Llancaigfawr (Seventeenth-Century Welsh country house)

Discovering Seventeenth-Century Life at Llancaiach Fawr
Friday, May 17, 2013

Dad and I left Somerset and drove along the M5/M4 toward South Wales, where he was born.  We stayed with my Great-Aunt Dorothy and my Uncle Martin for a few days.  On our way down, though, we stopped at Llancaiach Fawr.  Just off the M4, Llancaiach Fawr (pronounced Hlan-ky-ack vowr) is a seventeenth-century manner house that belonged to Lord Edward Prichard in the 1640s.  It is now a tourist attraction that gives visitors the opportunity to experience life during the English Civil War.  I’d visited the site several years ago with my Aunt Dorothy and cousin Mark, and loved it so much I convinced Dad he had to see it.

In the visitors centre, we were given documents of introduction.  These were supposed to have been provided by the brother of Mary Prichard, the lady of the house, to assure her husband and his servants that the documents’ bearers were persons of good repute and trustworthy.  In a country torn by a civil war, where brother fought against brother, such papers were the only way of gaining entrance to a family home.

Below Stairs
We presented our papers to Rachael, the under dairy maid, at the front door of the manner and she explained to us that her master and mistress were not at home, but that we would be welcome to explore the house on our own, or to be escorted through it by one of the servants.  We opted to be guided through, and Rachael took us down to the servants’ hall, so that we could “rid our minds” of the lower aspects of the house as soon as may be.  In the servants’ hall, she showed us the wooden trenchers the staff would have eaten from—heavy, squarish wooden plates with a large round indentation in the centre for porridge or stew, and a very small round indentation in the top corner for salt; musical instruments like a psaltery (something like a dulcimer), a fiddle, and a drum whose Welsh name translates to “the pig’s nose.”

We then proceeded to the kitchen, where we got to have a look at the huge fireplace with its rotating spit.  It would have been the spit boy’s job to turn the spit for up to 12 hours a day.  He would have worked in the house since he was about five—even though his mother might have worked in a different house—and would be paid 2 pence per day, plus food, and a place (under the table near the fire) to sleep.  On the table were a variety of herbs and spices that the family would have enjoyed, including cinnamon and nutmeg; some oyster shells for scooping, and a wooden mould for making gingerbread men and women.

The Children’s Room
Rachael then escorted us upstairs and passed us off to the under cook, who showed us the room the Prichard girls shared.  Edward and Mary Prichard had two girls: Mary, who was about 3 when the war started, and Jane, who was 7.  The girls had a number of toys, including a bilboquet (a ball-and-cup toy), a hobby horse made out of maple, a rocking horse, and a hoop and stick game that was usually used by boys to practice swordplay.  The hoop would be tossed up, and the child would try to thrust a stick through it.  There was also a Diablo, an hour-glass-shaped piece of wood that must be balanced and spun on a string held loosely between two sticks.  I’ve had the chance to try one of these, and I was absolutely useless at it, but my then seven-year-old cousin, Sam, had no difficulties throwing the diablo around like a pro.

For educational purposes, the Prichard girls had hornbooks, which were similar to today’s board books: a piece of parchment with writing on it would be placed on a wooden plaque.  Then, a piece of cow horn would be heated and stretched until it was clear and tacked over the parchment to protect it from grubby fingers.  Edward Prichard’s children spoke Welsh and English from an early age, and were also being taught French and Italian.  The music master taught them singing, dancing, and to play the bowed psaltery, which is similar to a modern violin.  Sewing clothes for their wooden dollies let the girls practice their stitching.

The Indoor Toilet
In the short corridor joining the girls’ room to their mother’s is a small bench with a lid.  When the lid is lifted, it exposes a 35-foot pit.  This is one of the earliest indoor toilets in Wales.

The Lady’s Chamber
Lady Prichard’s room is large and sunny, with a huge tester bed.  This looks a little like a four-poster bed, but there are actually only 2 posts at the foot of the bed, the headboard being a solid piece of wood.  The hangings and covers on the bed are all hand stitched and embroidered in beige, burgundy and dark green.  These would have taken 2 skilled seamstresses nearly 3 months to complete, and the entire bed would have cost 5 pounds.  This doesn’t sound like much today, but when you consider the under cook’s salary was 2 pounds 6 pence per year, you realize just how important a piece of furniture it was!  Lady Mary Prichard would have used her bedroom as a private parlour, and the bed was a way of showing her status to the visiting women.  Ladies would spin and sew and be entertained by the music master, whose job it was to provide music for the house as well as to educate the children.

