The History of Cardigan
On fertile land and with a natural port at a river’s mouth, which gives the place its Welsh name Aberteify (mouth of the Teify) Cardigan was probably settled in prehistoric times. Our knowledge of the town, however, begins in the mid-5th century when it and much surrounding territory were granted to Ceredig, the son of a conquering North Welsh chieftain. Ceredig gives us the English name Cardigan. The history of the place between Ceredig’s grant and the arrival of the Normans is not recorded.
In 1093 the Norman Conquest reached Cardigan, Roger de Montgomery ordering the construction of a fortress there in a vain attempt to hold territory given him by William Rufus . Cadwgan of Powys wrested the land from de Montgomery, cementing his hold on the place with an alliance with Henry I . Intemperate celebrations in 1107 to mark Cadwgan’s success led, legend has it, to his son kidnapping Gerald de Windsor’s wife Nest from her home in Pembroke , for which father and son were banished. Cadwgan was murdered by a nephew in 1110, allowing Henry to seize the town.
The castle changed hands again in 1136 after the bloody battle of Crug Mawr near the town, in which the Norman forces were routed, several thousand slaughtered in the clash. This pattern of conquest and loss is repeated through the Norman period, the de Clare family regularly retaking it and being expelled again. In 1165 Roger de Clare having regained it was thrown out by Rhys ap Grufydd, Roger’s son Gilbert and Rhys continually battling for it until in 1171 Rhys paid homage to Henry II to seal his possession of Cardigan, repairing the damage done by several sieges thereafter.
In 1176 an event of significance to all Wales took place in Cardigan when Rhys held a competitive Eisteddfod there, traditionally taken as the first of its kind: there were trials of strength and military skill, but more importantly competitions in poetry and minstrelsy. The town has hosted Eisteddfods in the modern era, including one in 1976, marking 800 years of the tradition.
When Rhys died in 1197 his son Grufydd inherited Cardigan, but his brother Maelgwyn seized it and resisted its rightful owner until 1200, when in an act of spite he sold it to the English crown rather than surrender it to his brother. A further period of pass-the-castle ensued, the inhabitants of the town suffering accordingly – in the 1220s the garrison was slaughtered; in 1231 the population put to the sword. When the Earl of Pembroke took it for the English in 1240 this bloody game ended.
Edward I ’s subjugation of the Welsh saw him visit Cardigan for a prolonged stay; his reign brought continued peace and some prosperity to the town, a charter granting it borough status. The town was able to thrive as a port, important for supplies of fish landed there; and for goods exported to Ireland.
In 1485 Henry VII stayed at the castle as his forces made their way to Bosworth ; and Henry granted the town to Catherine of Aragon when she and his heir Prince Arthur were betrothed. During the Tudor years it grew in importance as a port, and thus in prosperity as a trading centre.
The Civil War saw Cardigan, in an echo of past times, change hands from Parliament to Crown to Parliament again, a siege in 1645 securing it for the Roundheads and greatly damaging the walls.
The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed renewed growth for the port, with the services ship-owners required readily to hand, including a thriving shipbuilding industry. For a time Cardigan was a major port for emigration to the Americas. But the maritime aspect of the town’s life changed as the 19th century ended, the silting up of the Teify ruining the harbour. The arrival of the railway in 1885 failed to halt the decline, and since WWII it has been pleasure vessels rather than trading ships which have called there.