mary’s. He’d refused to read from the pulpit the King’s Book of Sports which outlined what games were allowed to be played on Sundays. Denounced as preaching ‘schismatically and dangerously to the people’ he became an itinerant preacher before being recruited as a chaplain to the New Model Army which he regarded as ‘the Army of God.’

Erbery died six years before the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 by which time burials and baptisms were continuing at St Mary’s but other services had ceased. By 1678, the Church was a roofless shell, and the great central tower collapsed. What remained of the church was in danger of being swept away for ever.

By the middle of the 18th century, with no habitable church of their own the parishioners of St Mary’s worshipped at St John’s. They retained their distinct identity, appointed their own churchwardens, kept their own accounts and even had a gallery built to accommodate their numbers. But, soon, more than just a gallery would be needed as Cardiff experienced a rapid growth built on the back of coal clawed from the valleys of South Wales.

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The Church of St John the Baptist in the city centre

That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice

 At the gardens on the east side of the church is Bute Street which runs its stretch from the city centre to the Bay. It’s usually a busy street with cars and passers-by, school children, locals and tourists stopping to take a snap of the life size crucifix which stands as a War Memorial.  But with ‘Lockdown’ things are quieter, and the birds take precedence with their song.

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The gardens at St Mary’s facing onto Bute Street and the railway line

On the other side of the street is a tall stone wall which runs its whole length with a train line taking tourists and workers from Cardiff Queen Street to the Bay. Beyond this is Lloyd George Avenue which used to be West Bute Dock, and so from here, a hundred years ago,  we’d have seen the tops of ships, and heard the creaking sound of trains and shunters, wagons weighed down with coal cut from the valleys, lost in the sweat and steam of the Industrial Revolution.

West Bute Dock was built by the Second Marquess of Bute in 1839 not long after he’d sliced through marshland creating Bute Street and a direct line to the docks.

A vibrant, thriving, multicultural community emerged with over fifty different languages.  In just under four decades the population of Cardiff soared from 1,870 to over 10,000.  Many of these lived in St Mary’s Parish. A new church was needed.

With a gift of land and one thousand pounds from the Marquess, the remainder of the money was raised locally, and included the sale of a poem written by Sir William Wordsworth who referred to the former flooding and the need for a new St Mary’s to rise, “That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice!” he wrote.

The church was opened in 1843 and it was, indeed, greeted with much rejoicing.

Facing the future

Now confined indoors, if the stone corbel head could talk it would unfold a thousand years of history, from Norman Conquest to the Reformation, from Civil War to the Industrial Revolution, as Cardiff grew from a small town on the river to a thriving, vibrant capital city on the sea.

The stone corbel head is not just a nodding gesture to the past and how places grow and develop, are shaped and reshaped but is a witness to how faith has played – and continues to play – its part in the life of communities and the growth of a city just like Cardiff.

This is one of a series of items, Articles of Faith, which explores the history and mystery of St Mary’s by looking, one by one, at some of the many articles or objects here and allowing their stories to unfold.  Each blog post aims to be a simple, ten minute read.  They had originally been conceived as a podcast but the author didn’t like hearing his own voice!

Article of Faith 2:

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