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Established as a borough C1115, Kidwelly is one of the oldest boroughs in Wales and stands in the shadow of a great Norman Castle. The first townspeople were English, French and Flemish immigrants, traders and agriculturalists that were integrated to consolidate the Norman hold on the district. The Castle and the Town were attacked and devastated several times by the zealous Welsh.
By the end of the 13th Century the inner town was defended by great walls and gateways. During the 14th Century the Town prospered and Kidwelly was one of the busiest trading and commercial centres in South Wales.
Kidwelly Town PhotoFortunes declined in the 18th Century due to the silting of the Gwendraeth Estuary but revived in the 19th Century with the export of coal from the Gwendraeth Fawr.
Between 1766 & 1768 a three-mile long canal and docks were built by Thomas Kymer linking his coal pits with the coast.
In 1737 a Tinplate Works was established - the second earliest works in the Kingdom. Prosperity continued in the Victorian era and this is reflected in the townscape especially in the Gothic proportions of the Town Hall.
Maes Gwenllian, Gwenllian's Field, lies a mile north of Kidwelly. It commemorates a woman who, with the martial instincts of a Boadicea, led a Welsh army against the Normans. The battle followed the death of King Henry I in December 1135, when the Welsh revolted against foreign rule and threatened a national uprising.
An army was raised in West Brycheiniog (Breconshire) and attacked the Anglo-Norman settlements in Gower. The battle fought between Loughor and Swansea resulted in a crushing victory for the Welsh where 500 Normans were killed.
The ruler of the Deheubarth (South), Gruffydd ap Rhys, saw the exciting prospect of expelling all foreigners from his Kingdom. He rode north to Gwynedd to seek reinforcements. While he was away, Maurice de Londres, Lord of Kidwelly decided to counter-attack.
Gwenllian, the beautiful wife of Gruffydd ap Rhys gathered her forces and led the Welsh army to attack the town and castle of Kidwelly. At Maes Gwenllian, the spot that now bears her name, she was engaged by the forces of Maurice de Londres, the local lord, and utterly defeated.
Gwenllian and her son Morgan were killed and another son, Maelgwn, taken prisoner. The story tells that Gwenllian was decapitated and that her headless phantom never found rest until someone searched the ancient battlefield and returned her skull to her grave.
Gwenllian's name is inextricably linked with Kidwelly. Even today, her name still provokes admiration and respect locally. Hail Gwenllian - Kidwelly's unequivocal heroine after 900 years!
Kidwelly's Coat of Arms and Official Seal shows a Black Cat. Herein lies the dilemma. The name of the township changed considerably over the centuries. In the ninth century when few people could read and spelling was of little importance, it was called Cetgueli. It was not until the advent of books, newspapers and dictionaries that correct spelling became significant. In the 17th. Century even William Shakespeare, who had more practice than most, spelt his own surname in at least eight different ways!
In ancient documents, Kidwelly was spelt Cadwely, Catwelli, Kadewely, Keddewelly, Kadwelye, Kedwelle. The "Cat" in "Catwelli" may, however, have just been a misunderstanding about the origin of the word - some even believe that Kidwelly was named after a gentleman named Cattas, whose habits included sleeping in an oak tree in the vicinity!
Others will affirm that the Town's mascot was originally an otter. Otters were frequently seen on the river banks surrounding Kidwelly and indeed, one is depicted in a carved memorial in St. Mary's churchyard. Those who believe the Cat to be the true emblem of Kidwelly, will tell you that the black cat was the first creature seen alive after the great plague hit the town. It was therefore honoured as a symbol of salvation and deliverance and subsequently used as Kidwelly's heraldic symbol.
Many people have heard of Kidwelly because of its fine, resplendent castle. Others may recognise the name from Captain Cat's boat, the "S.S. Kidwelly" in Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood". Yet, children in Welsh schools are more familiar with the popular Welsh Nursery Rhyme.
"Hen Fenyw Fach Cydweli" - The Dear Old Lady of Kidwelly.
Hen fenyw fach Cydweli, Yn gwerthu losin du, Yn rhifo deg am ddimai, Ond unarddeg i mi. O dyna'r newydd gorau ddaeth i mi, i mi Yn rhifo deg am ddimai Ond unarddeg i mi.
Which translates to:
The dear old lady of Kidwelly. A seller of sweets is she, Counts out ten for a halfpenny. But always eleven for me. That was very good news for me, for me Counts out ten for a halfpenny. But always eleven for me.
"Yr Hen Fenyw Fach" may have been the bountiful Lady Hawise de Londres, who lived as a child in Kidwelly Castle in the 13th. Century. Legend has it that she once disguised herself as a seller of sweetmeats and cakes in order to gain access to the castle when she later returned to claim her rights as Castellan of Kidwelly Castle. It is a delightful tale and who knows - the wizened old lady portrayed in the nursery rhyme may well have been the beautiful Lady Hawise!