Sunday, February 1, 2009

Benedictine Magic! The Priory of Our Lady and Saint Florentius, Monmouth

New Sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Priory Church, Monmouth
Sculted by Philip Chatfield.


Foundation of Monmouth and the link with the Abbaye Saint Florent in the Vendee

Standing on top of Mount Glonne, the Abbey of Saint-Florent is the northernmost point in the region of Mauges in the Vendee in France. Since Roman times, the city at the crossroads between Poitou, Anjou and Brittany has been an important bastion of Catholicism.
In the 4th century, St Florent, tired of killing ,left the Roman army and devoted his life to prayer. In order to keep watch on the relics of this saint, the Catholic church built the Abbey in the 7th century. After, the arrival of the Normans in 853, on Batailleuse Island, at the base of the mountain, the monks were forced to leave the abbey. They took refuge near Saumur, in the locality known as St-Florent-le-Jeune where they founded their congregation near Saumur.

Having become ‘the ‘old abbey’’, Saint-Florent remained a stronghold of the Catholic church right up to the end of the old regime. The Christians of the Vendee were faithful to Christ right through the Revolution and it was during this time that the Abbey really became a centre of attention. On March 12 1793, the young men of the region who refused conscription into the atheistic revolutionary army lit the torch of faith the Vendée wars began.

Massacre of the Vendee Catholics of Saumur during the French Revolution

On October 18th of the same year, the counter-revolutionary army, 80,000 strong, accompanied by women and children, crossed the Loire at Saint-Florent by boat. The Viree de Galerne (March to Galerne) continued on to Granville in Normandy. Weakened by hunger and terrible living conditions, the sad but sometimes victorious brigade reached le Mans. They were then virtually slaughtered by the Revolutionary Army" in the marsh at Savenay, on the banks of the Loire. This abbey gave such a spiritual lead to the people, that they would not renounce their faith.

Saint Florent

And who was Saint Florent you may ask? The monks of Saint-Florent Abbey had little to tell pilgrims who flocked to see the abbey. They wrote a biography, whose text is lost. Shortly after 973AD, Englebert (Ingilbertus), a well-read man in the abbey, wrote a fuller text which was stolen as well by another monk little after the year 1000AD! Using modern research methods, St Florent seemed to be a brother of Saint Florian de Lorche and an amazing account of his voyage from Austria to Anjou was reported .

St Florent is ordained by St Martin of Tours

Ordained a priest by Saint Martin of Tours, Florent visited him each year by working miracles on the spot where the community settled later. With Saumur, he drove out a dragon which devoured animals and people; in Candes, it revived a child who had
‘drowned for three days’. He lived to the ripe age.

St Florentius of Vienne and the Monmouth Priory

St Florentius has a feast day on the 3rd January and the Catholic Church has a record of him as a Bishop and Martyr who attended the Council of Valence in 374, hence a very early bishop.

It was this Abbey then, that Gwethenoc of Monmouth turned to found his priory at Mynyw (Monmouth) and the priory itself was not completed and dedicated until 1101 or 1102 during the time of Henry I , the son of William the Conqueror.

William, Abbot of St Florent of Saumur, Abbot Serlo of Gloucester, Hamelin de Balun of Abergavenny, and many nobles attend the dedication of the Priory.

It was a fabulous occasion! The founder, Gwethenoc, who although British had supported the Conqueror had bee rewarded with the town and lands and attended the event. William of the above Monastery of Saint Laurent of Saumur, Abbot Serlo of St Peter’s Gloucester, and several Norman lords of the area were all there, including the founder of Abergavenny Priory, Hamelin de Balon. The monks chanted their praises and psalms and William, Fitz Baderon, his nephew granted additional land to the priory. Dr Fenn notes, that FitzBaderon stressed the value of his gift by laying a knife upon the altar, but when Bernard the King’s Chaplain tried to break it he could not and had to do it by stamping on it! The placing of the knife meant the symbolic cutting away of the property from the previous owner.

There were three other cells of Saumur priory in England, Sele Priory,(Eight monks and a prior)Sussex (two monks from Monmouth went to be priors there at different times) and the tiny priories at Andover (Two monks)(Hampshire) and Sporle (two monks)(Norfolk)

Prior Geoffrey de Little

The Priory went about its work. The first Prior was Geoffrey de Little in 1120. Page 17 of the excellent Jubilee Guide book lists all the priors and varied information about the monks, some of whom returned to France.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

The most famous Prior was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who made the stories of Arthur popular in the ‘History of the Kings and Queens of England’. Arthur and Guinevere were a 6th century warlord a ‘dux bellorum’ and his queen, but not the Romantic Mediaeval knight and his lady we have romanticised them into today. .

