William Erbery – Founder of the first non-conformist church in Cardiff

Wales is known for its history of non-conformity and abundance of chapels.

The first Nonconformists  in Cardiff were probably the heretics, who, after the Reformation, were hanged or burnt at the stake for their faith. New ideas were a threat to the authority of the Church and the stability of society.

In Cardiff, two men were burnt for their beliefs: Thomas Capper in 1542 and Rawlins White in 1555. Rawlins White was a local fisherman. He was executed in 1555 in the centre of Cardiff for his protestant beliefs.  He is said to have been given opportunity to escape and renounce his beliefs but refused to. When his time came to be executed he asked his wife to bring him his wedding outfit so he would look his best.  It is even said he helped neatly build up the wood around his feet. There is a plaque to him in the old Bethany Baptist Church which has now been subsumed into the House of Frasier department store.

These were individuals and founded no new church, but in the 1630s all that was to change with William Erbery.  It was his followers who set up the first non-conformist church in Cardiff, Trinity chapel in Womanby Street, opposite the castle, in 1697.  William had been dead 45 years by that stage but his followers and their descendants are thought to have continued to meet in secret after his death, until in 1697 they were given the freedom to build their own church.

Life of William Erbery

William Erbery was born in Roath in 1604 or more precisely Roath Dogfield. His father, Thomas Erbery, was a merchant who had probably come across from the West Country of England to establish an iron foundry in the Merthyr Valley before moving to Cardiff.  It is probable that Thomas married Elizabeth, daughter of Rees David, a Cardiff cordwainer.

William entered Brasenose College, Oxford in 1619, graduated in 1623 and proceeded to Queens’ College, Cambridge where he earned a second degree in 1626. He subscribed for deacon’s orders in the diocese of Bristol a December 23rd 1626 and became curate in St Woolos in Newport in 1630.

He remained at Newport until 1633 when he became vicar of St Mary’s in Cardiff. He had been presented with the living by Sir Thomas Lewis of Penmarc, a member of the influential Puritan Lewis family of Y Fan. The Lewis family were patrons of William Wroth and business associates of Erbery’s father.

He became vicar at St Mary’s in August, 1633.  St Mary’s church is no longer standing.  The church was badly damaged when the River Taff flooded in 1607 with bones and coffins from its graveyard being washed out to sea. Accounts state a mini tsunami swept up the Bristol Channel! Saint Mary’s was finally abandoned in 1701. The church gave its name to nearby St Mary’s Street. A new St Mary’s church was later built on Bute Street, south of the railway station. The current Prince of Wales pub now stands on this church’s original site. On the side of the pub on Gt. Western lane entrance is an unusual outline of the original Saint Mary’s church.

Immediately after becoming vicar of St Mary’s William Erbery expressed his Puritan convictions. The ‘Book of Sports’ was issued on October 18th, 1633 and all clergy were instructed to read the King’s commands in Sunday worship. One of the aims of the Act was to root out ‘Puritans and precise people’ who would object to the playing games and sports on the Sabbath. Erbery refused to read out the ‘Book of Sports’, and as a result he was summoned to appear before William Murray, Bishop of Llandaff and subsequently before the Court of High Commission at Lambeth. The Bishop of Llandaff had branded him a schismatic   After a long process he resigned his living in 1638.

The Archbishop wrote to Charles I saying that the vicar of St Mary’s in Cardiff was very disobedient to your Majesty’s instructions.

Erbery’s refusal to read the ‘Book of Sports’  led to a lengthy struggle between him and William Murray, Bishop of Llandaf. The controversy may have begun with Murray, but it soon reached the ear of Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and even the King. In his annual reports to Charles, Laud referred  to his struggles with the schismatic Erbery.  Ultimately Erbery was summoned to appear before Laud at the Court of High Commission at Lambeth. Laud’s reports to the King present important and intriguing reading.

