Cardiff’s lost buildings 4

Greyfriars
Greyfriars Road
During the 13th century the Dominicans (Black Friars) and the Franciscans (Grey Friars) established religious houses just outside the town walls of Cardiff; the Black Friars near the West Gate and the Grey Friars near the East Gate. Both monastic orders constructed substantial churches along with cloisters, halls, kitchens, dormitories, stables, barns, graveyards and gardens, and the austere, colour-coded monks slowly integrated themselves into the life of the town. Across three centuries their initial status as outsiders gradually evolved to the point where they became Welsh monks rather than French monks in Wales, providing the only semblance of ‘social services’ in times of poverty, famine, disease and illiteracy. The Franciscans in particular were staunchly pro-Welsh. They supported the 1315 uprising of Llewelyn Bren (c1265-1318) and buried his mutilated body in their church’s tombs after he was savagely slaughtered by being dragged naked through Cardiff on the orders of Hugh Despenser (1262-1326), the Anglo-Norman Lord of Cardiff and a crazed psychopath even by the standards of the time. They also loyally supported the great 1404 rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr (c1354-c1416), who briefly re-conquered Cardiff for Cymru, burning most of the the town to the ground while pointedly sparing the Franciscans’ friary.

Both orders were loved by the poor and were vital to the town’s well-being, but that all ended in the 1530s when they were violently eliminated by the evil, syphilitic, gluttonous English king Henry VIII (1491-1547) who engineered a schism with the Catholic church in order to divorce his first wife and then proceeded to seize all the assets and land of the hundreds of monasteries, priories, friaries and nunneries in England and Wales (simultaneously he annexed Wales as part of the same operation to launch the unrestrained belligerence of the expansive English State). The ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ was one of the greatest acts of cultural and social vandalism in history, involving the mass destruction of architectural treasures and precious, irreplaceable archives as well as the brutal slaughter of countless thousands who got in Henry’s way as the serial-killer pronounced himself ‘supreme head’ of the church in England. Incredibly, his great [x14] niece, Elizabeth II, continues the breathtakingly criminal activities of England’s royalty to this day – examples this month alone, for instance, include her secret lobbying for exemption from climate laws and her harbouring beyond the reach of US law of her favourite son, sex-predator Andrew, in one of her many vast fortresses. Yes, they’re still getting away with it – a damning indictment of the blinkered, brainwashed, bootlicking British.

Conquered, crushed Cymru, having far fewer important and imposing monasteries, nunneries, priories and friaries than England*, was merely collateral damage in the ‘Reformation’ process. In Cardiff, the impact was virtually immediate. The Blackfriars was systematically looted and dismantled within a year of dissolution in 1538, the Crown’s agents reducing the site to ruin, and it passed into the hands of already rich local landed gentry. Eventually it was snapped up by the Lords of Cardiff Castle and thereby became part of their private parkland, today’s Bute Park. The 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900), a history buff if ever there was one, had the site excavated in the 1880s and the buried foundations of the church, the cloister and some of the domestic buildings were exposed and marked out by derisory dummy walls and reproduction floor tiles as an ornamental garden feature. This in turn fell into disrepair until there was an uninformative and underwhelming cosmetic revamp in 2013 using retro bricks and turf-capping while any surviving Victorian tiles were removed, repaired and laid on the floor of the twee and trite ‘Pettigrew Tea Rooms’ in the nearby West Lodge as the Council proceeded apace with the policy of turning Cardiff’s parklands into a commercialised cash cow.

The Greyfriars lasted a little longer. It was sold to George Herbert (c1502-1540), the brother of one of Henry VIII’s reliable henchmen, the intensely ambitious, foul-tempered and vicious William Herbert (c1501-1570), 1st Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Cardiff from 1551. It passed down this minor line of the Herbert dynasty to another William Herbert (1544-1609) and he used the stone from the dismantled Friary to build himself a splendid mansion slap bang on top of the site in 1578, called Greyfriars House or Herbert House. His antecedents, known as the ‘Herberts of the Friars’ to differentiate them from the senior Herberts of Cardiff Castle, occupied the House for nearly 200 years until the inbred bastards ran out of male heirs in the 1740s. The handsome Elizabethan mansion was unlike any other building in Glamorgan, a light and elegant edifice with multiple gables, three-storey polygonal bays and ranks of mullioned windows. The vacated building slowly became a ruin and was eventually sold to the 1st Marquis of Bute (1744-1814) in 1790 as he took control of Cardiff and bought up every inch of land near the Castle, creating Cathays Park.

