Medieval Dodge City – the ‘Badlands’’ of the English / Welsh border.

The ‘lost’ town of Kenfig.

Kenfig is here
Kenfig is here

Over 800 years ago Kenfig was a successful port founded by the Anglo-Norman’s on the Welsh coast to establish a dominant economic and military stronghold.

One of the main characters in ‘The King’s Jew’ (book one) first appears in the novel in chapter 55 – see below –and it is then that ‘Kenfig’ is first mentioned.  LINK

Extract from Chapter fifty-five of “The King’s Jew” – Book One. The first time ‘Kenfig’ is mentioned.

Saturday February 24th 1263.

Feast day of St Mathew (Matthias)

Hebrew: 13th Adar 5023.

Afternoon. Longhurst Castle.


A command rang out and the men under the blackbird banner halted.

The tall man on the huge horse rode slowly forward and stopped before Mathew asking, “Cristian of Longhurst?”

Mathew laughed and indicating Cristian replied, “This is Lord Cristian of Longhurst and I am the man who guards his back so state your business to my master.”

Though the stranger was tall he was also young, not much older than Cristian. He looked weary and his clothing was worn and ripped in places. Even the cloak around his shoulders seemed threadbare but the sword and scabbard shone bright and the silver accoutrements on his horse gleamed softly in the winter sun.

‘This is a man of action not fashion,’ thought Cristian and took an instant liking to the fellow.

“Lord Cristian,” the man inclined his head, “I come from Prince Edward with letters for you.”

“Is Edward still in France?” asked Cristian.

“No, lord, his ships and men docked in the port of Dover earlier today. My craft arrived at Lymington this morning and after disembarking I came straight to find you. Prince Edward commends himself to you and asks that I and my companions may serve you.”

Cristian was aghast. How could he afford to pay this man and his men in addition to his other commitments?

“This is all rather sudden and just who are you anyway?”

“I am a landless knight. My name is Sir William of Kenfig. My father was a knight. He died by the hand of Hywel ap Meredith twenty years ago when the Welsh attacked Kenfig Castle. I like not the Welsh, duplicitous bastards that they are. I have spent the last few years tourneying abroad and it was there I met your Lord Edward.”

As Cristian talked with Sir William, Mathew signalled his outriders to draw closer to the visitors. None of the newcomers seemed hostile as they quietly sat their horses waiting for their leader to conclude his business.

Extract ends.

Writers are often asked – “Which came first – the research or the story?” Well in this case Kenfig came before the character of William. I came across Kenfig whilst researching the medieval Welsh borderland and (fortunately for me) William of Kenfig came into my mind as the book progressed. But what of Kenfig eh?

Kenfig now
Kenfig now

The founding of Kenfig is obviously shrouded in the mists of time but it appears to have been founded around 1140 by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. At that time the Norman conquest of England was more or less complete, but the Normans were meeting stiff resistance in Wales. Earl Robert was the illegitimate son of King Henry I. Among his possessions he held the Lordship of Glamorgan. The castle and town of Kenfig were therefore founded in order to establish greater control over the local people and in particular to secure the crossing of the River Kenfig. The town began as a small community within the outer defences of the castle, but soon developed towards the south west in the direction of the sea.

The isolated remains of Kenfig castle
The isolated remains of Kenfig castle

Kenfig was attacked many times. In 1167, much of the town outside the castle walls was destroyed by fire. Further incidents occurred over the next twenty years. Indeed there is a statement in the Annals of Margam Abbey asserting that the town was burnt in 1185, but “had not been burned for a year or more”.

In 1232 the people of Kenfig had to sustain a major assault by a neighbouring Welsh leader, Morgan Gam, and there were further attacks in 1242 and 1243 led by Morgan’s cousin, Hywel ap Meredith.

Kenfig castle 2
Kenfig castle 2

In 1232 the chronicler of Margam Abbey noted that at Easter the people of Kenfig received warning of an impending attack and so they were able to lead their cattle to a place of safety. Morgan Gam’s men rushed into the town and attacked the donjon. They met with stiff resistance and a bloody battle ensued. The men within the donjon defended bravely and Morgan was compelled to retreat and return to the mountains.

Remains of Margam Abbey
Remains of Margam Abbey

It is easy to think that such attacks were inspired by the idea of Welsh nationalism but the reality of the situation was that many of these attacks were motivated by the most basic of needs: food, clothing, weapons and livestock.  Relatively speaking, the burgesses in the town led comfortable lives while the people outside – the people of the ‘Welshry’ – were largely impoverished; they were literally fighting for their lives and the safety of their families.


Thus in 1243, the town was burned again, this time by Howell ap Meredith. In 1295 a rebellion touched much of Wales and that rebellion reached Kenfig culminating in the destruction of the town.

Another view of Kenfig castle
Another view of Kenfig castle

For two hundred years between the middle of the twelfth century and the middle of the fourteenth century the town of Kenfig was a thriving community although subject to the violence of the times. Then the sand started to arrive and within another one hundred years Kenfig became a ghost town.

In those days a community could only survive if their fields were productive and able to sustain livestock – once the insidious sand took hold it was uneconomic to remain in the area. People moved away so the income from taxes and tithes diminished and we are now left with an area totally covered in sand dunes.

Even this representation has been covered by the sand
Even this representation has been covered by the sand

Kenfig is now a special site and visited by many yet none of the visitors have seen the ghost of William of Kenfig or the burial place of his father. At least William lives on in ‘The King’s Jew’  which can be viewed here


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