Coedllys Country House, St. Clears, Carmarthenshire
Carmarthen (/ˌkɑːrˈmɑːrðən/ kar-MAR-dhən; Welsh: Caerfyrddin pronounced [kɑːɨrˈvərðɪn], "Merlin's fort") is the county town of Carmarthenshire in Wales. It lies on the River Towy 8 miles (13 km) north of its mouth at Carmarthen Bay.
Carmarthen has a strong claim to being the oldest town in Wales – the two settlements of Old Carmarthen and New Carmarthen were united as one borough in 1546. Carmarthen was the most populous borough in Wales between the 16th and 18th centuries and described by William Camden as "the chief citie of the country". Population growth stagnated by the mid-19th century, as more dynamic economic centres developed in the South Wales coalfield. In 2001, the population was 15,854.
Carmarthen is the location of Dyfed-Powys Police headquarters, the Carmarthen campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Glangwili General Hospital.
A page from Carmarthen Borough's Book of Ordinances, 1582
When Britannia was a Roman province, Carmarthen was the civitas capital of the Demetae tribe, known as Moridunum ("Sea Fort"). It is possibly the oldest town in Wales, recorded by Ptolemy and in the Antonine Itinerary. The Roman fort is believed to date from about AD 75. A Roman coin hoard was found nearby in 2006. Near the fort is one of seven surviving Roman amphitheatres in Britain and only two in Roman Wales (the other being at Isca Augusta, Roman Caerleon). It was excavated in 1968. The arena itself is 50 by 30 yards (about 46 by 27 metres); the cavea (seating area) is 100 by 73 yards (92 by 67 metres). Veprauskas has argued for its identification as the Cair Guorthigirn ("Fort Vortigern") listed by Nennius among the 28 cities of Britain in his History of the Britains.
During the Middle Ages, the settlement was known as Llanteulyddog ('St Teulyddog's) and accounted one of the seven principal sees in Dyfed. The strategic importance of Carmarthen was such that the Norman William fitz Baldwin built a castle there, probably about 1094. The current castle site is known to have been used since 1105. The castle itself was destroyed by Llywelyn the Great in 1215 but rebuilt in 1223, when permission was granted to build a town wall and crenellate the town, making it one of the first medieval walled towns in Wales. In 1405, the town was captured and the castle was sacked by Owain Glyndŵr. The Black Book of Carmarthen, written about 1250, is associated with the town's Priory of SS John the Evangelist and Teulyddog.
The Black Death of 1347–49 arrived in Carmarthen through the thriving river trade. It destroyed and devastated villages such as Llanllwch. Local historians site the plague pit for the mass burial of the dead in the graveyard that adjoins the Maes-yr-Ysgol and Llys Model housing at the rear of St Catherine Street.
The ancient Clas church of Llandeulyddog was an independent, pre-Norman religious community which became in 1110 the Benedictine Priory of St Peter, only to be replaced 15 years later by the Augustianian Priory of St John the Evangelist and St Teulyddog. This stood near the river, at what is now Priory Street (51.8601°N 4.2975°W, SN418204). The site is now a scheduled monument.
During the 13th century, Franciscan Friars (Grey Friars, or Friars minor) became established in the town, and by 1284 had their own Friary buildings on Lammas Street (51.855794°N 4.309076°W), on a site now occupied by a shopping centre. The Franciscan emphasis on poverty and simplicity meant the Church was smaller (reportedly "70 to 80 feet long and 30 feet broad" – 21/24 by 9 m) and more austere than the older foundations, but this did not prevent the accumulation of treasures, and it became a much sought after location for burial. In 1456 Edmund Tudor, 1st Earl of Richmond died of plague in Carmarthen, three months before the birth of his son, the future King Henry VII. Edmund was buried in a prominent tomb in the centre of the choir of the Grey Friars Church. Other notable burials were of Rhys ap Thomas and Tudur Aled.
The Friary was dissolved in 1538, and many unsuccessful plans were made for the building. Even before the friars had left, in 1536, William Barlow campaigned to have the cathedral moved into it, from St David's, where the tomb and remains of Edmund Tudor were moved after the Carmarthen buildings were deconsecrated. There were repeated abortive attempts to turn the buildings into a grammar school. Gradually they became ruined, although the church walls were still recognisable in the mid-18th century. By 1900 all the stonework had been stripped away and there were no traces above ground. The site remained undeveloped until the 1980s and 1990s, after extensive archaeological excavations of first the monastic buildings and then the nave and chancel of the church. These confirmed that the former presence of a church, a chapter house and a large cloister, with a smaller cloister and infirmary added subsequently. Over 200 graves were found in the churchyard and 60 around the friars' choir.