REPORT FOR 1634

The Bishop of Landaff certifies. That this last Year he Visited in Person: and found that William Erbury, Vicar of St. Maries in Cardiff, and Walter Cradocke his Curate, have been very disobedient to your Majesty’s Instructions, and have Preached very Schismatically and Dangerously to the People. That for this he hath given the Vicar a Judicial Admonition, and will farther proceed, if he do not submit, And for his Curate, being a bold ignorant young Fellow, he hath Suspended him, and taken away his License to serve the Cure. Among other things he used this base and Unchristian passage in the Pulpit, that God so loved the world, that for it he sent his Son to live like a Slave, and dye like a Beast.

In 1638 William Erbery was deprived of his occupation for refusing to read “The Book of Sports” and along with similar minded members of the congregation of St Mary’s. He preached for some years in secret in various parts of England and Wales, and on his return to Cardiff in the latter part of 1639.

Around 1640, or at the end of the previous year, the radical cleric  Rev William Erbery set up his own church with his followers but in the Civil Wars was about to start.  

His Cardiff property was plundered by the Royalists though it is unclear whether this was his house in Roath or a vicarage in St Mary’s parish.

Like his fellow Puritans in south-east Wales, Erbery was forced to flee from the Royalist forces because ‘the sword scattered us all into England’. Erbery made his way to Windsor Castle where he sought help from Christopher Love who was serving as chaplain tan Venn, Governor of the castle. s parish.

Erbery played a role in petitioning the House of Commons about the need for a godly ministry in Wales:-

The first indication of the Welsh radicals pressing their case for reform came in December 1640, when William Erbery submitted a petition to the Commons… he, and the clique of Puritan ministers associated with him, saw his role to be that of a spokesman for the whole of Wales… It was noted on the surviving copy of this petition that it was granted on 12 January 1641, and liberty was given by the Commons to a closely-associated group of Welsh radicals – quite possibly those mentioned as attending on parliament – to preach throughout Wales. They were Erbery himself, Walter Cradock, Henry Walter, Ambrose Mostyn and Richard Symonds.”

He became chaplain, when the English Civil War broke out in 1642, to the regiment of Philip Skippon in the Parliamentary Army.

Erbery played a key role in the Oxford Disputations. He was a prime cause of the growth of sectarianism amongst students and soldiers (a heady mix!) in the city.  Oxford had fallen to the  parliamentary Army in the summer of 1646, and Erbery was there soon after the city’s liberation/capture. His lectures and preaching created such a ferment in the city that parliament sent six Presbyterian ministers to maintain the orthodox line. The visitors reported to parliament that ‘they found the University and City much corrupted’.  Five separate accounts have survived of the debates between the Presbyterians and Erbery.  They make fascinating reading and provide a contemporary picture of a critical struggle between those, like Erbery, who were ‘enquiring only, and seeking the Lord our God’, and those, like Francis Cheynell, who feared that ‘a licentious spreading of damnable doctrines would be disturbing the civill peace and power’.

When Oxford fell to the parliamentary forces, Erbery was in the limelight in instructing and supporting the rebellious students and soldiers. He defended his position vigorously against six Presbyterian visitors sent by parliament to force Erbery and his followers to submit to orthodoxy. He was obliged to leave the city at the instruction of General Fairfax.

Erbery wrote a letter to Oliver Cromwell in 1652. The letter’s survival is remarkable. Found in the political papers of John Milton, it was first published by John Nickolls in his collection of Cromwell’s letters and papers of state in 1743.

Mr. William Erberry, to the Lord General Cromwell.

SIR,

Greate thinges God has done by you in warr, and good things men expect from you in peace; to breake in pieces the oppressor, to ease the oppressed of their burdens, to release the prisoners of their bandes, and to relieve poore familys with bread, by raisinge a publique stocke out of the estates of the unrighteous rich ones, or parliamentary delinquents and from the ruines of most unjust courts, judicatures and judges, brought in by the conqueror, and embondaging the commonweale; as alsoe the tythes of the preists, the fees of the lawyers, whom the whole land has longe cry’d out and complain’d against, besides the many unnecessary clerks offices, with the attendants to law, who are more oppressive and numerous then the prelates and their clergicall cathedrall company, whom (from the highest to the lowest, and least Querister) God in judgment has rooted out; by whose fall, as some have bin raysed, and many enriched, so now the poare of the nation are waiting at your gates, beseeching your Excellency to move effectually our present Governors, to hasten | a publique treasury for them, from those, that there be noe begger in Israel, nor base covetousness among Christians; but that it may be punished as double idolatry by the magistrate, as the primitive ministers of Christ did excommunicate the covetous (amonge the worst of men) out of the churches.  If this virgin commonwealth could I bee preserved chast and pure, if the oppressed, the prisoner, and the poore might bee speedily heard and helped, how would the most high God bee praysed, and men pray for you, and your most unworthy servant professe himselfe in truth, Sir,

Yours for ever in the Lord,

and in all Christian service,

WILLIAM ERBERRY

London, the 19th of July, 1652.

