Other than parts of Cardiff Castle, the solitary building left in Cardiff city centre that predates the industrial revolution is the parish church of St John the Baptist. As such, it is a unique relic of the walled medieval town, but few even glance at the Grade I Listed treasure in their midst. Approaching 850 years of age, saturated in history, it deserves to be better known, appreciated and understood.
Following the suppression of Celtic Christianity in Wales, from the 12th century onwards the Anglo-Norman invaders forcibly introduced Roman Catholic Christianity and began to establish dioceses and parishes on the English model. The first such parish church imposed on Cardiff was St Mary’s, after which St Mary Street was named, built in the 1120s near the South Gate of the walled town.
This was not a sensible spot to locate any building, since in those days the tidal Taff ran fast and free down the west side of the churchyard, making a big sweeping bend along the line of today’s Westgate Street and Great Western Lane. The inept error was made because the church with its lofty tower was not built with the Glory of God in mind, but as a very un-Christian belligerently domineering lookout point designed to forewarn of coastal raids by the supplanted native Welsh. For nearly 500 years, through the break with Rome engineered by Henry VIII (1491-1547) so that he could get a divorce and through the subsequent Protestant Reformation that put Welsh Christianity in the clutches of Canterbury instead of the Vatican, the tempestuous flood-prone river steadily weakened the cruciform structure until in 1607 a catastrophic storm surge combined with torrential rain in the hills to carry away the churchyard, undercut the foundations and completely inundate the church. Damaged beyond repair, St Mary’s gradually fell apart and nearby St John’s, built around 1180 as the subsidiary chapel of St Mary’s, increasingly assumed the role of Cardiff’s parish church. After the imposing square tower came crashing to the ground in 1680 St Mary’s was finally abandoned and left to rot and within 50 years all vestiges of the stone edifice had disappeared without trace (the Prince of Wales pub occupies the site today).
Thus, by accident not design, by the start of the 18th century St John’s became Cardiff’s parish church. The original 12th century St John’s had been a modest chapel-of-ease, built of the same blue lias limestone quarried from the foot of Leckwith hill that the Romans had used 1,000 years earlier at the Castle. It had been almost totally destroyed in 1404 by the rebel army of Owain Glyndŵr (c1359-c1415) and then, when the dust had settled, reconstructed in fashionable perpendicular Gothic style between 1460 and 1500. The nave’s slender columns and the outstanding tower were the work of master masons from the English West Country (contemporaneous St Stephen’s in Bristol is very similar). The splendid tower, in mellow grey and buff limestones quarried in Somerset, featured arcading, cages of open fretwork and a fantastic top-heavy ‘Gloucestershire Crown’ of battlements. The 40m (130 ft) high tower wasn’t just decorative; at this juncture Welsh resistance had not yet been entirely crushed, so like St Mary’s it served a dual purpose as a lookout over the Severn. It was the tallest structure in Cardiff until the chimneys of the Dowlais Works were raised on the East Moors 400 years later and even today, engulfed by the modern city, it still packs a visual punch from the High Street/Church Street junction.
In the 1880s, with Cardiff at the height of the coal boom and awash with money, the church was given a major revamp under the direction of diocesan architect John Prichard (1817-1886). Outer aisles were added, the chancel was raised and windows were repositioned and fitted with lavish stained glass. At the same time the vicarage and the southern part of the churchyard were removed to make way for the new Free Library (the vicar moved to a house in Charles Street until a new vicarage was built in Cathedral Road in 1935). A walkway between Working Street and Trinity Street was laid out through the remaining churchyard, studded with brass numbers denoting the exhumed graves. These higgledy-piggledy numbers, worn smooth by countless feet, were an appealing Cardiff quirk until being crassly removed and replaced with a few shiny, rigidly regimented, new versions in 2007.
