CARMARTHEN (Caerfyrddin), a municipal borough, contributory parliamentary borough (united with Llanelly since 1832), and county town of Carmarthenshire, and a county of itself, finely situated on the right bank of the Towy, which is here tidal and navigable for small craft. Pop. (1901) 10,025. It is the terminal station of a branch of the London & North-Western railway coming southward from Shrewsbury, and is a station on the main line of the Great Western running to Fishguard; it is also the terminus of a branch-line of the Great Western running to Newcastle-Emlyn. The station buildings lie on the left bank of the river, which is here spanned by a fine old stone bridge. There are works for the manufacture of woollens and ropes, also tanneries, but it is as the central market of a large and fertile district that Carmarthen is most important. The weekly Saturday market is well attended, and affords interesting scenes of modern Welsh agricultural life. From the convenient and accessible position of the town, the gaol and lunatic asylum serving for the three south-western counties of Wales—Cardigan, Pembroke and Carmarthen—have been fixed here. Although historically one of the most important towns in South Wales, Carmarthen can boast of very few ancient buildings, and the general aspect of the town is modern. A well-preserved gateway of red sandstone and portions of two towers of the castle are included in the buildings of the present gaol, and the old parish church of St Peter contains some interesting monuments, amongst them being the altar tomb (of the 16th century) of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, K.G., and his wife, which was removed hither for safety at the Reformation from the desecrated church of the neighbouring Priory of St John. Some vestiges of this celebrated monastic house, which formerly owned the famous Welsh MS. known as the “Black Book of Carmarthen,” are visible between the present Priory Street and the river. Of the more recent erections in the town, mention may be made of the granite obelisk in memory of General Sir Thomas Picton (1758–1815) and the bronze statue of General Sir William Nott (1784–1846).
Carmarthen is commonly reputed to occupy the site of the Roman station of Maridunum, and its present name is popularly associated with the wizard-statesman Merlin, or Merddyn, whose memory and prophecies are well remembered in these parts of Wales and whose home is popularly believed to have been the conspicuous hill above Abergwili, known as Merlin’s Hill. Another derivation of the name is to be found in Caer-môr-din, signifying “a fortified place near the sea.” In any case, the antiquity of the town is undisputed, and it served as the seat of government for Ystrad Tywi until the year 877, when Prince Cadell of South Wales abandoned Carmarthen for Dinefawr, near Llandilo, probably on account of the maritime raids of the Danes and Saxons. Towards the close of the 11th century a castle was built here by the Normans, and for the next two hundred years town and castle were frequently taken and retaken by Welsh or English. On the annexation of Wales, Edward I. established here his courts of chancery and exchequer and the great sessions for South Wales. Edward III., by the Statute Staple of 1353, declared Carmarthen the sole staple for Wales, ordering that every bale of Welsh wool should be sealed or “cocketed” here before it left the Principality. The earliest charter recorded was granted in 1201 under King John; a charter of James I. in 1604 constituted Carmarthen a county of itself; and under a charter by George III. in 1764, which had been specially petitioned for by the citizens, the two separate jurisdictions of Old and New Carmarthen were fused and henceforth “called by the name of Our Borough of Carmarthen.” In 1555 Bishop Farrar of St David’s was publicly burned for heresy under Queen Mary at the Market Cross, which was ruthlessly destroyed in 1846 to provide a site for General Nott’s statue. In 1646 General Laugharne took and demolished the castle in the name of the parliament, and in 1649 Oliver Cromwell resided at Carmarthen on his way to Ireland. In 1684 the duke of Beaufort with a numerous train made his state entry into Carmarthen as lord-president of Wales and the Marches. With the rise of Llanelly the industrial importance of Carmarthen has tended to decline; but owing to its central position, its close connexion with the bishops of St David’s and its historic past the town is still the chief focus of all social, political and ecclesiastical movements in the three counties of Cardigan, Pembroke and Carmarthen. Carmarthen was created a parliamentary borough in 1536.