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Kenfig origins


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From time to time the Kenfig Society has been contacted by people whose surname is "Kenfig" or some similar derivative. Invariably either they or their ancestors originate in Ireland, and the question inevitably arises, "Is there a connection?" The short answer is "Almost certainly ‘Yes’", and I can do no better than quote from "The Land of Morgan" by the Victorian local historian G.T.Clark (pub. 1883):


"The invasion of Ireland by Earl Richard of Striguil, in 1169, was strongly supported in Glamorgan; and among the knights who won and settled upon estates in that country are very many whose names show them to have emigrated from the lordship, such as Barry, Cogan, Kenefek, Penrice, Scurlock, and about a hundred others".


Clark was a very solid type of historian, not given to flights of fancy or wild speculation, and was widely respected in his day. I think therefore we can accept his statement at face value, and certainly later historians have tended to support his view. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that amongst the "hundred others" several writers include the Connelly family, suggesting that the name derives from ‘Cornelly’ a village less than two miles from Kenfig. There is (and has been since the 13th century) a village of North Cornelly and another called South Cornelly, but the latter is in fact the original. The family who were the lords of the manor there in the late 12th century used no surname, but themselves adopted "De Cornelly" sometime after 1183.


The Scurlocks mentioned by Clark were originally called Scurlage, and were lords of the manor of Llangewydd which lay to the north of Laleston, a village between Bridgend and Kenfig.


So the evidence for Anglo-Normans emigrating to Ireland not just from Glamorgan as a whole, but from the district about Kenfig as well, seems to be pretty solid though I suspect that not all were part of the original force under Richard Strongbow. Some almost certainly were, but others probably followed later once news filtered back of the success of the original invasion and the ample lands to be won.


In a recent fax (July 2001) to the Society’s web site a Tony Kenefeck told us that families with the surname Kenfig and its derivatives tend to be found in that part of East Cork south of Cloyne. The earliest he has so far come across is a John de Kenefeg mentioned in the Pipe Rolls of Cloyne in 1288. As this was the area of the Strongbow invasion, and "within the Pale", it seems very likely that John de Kenefeg was actually the descendant of one of the Earl’s original followers.


The earliest forms of the name of Kenfig town also tend to show the connection with John and his ancestors as it appears as ‘Chenefeg’, ‘Kenefeg’, and ‘Kenefec’ in documents belonging to the period 1147-1169. Too much attention should not be paid to the subsequent variety of spellings of the family surname. It was many centuries before most people learnt to write, and when eventually they did the persons teaching them wrote down names as they sounded to them. Kenefeg was an unusual surname, so on hearing it different teachers wrote it phonetically, but in different ways. Locally, for example, there was a family named Yorwerth living in the Kenfig area in the 18th century, but clerks and scribes spelt the name according to their personal preferences. These included ‘Yorath’, ‘Yorwarth’, and about half a dozen different variations often referring to the same person! What variation the various branches of the family ended up with depended solely upon which spelling an individual member was taught when they first learnt to write it for themselves.


Finally, on the question of the name "De Kenefeg", let me just say that there is no instance of it ever occurring as a surname locally. Kenfig was a town, and so all its inhabitants were "of Kenfig". The "De Cogan" and "De Barry" families adopted their surnames because they were lords of manors with those names. For the inhabitant of a town like Kenfig, it would have had no meaning.


The evidence for John de Kenefeg’s ancestors originating within the town therefore seems fairly conclusive. Conditions in our area (as indeed in Glamorgan generally) at the time of Strongbow’s invasion and for many years afterwards also suggest why they may have left. There is actually very little direct evidence as to the history of the district at this time but the following brief account, based upon what we do know, seems to be the most accurate interpretation as to what was going on.


The Normans invaded Glamorgan about the year 1093, but failed to secure the entire territory. Much of the mountain land and the district west of the Ogmore River remained under the control of Welsh chieftains whose acknowledgement of the Norman lords of Glamorgan was purely nominal. About 1145/6 Robert Earl of Gloucester annexed the district between the Ogmore and Avan rivers, and as part of the settlement of the territory established a castle and borough town at Kenfig. He then followed this by founding an abbey at Margam (near Port Talbot) a few weeks before his death in October 1147.


As the town was small and the area restless, it was initially established in the outworks of the castle, but by 1154 had grown sufficiently for Robert’s son, Earl William, to order it to be moved outside the castle walls. Here the burgesses built and manned their own fortifications which proved to be sorely needed.