Today St John’s exterior is inevitably bashed, bruised and belittled by its location in the belching belly of city centre consumerism, intoxication and revelry, while the interior is compromised by a clutter of gift shops, tea rooms, exhibition spaces, notice boards, public toilets, security barriers and naked commerce, with far too many militaristic banners, plaques and assorted ephemera spitting in the face of Christianity’s supposedly non-negotiable principles like turning the other cheek and luv’n’peace. That notwithstanding, for those who appreciate ecclesiastical art and architecture there is much to see.
In the Lady Chapel, behind a carved Renaissance screen, is the sumptuous Jacobean tomb of two of the many horrible Herberts, brothers William (1544-1609) and John (1550-1617), both from the Friars branch of the power-hungry family. William was a lieutenant of the shire and his armed gangs ran riot in the town during violent clashes with the Mathew clan; John went to London and became a biddable royal lawyer, diplomat and translator. Their effigies are welded together in marble and stone, one in soldier’s uniform, the other in a barrister’s gown. Now usually called the Herbert Chapel, the windows are a blaze of colour displaying 26 different heraldic coats of arms of families involved in the history of Cardiff Castle.
Other Victorian stained glass includes expensive commissions from leading artists of the day: Arts & Crafts genius William Morris (1834-1896) and Pre-Raphaelites Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) in the north aisle, a shocking pink Suffer the Little Children by John Prichard’s early business partner John Seddon (1827-1906) in the north-west corner, and a bravado work by Ninian Comper (1864-1960), the last of the Gothic revivalists, in the chancel at the east end. Comper also designed the reredos (altar back-panelling) in the south chapel, dedicated to gung-ho warmonger Lord Kitchener (1850-1916), while Prichard himself designed the exquisite reredos in the chancel, where there are arches that pre-date the 15th Century rebuild and tempting secret doorways leading up to a charming rood loft. In the heart of the church the main altar showcases a tour-de-force sculpture of biblical figures by Cardiff’s own William Goscombe John (1860-1952).
One of the more interesting memorials is a plaque commemorating Jeremiah Stockdale (1806-1870), a macho Londoner appointed Cardiff’s first police superintendent in 1836 specifically to protect the property of the rich at the height of the Chartist Movement. Partial to impersonating a sailor at the Dock gates at night to entrap robbers, he died in office having built a force known for drunkenness, assault, frequenting brothels and dispensing their own justice rather than bothering with the legal process: a clear candidate for Heaven; open up those pearly gates…
Everything still reeks of the Anglican establishment, a full century after St John’s became part of the disestablished Church in Wales. Despite the fact that the Church of England had an appalling record during its 380 years in charge in Wales, right up to and including disestablishment in 1920 when the CoE seized Welsh assets in nasty rancorous vengeance, many in the CiW still cling to a colonised addiction to English rule. This is reflected in the way the CiW hierarchy keep appointing English CoE stalwarts to key posts, from the recent new Bishops of both Llandaf and Monmouth down to parish priests such as Canon Sarah Jones from Hereford, incumbent at St John’s since 2018. Given that it is the most high-profile and senior representation of Christianity in the capital of Wales, isn’t it about time St John’s did more than pay lip-service to its Welsh identity? On the other hand, why do I expect anything other than airy waffle about “diversity” and “inclusivity” from a church that is part of an absurd organisation with a multi-authored, much-amended book of ignorant iron-age mumbo-jumbo as its creed, a church reduced to a regular congregation that could be comfortably accommodated in a mini-bus?
I recommend the cellulite-burning trek up to the top of the tower (which has a peal of ten bells and a minstrel gallery) for the reward of elemental Cardiff panoramas from a medieval point of view. But the luxuriant churchyard garden to the south, given a makeover in 2007 with new seating and entrances as part of the deal with the developers of the St David’s extension, cannot be recommended. Easier access to the city centre’s only green space has resulted in benches packed with an uneasy mix of out-of-town shoppers taking the weight off their corn plasters between transactions and itinerant alcoholics slugging back the White Lightning out of a carrier bag. The meditative possibilities of what was previously an oasis of peace and tranquility have been lost. This, one presumes, is the cost of the wages of sin…
Map: Public Domain
Pictures: Glamorgan Record Office; Ruth Sharville