After this he preached for some time at Christ Church, Newgate Street. London, until he was summoned before the Committee for Plundered Ministers at Westminster in 1652 to explain the strange tenets held and the hetercdox doctrines preached by him. He published many books, one of which has an odd title : “Jack Pudding, or the Minister made of Black Pudding.” “Presented to R. Farmer, parson of Nicholas Church, at Bristol. 1654.” He was also a voluminous writer of pamphlets and tracts on religious subjects, and after his death an anonymous pamphlet was issued entitled “A small Mite in Memory of the late deceased and never to be forgotten Will Erbery.”

Finally in 1653, he was accused and tried for heresy at Westminster before a congregation of 500. This man of Roath, Cardiff did not live a quiet life. The last twenty years of his life often saw him hit the headlines, but after his death, he has been quietly forgotten.

He died in 1654 and believed to be buried in London.

Trinity Church

The original Trinity church Trinity burnt down in 1847 but was replaced soon afterwards with a fine classical frontage, the name ‘Trinity’ incised into the stonework.

A number of daughter churches were created including Charles Street Congregational and Llandaff Road.  John Bachelor was a member of  Trinity church.  In 1888 Trinity Church was amalgamated with Llandaff Road Church and the Charity Commissioners approved the sale of Womanby Street Church, the proceeds of which were used to erect a new church in Cowbridge Road for the united congregation. The united congregation met in Llandaff Road Church until the new church, known as New Trinity Church, was opened on Cowbridge Road. The chapel on Womanby street was demolished and looks at one stage to have been a garage and when that was demolished more recently it was being used as a car park. It is now the beer garden for the Fuel Rock Club. I wonder what William would have thought of that.

Old view of Trinity Chapel, Womanby Street, Cardiff

References

This article quotes heavily from two sources:-

Cardiff Churches through Time – Jean Rose (see list of publications on our website)

and

The Honest Heretique – The Life and Work of William Erbery – John I Morgans – published by y Llolfa (2012) ISBN: 978 184771 485 5.

This is a very thorough and well researched book and recommended for anyone wanting to read more of the writings of William Erbery.

Back cover of this reference reads:-

Born in Roath, Cardiff, William Erbery (1604-1654) was a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge universities. He served as curate of St Woolos, Newport, and vicar of St Mary’s and St John’s in Cardiff. He was tried for his Puritanism at Lambeth Palace and resigned as a priest of the Church of England.

Erbery was the founder of the first Independent Church in Cardiff, and a chaplain in the parliamentary Army. He resigned as an Independent minister and was a forerunner of Quakerism. He was accused of heresy at St Mary’s, Oxford in 1646, and at Westminster in 1652. Although acquitted, he was stigmatised by his enemies as a ‘madman’. This stigma followed him into the second half of the twentieth century.

The Honest Heretique lets Erbery speak for himself. Containing 500 extracts from all of Erbery’s writings, the book presents the background to Erbery’s life and thoughts, introduces each of his tracts, and takes note of recent scholarship.

———

Mini-review by Professor M. Wynn Thomas, Swansea University of above reference on back of book:

William Erbery is one of Wales’ hidden writers. So unorthodox and daring a theological thinker was he, and so controversial was his social outlook, that many of his own and later times dismissed him as mentally unbalanced. His rebellious originality of mind has, however, proved altogether more intriguing to recent scholarship and a full-scale ‘rehabilitation’ of him, such as that attempted in Dr Morgans’ ground-breaking study, is as welcome as it is overdue.

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Womanby Street, Cardiff – site of former Trinity Church

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