The first recorded attack upon the town by the local Welsh came in 1167 and much of it was destroyed by fire. Significantly this was only two years before Strongbow’s invasion of Ireland, and was only the start of a long struggle between the Anglo-Normans and the local Welsh. In fact the latter had effected a partial return to the district about Kenfig and elsewhere in the Vale of Glamorgan by 1200, and when ousted from their "ill gotten gains" about 1220, resumed the war with increased ferocity. Although most of the local Welsh chieftains had either been ejected or brought to heel by the middle of that century, sporadic popular revolts continued to occur over the next seventy years or so.


Kenfig seems to have been a particular target during the period from 1147-1321, and we have found firm evidence of at least nine attacks upon it with circumstantial evidence for another two. There may well have been more.


Locally there is plenty of evidence of Anglo-Normans packing up and "going home" (or perhaps to Ireland!) in the period 1167-1220. The Sturmies had abandoned their manor near Kenfig Hill by the year 1179. A Hugh de Hereford gave his land near Pyle to Margam Abbey and quit in the 1180s as did the Lageles family of Laleston near Bridgend. Finally in 1202 the Scurlages gave their manor on the north of Laleston to the monks and retired to their holding in The Gower. These are only the ones we know of. There were probably many more.


It is rather surprising that amidst all this unrest the town of Kenfig somehow survived. Its inhabitants were merchants and craftsmen who relied on trade for their livelihood and the frequent disruptions caused by the various revolts and disturbances were scarcely conducive to such activities. Small wonder then if some, seeing the turn things were taking, decided to chance their lot with Strongbow in Ireland.


Survive the town did, however, and just before the arrival of the Black Death in 1349 contained 144 burgages with an estimated population in excess of 700. It was then the third largest town in the Lordship of Glamorgan after Cardiff and Cowbridge (Swansea and The Gower being a separate territory). Nevertheless, even before the plague and its subsequent visitations had done their worst, the town was already falling prey to the forces of nature.


Overgrazing had destabilised an area of coastal dunes to the west of the town. Aided by the prevailing westerly winds and abnormally high tides caused by a conjunction of the sun and moon at the climax of a 1,700-year cycle, the sands began moving inland. By about 1439 the town had become uninhabitable due to floods and sand incursion and was abandoned.


That, very briefly, is the story of the town from which the De Kenfig family originated. There are theories that it is in fact older than 1145 for several Roman artefacts have been found on its former location. Others suggest that its name is Viking in origin, and point to other Scandinavian placenames in the vicinity to suggest it was perhaps one of their settlements. The modern fashion however is to suggest that the name is Welsh in origin from "Cynffig" – a personal name, though personally I have always found this explanation rather unsatisfactory.


I am no expert on early placenames (I just know sufficient to appreciate just how tricky a subject it is!) nevertheless I think that the variations of the spellings of Kenfig as a family name in Ireland do confirm an important point. One of the basic rules of interpreting placenames is that one uses the earliest known form as a starting-point. In the case of the town and the river these were all variations of ‘Kenefeg’. The second ‘e’ in the name evidently represented a sound like "er", and it is still retained in the various forms of the family name – Kenefeck, Kennefick, Kenefick, Kenefec, & Kenefake. This takes us away from the personal name "Cynffig" and closer to an older (and now discredited) suggestion that the name was an English attempt to pronounce the Welsh "Cefn y Ffigwn" – "The Ridge by the Marsh". This aptly describes the topography of the area in the immediate vicinity of the town as it was in the 12th century. What are dunes now were marshes then, and behind the medieval town to the south was a low ridge upon which the village of Maudlam stands.


If you have any further queries, or indeed can add anything to the origins of the De Kenefeg family yourself, we would be delighted to hear from you. Should you chance to visit the area then the best way of visiting the site of the former town would be to park near the church at Maudlam and make your way in a north-easterly direction to the western boundary fence of the M4 motorway. Keeping this on your right, head north until reaching a ruined fence and ballast marking the former marshalling yards of Port Talbot steelworks. Turn left, and the remains of Kenfig Castle will be visible about a hundred yards ahead of you. There is nothing to be seen of the old town, but its site is believed to lie somewhere to the south of the castle ruins in the direction of Maudlam.



Barrie Griffiths