We were allowed to look through Lady Mary’s cosmetics.  In the seventeenth century it was fashionable to be very pale.  Lady marry would have worn a half-face mask  of soft leather as well as a large hat and veil if she went out in the sun.  She would also have powdered her face with white lead, which could be applied by a cloth puff or by a hare’s foot.  She would have carried cloths soaked in scented oils to make herself smell nice, as well as to mask any unpleasant odours that might be floating on the air.  It was still believed that bad smells carried illness, and if you were able to mask the scent, you could stave off sickness.

Lady Prichard was very fashionable, and had gowns sent over from France—even during the civil war.  She would have worn her hair in the French style—in a large bun on the top or just to the back of her head, with ringlets coming down in front of her ears.  If her hair was not dressed, she would cover it with a coif—usually a white cloth.  All women of all classes wore coifs, but Lady Prichard’s would have been of the finest linen and trimmed in lace.

The Lord’s Study
Just down the hall from Lady Prichard’s room is her husband’s study.  Two stone walls in the centre of the room frame a narrow staircase that leads down to the steward’s rooms; when the lord was away, it was the steward’s job to take care of estate business, so he had to have access.  This room is the only room in the house that has a window capable of being opened.  This is because Lord Prichard kept pigeons, whose nests could be reached through a panel in the wall.  These pigeons were used to send messages to the surrounding nobility, and would fly as far as Cardiff.

The best part of this room was the weaponry.  If the house was ever attacked, all the men in the house would arm themselves with the equipment stored here.  We were shown a matchlock musket—which looks basically like a flintlock musket (the kind most people think of when they hear the word “musket”) except for the striking mechanism.  Flintlocks, which came into prominence a little later in the century, use a piece of flint that snaps forward when the trigger is pulled, creating a spark when the flint strikes a steel plate; matchlocks, by contrast, have a long piece of rope that is kept lit, and which snaps back when the trigger is pulled, so that the flame touches the hole in the barrel and ignites the powder inside.

I pressured Dad into trying on seventeenth-century armour—a backplate, breastplate, and helmet with gorget (a neck guard), and he was given the musket to hold.  The musket was taller than I am—though admittedly, I’m pretty short  😉   I was then pressured into a seventeenth-century cavalry costume—a hugely heavy leather jacket that could stop a sword and even a musket ball (at long range), a “lobster tail helmet” (which has a neck guard like a lobster’s tail at the back), and then given a flintlock pistol and a sword to hold.  The cavalry men would guide their horses with their knees, fire their pistols as they charged, then rely on their swords.

The Great Hall
Finally, we joined a group of about 50 women from Pembroke in the great hall.  There, we were greeted by Evan James, the music master of Llancaiach Fawr.  He was very funny, and when the women from Pembroke heckled him, he had no problem heckling back.  He began by saying that he was glad my Dad was in the room, because it meant he wasn’t the only man.  Then he went on to say that many of the court cases that Edward Prichard heard in the great hall, as a justice of the peace, had to do with wives who heckled or nagged their husbands.  Punishment for this “crime” consisted of a metal scold’s bridle, which was fitted over the woman’s head, and a plate that was inserted into her mouth to press on her tongue and make it impossible for her to nag.  The husband would then be required to lead his wife around the town by the chain attached to the bridle.  If the same woman appeared before the court 3 times for nagging, a metal spike was added to the plate and pierced through her tongue.

One of the women present mentioned modern-day tongue rings, and Mr. James expressed both horror and fascination at the type of woman who “would so wilfully pierce herself so.”   😉   He then went on to say that he was concerned about one of the women in the room, because of the way she was sitting: in the seventeenth century, crossing one’s legs was enough to suggest that one was a strumpet.

After that, Dad and I made our way downstairs and out through the main door.  Llancaiach Fawr was a fortified country house and, as such, had only one way in and one way out.  The stairs were also made unevenly, so that those familiar with the steps could race up, but newcomers had to take the stairs slowly to avoid tripping.  We were bidden “God’s speed,” by Rachael, and left the seventeenth century to drive on to the little village in the Vale of Glamorgan where my Dad was raised.