Kenfig Through the Ages
There have probably been human settlements in the Kenfig area for thousands of years. Stone age flint implements have been found at various places in the dunes.
It is likely that the Romans had some sort of settlement at Kenfig. It has been suggested that the banks and ditches of the bailey of the castle are reminiscent of layout of a Roman fort and that Kenfig might be the site of the 'lost' fort between Cardiff and Neath. For a summary of the evidence for this choose Kenfig Topics option on the menu bar.
The Vikings also seem to be have been in the area - witness such local names as Sker and Tusker . A dark age brooch was found near the castle in the last century and the Norsemen may well have sailed their flat-bottomed boats up river and had a settlement near the present site of the castle.
However, Kenfig history really starts with the coming of the Normans and the building of the castle during the C12th. It is more than likely that the building of the town and the castle was started by Robert of Gloucester, Earl of Glamorgan the illegitimate son of Henry I, about 1140 and it was built as the administrative centre of the lordship of Margan or Margam.
The town lay on the border between the Anglo-Norman lordship of Glamorgan and the Welsh lordship of Afan to the north & west. The earliest extant charter is dated 1397 but at least one earlier one is known to have existed. The town had the usual feudal officials, such as the constable of the castle, who was responsible for collecting rents and taxes and reported to the Sheriff of Glamorgan.
There was also a Portreeve, who was responsible for the organisation of the commerce of the town. There is some documentary evidence to suggest that there was a port on the river Kenfig, improbable as this may seem today, looking at the acres of sand dune lying between the castle and the sea.
The town prospered and a guildhall, a hospital and a church, dedicated to St James were built. However, raids on the town by the Welsh were frequent. The town was burned several times but each time it was repaired and rebuilt. The town would eventually return to normal, and would prosper once again.
However, what the Welsh failed to do, the elements finally managed. Starting probably at the beginning of the C14th, sand started to cover the town and its fields, and there also appeared to have been some flooding. This together with the Black Death, which appeared towards the middle of the century, marked the beginning of the end for the town. Although there were still 144 burgages in 1349 and probably a population of over 700, this had fallen to 106 burgages by 1397.
The sand probably came and then partially receded, on a number of occasions but its advance was, in the end, unstoppable, but there were people still living in the town in 1450. By 1485, a new church had been built at Pyle and the Kenfig burgesses were now required to worship there. It seems likely that the Pyle church was built at least in part from the stones of the old church of St James in Kenfig. Looking at the walls of Pyle church, you can observe that the size of stone increases as you move up the walls. This is the opposite of what normally occurs and is believed to be attributable to the builders dismantling the Kenfig church course by course and using the stones straight away to build the one at Pyle.
Throughout the C16th there are constant references to problems being caused by sand and on his visit in 1538, John Leland writes, "There is a little village on the east side of Kenfig and a castle, both in ruin, and almost choked and devoured by the sands that the Severn Sea there casts up". By the middle of the C17th it was completely abandoned.
The inhabitants moved to live in Maudlam and what we now called Ton Kenfig, which is the area to south of the Prince of Wales. This inn, which was built in the early C17th, initially as a new Town Hall to replace the one buried by the sands. There is evidence to suggest that the settlement in this area took place on what had been open fields belonging to the town. Even today, it is possible to trace narrow individual strips of land which the regulation furlong long. These represent land which must have been enclosed about this time.
Many of the institutions of the old town continued to exist long after the town itself was abandoned. Such offices as Constable, Portreeve, Hayward and Ale Taster continued well into the C19th and burgesses continued, in theory at least, to enjoy some of their ancient rights. These did not finally disappear until the local government reforms of 1974, when most of the functions were transferred to the new community authority of Pyle and Kenfig and The Kenfig Corporation Trust was set-up to oversee what remained of former lands belonging to the town - mainly the area now covered by the nature reserve and the golf course.