In 1819 the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848) donated the Friary graveyard for the building of St John’s School, a ‘free school’ operated by the parish church (closed in 1946, it became Cardiff College of Art in 1950 until demolition in 1966). Further inroads were made when the former friary grounds were made into a nursery for the Castle Gardens to the east, complete with state-of-the-art glasshouses to provide year-round fresh fruit and veg for the Butes. As with the Blackfriars site, in the 1880s the 3rd Marquis initiated important excavations to uncover the friary foundations and the floor of the church. They were marked out carefully, and what stones that still existed were made into an interesting feature. Meanwhile the evocative skeleton of Herbert House remained as a familiar landmark to generation after generation of Cardiffians. After the Marquis agreed to sell Cathays Park back to Cardiff in 1898, the whole area was transformed into the civic centre between 1901 and 1927, a glorious public realm of dazzling neo-Baroque buildings set amid spacious tree-lined boulevards. The Greyfriars was very much part of the scheme, adding historical heft and picturesque curiosity to the overall effect.

Then between 1967 and 1969, unbelievably, the Greyfriars site was entirely wiped out: the irreplaceable 13th century remnants, the haunting tombs of Welsh heroes, the rare and redolent 16th century ruins, the atmospheric aura linking Cardiff to its distant past – all gone. To blame was not the Council for once, but the UK Labour government’s Welsh Office in London which in those pre-devolution days had complete control over planning decisions. And, specifically responsible was the minister of state/secretary of state for Wales: the rotten-to-the-core, nasty Cymruphobe and fucked-up closet queen: George Thomas (1909-1997), MP for Cardiff West. He dismissed all objections and all expert advice and opinion and gave the go-ahead for the wanton destruction of a Listed Building and the construction of Pearl House on the site – a completely inappropriate 26-storey monstrosity without a single redeeming feature or the slightest concession to aesthetics. Thomas’s repressed longings for giant phallic erections, usually acted out with venereal rent boys in back alleys, were made manifest in curtain walls of concrete and glass to Cardiff’s everlasting shame.

One can only imagine what inducements the profoundly corrupt Thomas received to do the bidding of Big Business. After all, he always needed money if only to pay off his blackmailers between Sunday sessions bible-bashing as a Methodist lay-preacher. Whatever; the 50 years that have passed since the hideous slab was built have only confirmed how very wrong he was. The speculative development, renamed Capital Tower in 1998, has never been fully occupied, has changed ownership five times as it’s shifted from one off-shore private equity outfit to another, and has had endless increasingly desperate refurbishments to try to compete in the grossly over-supplied Cardiff property ‘market’. Yep, it was all completely unnecessary. Today, as usual, half the block is in search of tenants. You can tell things are going badly when estate agents are reduced to calling it “a Cardiff icon”.

Overtaken as the tallest building in Cardiff by the Bridge Street Exchange in 2017, a shockingly repellent student block that remains largely empty, the Capital Tower won’t even be Cardiff’s 2nd-tallest building soon: Cardiff Council, the inheritor’s of George Thomas’s pathetic obsession with growth and size, and slavishly obedient to the discredited and defunct American template of how a city should look, give permission for every single unwanted, unneeded overweening tower demanded by corporate profiteers. And, as the capital of Cymru enters its final tragic act, our despicable leaders have set their unwavering course: to hell with the future, to hell with the past, to hell with sustainability, to hell with community, to hell with society, to hell with the people, to hell with Cardiff.

*NOTE
The 61 monastic sites of Cymru, introduced by the Normans to replace Celtic Christianity with Roman Catholic Christianity:
AUGUSTINIAN – 9
AUSTIN – 1
BENEDICTINE – 17
BONHOMMES – 1
CARMELITES – 1
CISTERCIAN – 16
CLUNIAC – 2
DOMINICANS – 4
FRANCISCANS – 3
HOSPITALLERS – 1
PREMONSTRATENSIAN – 1
SAVIGNIAC – 2
TIRONENSIAN – 3
There are significant surviving structures at Abbeycwmhir (Cistercian), Basingwerk (Savigniac), Cymer (Cistercian), Ewenni (Benedictine), Llanthony (Augustinian), Margam (Cistercian), Neath (Savigniac), Penmon (Augustinian), St Dogmaels (Tironensian), Strata Florida (Cistercian), Talley (Premonstratensian), Tintern (Cistercian) and Valle Crucis (Cistercian)

Picture: Cardiff Libraries