Merlin, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
According to some variants of the Arthurian legend, Merlin was born in a cave outside Carmarthen. Given the town's Welsh name Caerfyrddin, it has been suggested that Merlin may be an anglicised form of Myrddin. (See Merlin § Name and etymology.) Historians generally disagree with this, preferring the explanation thatMyrddin is a corruption of the Roman name. Furthermore, many areas surrounding Carmarthen still allude to this, such as nearby Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill).
Legend also had it that if a particular tree called Merlin's Oak fell, it would be the downfall of the town. Translated from Welsh, it reads: "When Merlin's Oak comes tumbling down, down shall fall Carmarthen Town". To obstruct this, the tree was dug up when it died and pieces of it remain in the town museum.
The Black Book of Carmarthen includes poems with references to Myrddin (Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, "Conversation of Merlin and Taliesin") and possibly to Arthur (Pa ŵr yw'r Porthor?, "What man is the porter?"). The interpretation of these is difficult, as the Arthurian legends were known by this time and detail of the modern form had been described by Geoffrey of Monmouth before the book was written.
The 'Book of Ordinances', 1569–1606, is one of the earliest surviving minute books of a town in Wales. It gives a unique picture of an Elizabethan Welsh town.
Following the Acts of Union, Carmarthen became judicial headquarters of the Court of Great Sessions for southwest Wales. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the town's dominant pursuit was still agriculture and related trades, including woollen manufacture. Carmarthen was made a county corporate by a charter of James I in 1604. This decreed that Carmarthen should be known as the 'Town of the County of Carmarthen' and have two sheriffs. This was reduced to one sheriff in 1835 and the ceremonial post continues to this day.
When the Priory and the Friary were abandoned during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, the land being returned to the monarchy. Likewise, the chapels of St Catherine and St Barbara were lost, the church of St Peter's being the main religious establishment to survive.
During the Marian persecutions of the 1550s, Bishop Ferrar of St David's was burnt at the stake in the market square – now Nott Square. A Protestant martyr, his life and death are recorded in John Foxe's famous book of martyrs.
In 1689, John Osborne, 1st Earl of Danby, was made 1st Marquess of Carmarthen by William III. Osborne was later created Duke of Leeds in 1694, and Marquess of Carmarthen became the Duke's heir apparent's courtesy title until the Dukedom became extinct upon the death of the 12th Duke in 1964.
18th century to present
In the mid-18th century, the Morgan family founded a small-scale ironworks at the east end of the town. In 1786 lead smelting was established to process the ore carried from Lord Cawdor's mines at Nantyrmwyn, in the north-east of Carmarthenshire. Neither of these firms survived for long. The lead smelting moved to Llanelli in 1811. The ironworks evolved into tinplate works that had failed by about 1900.
Carmarthen gaol, designed by John Nash, was in use from about 1789 until its demolition in 1922. The site is now occupied by County Hall, designed by Sir Percy Thomas. The gaol's "Felons' Register" of 1843–71 contains some of the earliest photographs of criminals in Britain. In 1843 the workhouse in Carmarthen was attacked by the Rebecca Rioters.
The revival of the eisteddfod as an institution took place in Carmarthen in 1819. The town hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1867, 1911 and 1974, although at least in 1974, the Maes was at Abergwili.
The origins of Chartism in Wales can be traced to the foundation in the autumn of 1836 of Carmarthen Working Men's Association.
Carmarthen Grammar School was founded in 1587 on a site now occupied by the old hospital in Priory Street. The school moved in the 1840s to Priory Row, before relocating to Richmond Terrace. At the turn of the 20th century, a local travelling circus buried one of its elephants that fell sick and died. The grave is under what was the rugby pitch.
During World War II, prisoner-of-war camps were situated in Johnstown (where the Davies Estate now stands) and at Glangwilli — the POW huts being used as part of the hospital since its inception. To the west of the town was the "Carmarthen Stop Line", one of a network of defensive lines created in 1940–41 in case of invasion, with a series of ditches and pillboxes running north-south. Most of these structures have since been removed or filled in, but there are still two remains.
The Carmarthen community is bordered by those of Bronwydd, Abergwili, Llangunnor, Llandyfaelog, Llangain, Llangynog and Newchurch and Merthyr, all being in Carmarthenshire.
Carmarthen was named one of the best places to live in Wales in 2017.