Reasons for the Gradual Decline of the Priory

1Fines and Taxes, Suppressions and the Black Death

During subsequent years the abbey carried on its work (and was affected by all the political upheavals of the Wars between Stephen and the Empress Maud.

Constant wars with France in the Middle Ages, plus devout men collected in 1188 by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Gerald the Welshman for the Crusades also had their effect on the manpower,

2.The French Wars

The Priory owned many lands and many churches, who paid tithes to it. It was, however , an ‘alien’ (foreign staffed) priory and paid tithes to Saumur, so there were many problems during the wars with France, when the King alternately fined , suppressed , then lifted the suppression on the French priories for a while, but finally allowed them to pay the rents due to Saumur to the crown.

3.The Black Death

The plague took its terrible toll and decimated the system of providing finances for the priory Many monks also died in the care of the sick as at Abergavenny. Such men were also seen as martyrs, because they lost their lives in the service of Christ. Around 1250 the two hospitals of St John and Trinity became merged. Tithes were difficult for peasants to pay and the monks to collect.

4. Increase in taxes by the Crown, on top of Papal Taxation

By the time of Henry VIII’s seizure of the Church Property in 1534. There were few monks left. Plague and subsequent difficulties, such as being unable to recruit new monks from Saumur in time of war and plague had left it weakened. Henry sent round visitors under his agent Thomas Cromwell and they were told, in no uncertain terms to ‘find abuses’ so Prior Richard Evesham was deposed because he had supposedly ‘not attended properly to the service of the Abbey Church, which he had not maintained properly and was accused of ‘unseemly, incontinent and unpriestly’ living!’ Normal monastic life and work were difficult.The monasteries and abbies had to appear in a bad light to get the people on the king’s side, because, as we know-from Eamon Duffy’s book, there was considerable resistance to Henry’s ideas, and setting himself up as the head of the church.

The last Prior was in fact paid a pension and forced to hand over the priory to Richard Scudamore, an agent of Thomas Cromwell, who was anxious to have a priory or abbey for himself.. On Ash Wednesday,1535 (March 1) a crown Visitor appointed to oversee the closure of all the religious houses (because the Pope would not grant Henry VIII a divorce he made himself head of the Church in Britain)wrote from Brecon that he was going to close the priory, even though it was under the £300 limit. By June 21st it was closed. The remaining monks could not return and the Priory Church became the Parish Church .

The monastic east end of the Church was taken away and the lead sold. The old St Cadoc’s Church was used for a while in the 1800’s as a Catholic Church but is now gone by 1804. Many of the Priory buildings are still there, although they belong to the later part of the Mediaeval period. In St Mary’s lodge is a mediaeval fireplace.

Catholic Relief Act in the Nineteenth Century

A chasuble ,a fine Romanesque altar cross and a processional cross were all stolen by loyal Catholics at the seizure of the Priory and hidden at Holywell in North Wales until 1850 well after the Catholic Relief Act of 1832, when the treasured sacramentals were returned to St Mary’s Catholic Church ,in Monmouth originally a disused chapel dedicated to St Cadoc in the grounds of the former Benedictine Priory-later moving to a new building, which now houses the Sacred shrine of St John Kemble. He was an aged Martyr, killed during the worst excesses of the hateful Titus Oates hysteria, in which the Scudamore family were incidentally heavily involved-particularly in the hunt for and arrest of St David Lewis’at Llantarnam Abbey.

Refurbishment of the Priory Completed 2007

There has been extensive and beautiful refurbishment and improvement in recent years as can be seen by the pictures of the interior of the priory. The large theological library remains as does a magnificent tapestry with a team of Broderers of the priory led by Eira Steggles. The priory is dedicated to Christian purposes especially for children’s events and for social life of the Priory Church and wedding receptions.
The Mediaeval Priory has been heavily restored in 2007 and now is a splendid example of Mediaeval architechture in red stone.

The culture of the 21st century has moved far away from the vision of Saint Florent, the contemplative warrior, saint and martyr .Yet he and Our Lady still remain to guide the building dedicated to them. A new Mediaeval statue of Our Lady was carved by Sculptor Philip Chatwin and has been installed in the former Priory Church .

It is a man centred age not a God centred one. Politics, human beings and organisations change all the time according to the Will of God. The Priory and Church of St Mary as it came to be called, became the centre of the Anglican Diocese of Monmouth, and principle seat of the Anglican Bishop of Monmouth.

Here in Monmouth, however, Benedictine ideals of Prayer, Study and Spirituality remain during the long march of the Christian Pilgrim to his heavenly home.

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