In the eyes of many, Cosmeston Medieval Village is the best and most realistic historical reconstruction you will find, not just in Wales but in the whole of Britain.
It is situated between Penarth and Lavernock in the Vale of Glamorgan, on the fringes of Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. Several stone houses or crofts have been lovingly recreated, giving visitors a fascinating and accurate impression of what life was like in Wales in the middle part of the 14th century.
The remains of the village were discovered in the 1980s, during an archaeological dig in the area around Cosmeston Lakes. There were few records about the place and nobody even knew it was there. Since then, however, Cosmeston village has been lovingly restored and is now a superbly evocative visitor centre.
Cosmeston Medieval Village
The real or original Cosmeston village grew up around a fortified manor house built by the De Costentin family in the early twelfth century. The De Costentin's were Norman knights who had come to Britain with William the Conqueror and then moved on to undertake the conquest of Wales with Robert Fitzhamon.
The original manor house, like the village itself, has long disappeared - being in ruins by 1437 - although its location is now known. The village was called Costentinstune, after the family of the first Lord of the Manor and the part of France where they originated, but over the years the name was altered and changed by local pronunciation. Eventually the village came to be known as Cosmeston.
Inside a building at Cosmeston
In approximately 1316 the manor house and its lands passed into the possession of the De Cavershams, people more interested in creating a working and economically viable community than the original owners, the more war-like De Costentin family. It certainly seems that the new Lords created a way of life that that was well organised, with houses that were regular in shape and form and, more importantly for the workers, well built.
The houses, as reproduced - supposedly recreating the village in 1350 - were built of stone with thick thatched roofs. About 100 to 120 people lived in Cosmeston, farmers and fishermen, but there would also have been an itinerant population, workers who came for specific tasks at set times of the year, and this might well have pushed up the population of the village to over 200. Clearly, then, this was a significant settlement.
The recreated Cosmeston includes houses of people who would have lived in the village in 1350. So, for example, there is the Reeve's house. The Reeve effectively governed the village on behalf of the Lord of the Manor and was probably the only man in the whole of Cosmeston - apart from the Lord himself - who could read and write.
Figure of the Reeve at Cosmeston
Other houses include those of the baker and the swineherd and, of course, there is the Tithe Barn. Interestingly, no church has yet been discovered. There would certainly have been one, the area being in the diocese of the Bishop of Llandaff.
Quite why the village disappeared is hard to explain. The ravages of war may have played a part. Although there are no records of Cosmeston being attacked, the 14th century was a time of continual strife between the native Welsh and their Norman overlords. Men from the village were probably obliged to fight, to defend their Lord, and many could have been killed.
Reproduction weapons at Cosmeston Medieval Village
Then, of course, there was the Black Death. The plague first came to Wales in 1349, wiping out whole villages and severely damaging the economy of the whole country.
If the plague did not actually kill any of the residents of Cosmeston - and there is no evidence, either way - it would have created a severe shortage of manpower in bigger communities such as Cardiff. The lure of higher wages would have induced many to move into the towns.
Working the land around Cosmeston was never easy. The land is low lying and, although drainage ditches or dykes were regularly dug and extended, the arable land around the village probably flooded many times. Easier work was available in places like Cardiff. Small wonder Cosmeston became a classic deserted village.
Pigs at Cosmeston
These days, Cosmeston is a major tourist attraction. Costumed guides regularly take conducted tours for the public and for school parties. Fires are lit in the houses, artefacts lie along the walls, there are examples of the clothing people of 1350 would have made and worn and the whole atmosphere is wonderfully maintained. It is an experience that anyone who is interested in the medieval period will not fail to enjoy.