Friday, May 22, 2009

The Priory of Our Lady at Abergavenny and Templar Echoes

The First picture is of a man carrying a rosary-missed by despoilers. The second is of LE MANS CATHEDRAL (formerly Abbey Church)in the Loire, Mother Abbey of Abergavenny Priory.


Benedictine Priory of Our Lady and Bergavenny, Abergavenny

The Church of St Mary, Abergavenny, is not an ordinary Church, having been originally the Church or Chapel of the Priory and the monks settled there. This Priory was a Monastery of Benedictine or Black Monks, founded in the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135) by Hameline de Balun, or Baludun, the first Norman Lord of Abergavenny, and was therefore intimately connected with the Lordship. a prior and 12 monks from the French Abbey of St Vincent and St Lawrence in Le Mans.(See below some details of the Mother House) Little remains of the original structure and most of the present church dates from the 14th century.

The Norman Castle

was built at the same time as the Priory. It was meant to serve the Norman Lords with French Clergy and provide civil backups and records for the Castle.Hamelin gave the proceeds from the Priory to the Abbey he had founded at Le Mans, dedicated to St Vincent and St Lawrence.We can imagine the day of its opening and first Mass. The great lords from roundabout, the clergy from Le Mans and the twelve monks and prior who would be administering the Church and priory, the people in holiday mood, the speeches, the Mass in the great Abbey Church and then the feasting. It was a very happy day.This followed the pattern of Jesus and the Apostles.

The walled Town of Abergavenny was the Capital of the Lordship,. The ancient Church of St John stood within the walls, the Priory and its Church being outside the town, by the East Gate. At the Dissolution the Establishment consisted of a Prior and four Monks. . The Church was cruciform, with a central Tower, eastward of which (or beneath which, as some authorities fancy) was the Monks’ Choir, with its twenty-four stalls, twelve on each side, of carved oak of the XIV Century, which remain to the present time.

The Monuments tell the history of the Priory-Connections to the Templars
Tombs: The tombs are mostly of the lords and ladies of the castle who arranged for the monks to pray for them after death. These figures provide a catalogue of changes in costume and armour over four centuries. But it is very unlikely that there was any attempt at portraiture. A knight was always shown in full armour and in the prime of life; only the addition of heraldry on shields or cloak would identify the person. Many were damaged by Puritans and all have lost the bright colours which once covered them. Some of the monuments are detailed below.

John de Hastings

The material, style of armour and posture of this magnificent wooden figure, tell us that this is Sir John de Hastings II who died in 1324 and not George de Cantelupe, the tenth lord of Abergavenny who died in 1273, as once thought. John de Hastings rebuilt the priory and his tomb would have stood at the centre of the choir. Depressions on the side once held brightly enamelled heraldic shields. The cross-legged posture was a fashion popular before 1330-1340, and had nothing to do with involvement with the Crusades. His feet rest on the lion, a symbol of courage and strength. Animals figure largely in medieval sculpture but some, like elephants and lions, were inaccurately portrayed because few European artists would have seen such animals.

Stephen de Hastings (1286)

Stephen, whom we know was born in Abergavenny, however, is recorded as an important Templar Knight and is buried at Hastings. (Complete Peerage Vol V pp156-157) So Steven may have been the uncle or the Father of John, who may have taken the cross after the death of his wife. There are definately Templar connections to the family.Stephen may have been the Templar Commander who either gave the land at Kemys Commander nearby, to the Templars, or established it as some sort of reception centre for the many who had taken the Cross during the 1188 tour of Wales by the Knights and the Archbishop of Canterbury Baldwin, who was accompanied by Gerald the Welshman and visited Llanthony, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Usk and Newport before moving off to Cardiff. The headquarters were to the north at Garway. Anyway, more of the Templars anon.

Sir William ap Thomas and his wife Gwladys:

He is the ancestor of the Herbert family. When his wife, daughter of Sir David Gamm, died in 1464, three thousand knights, nobles and weeping peasants followed her body from Coldbrook House to the Priory. The alabaster tomb is truly one of the most beautiful in the Abbey church.

Sir Richard Herbert of Coldbrook and his wife:

In the battle of Edgecote (1469) during the Wars of the Roses he was supposed to have killed 140 men with his own poleaxe before being captured and executed.

Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas:

He was the natural son of Sir William Herbert and the grandson of Sir William ap Thomas. During restoration work the figure was removed to reveal a black, hooded monk called the beadsman which was hidden again when the effigy returned to its niche. A replica can be seen in a wall plaque by the side of the monument.

Richard Symonds,

in his Diary states that, at the time of his visit, in 1645,(about a hundred years after Henry sold the abbey) there was ‘A very faire rood loft and old organs’. The Transepts were extended eastward by the erection of aisles opening into the Choir, and these aisles seemed to have been used as burial places, first of the Lords of Abergavenny, and subsequently of other notable personages of the district.

Henry VIIIforces the closure of the Priory

After the Dissolution of the Priory, in 1543, Henry VIII founded the Grammar School, which he endowed with some of the revenues and possessions of the suppressed priory and granted the Old Parish Church of St John for the school building, and in lieu of it, the Priory Church to the parishioners for their Parish Church.

Current Owner

The Possessions of the priory were granted to James Gunter, of Breconshire, and continued in his family till the beginning of the last century, when Mary, daughter and heiress of James Gunter, of the Priory, married George Milbourne,(Recusant Catholic family) of Wonastow, and so conveyed the Priory and its Estates to him. They, together with Wonastow, descended to their son Charles, who married Lady Martha Harley, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, and their only daughter and heiress, Mary, carried them to her husband, Thomas Swinnerton of Butterton in Stafforshire, whose daughter and co-heiress, Elizabeth, married Charles Kemeys Tynte, Esq., of Cefyn-Mabli, conveying the Priory Estates to him.
His son, Charles Theodore Kemeys Tynte, Esq., of Bridgwater in Somersetshire, is the present owner of the property and Lay Rector.

In Anglican times, The South Aisle acquired the name of the Herbert Chapel, and the North that of the Lewis Chapel. The Choir and Chancel are of great length, and it is possible that there may have been a Lady Chapel beyond the High Altar, seeing that the Church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. At some period there must have been a violent and systematic destruction of the Tombs, Canopied Images, and Brasses. At some period, perhaps in 1828, when very extensive alterations and repairs were made, or subsequently, such of the fragments as could be found seem to have been collected and fitted together, so as to make up the tombs again, and it is difficult to determine whether the various parts so refitted really belonged to the, or formed a portion of the Reredos, perhaps of the Lady Chapel, as many of the figures of Saints and holy persons have special affinity with the Holy Mother.

Civil War

The stained glass in the windows, displaying sundry coats of arms etc was destroyed or lost much about the same period. The most probable time of this destruction was the period of the Rebellion, in which sad destruction of Monuments and other objects in Churches was committed by soldiers of Oliver Cromwell throughout the land.Horses were stabled in the Priory church and the beautiful mediaeval windows knocked out. Raglan Castle,a Catholic Recusant stronghold, who kept and protected the many priests who came from across the channel, fell. It had been held by the famous Marquess of Worcester, and was one of the last to fall to General Fairfax, whose soldiers, during the long siege, were quartered in and around this town and did more damage than anyone else, desecrating the church.

Royal Links

In the ‘Diary of the Marchings of the Royal Army’ in 1645, kept by Richard Symonds, who accompanied King Charles I in his visit to Monmouthshire in that year, we have a more detailed account of the monuments and stained-glass windows. Richard Symonds’ .. The Monuments were all standing undisturbed in 1646, and since that date we have no record of them, and it neither seems to be known at what precise time the Monuments were destroyed, nor when they were repaired.

More recent Restorations

.In about the year 1828 extensive alterations were made to the Church, both externally and internally, the money being raised by a loan from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners on the Church rates and by the sale of pews.The alterations to the Nave were startling, and are perhaps best described by Sir Gilbert Scott, who in 1874 reported, from a survey of the Church which he then made, as follows:

Few Churches have suffered from decay and injudicious repair than this … The most outrageous treatment has, however, been reserved for the interior of the Nave. Early in the present century the Nave and its North Aisle were thown into one, by the destruction of the ancient arches and columns which separated them. A new roof, covering the two, was added, galleries were erected, running round the four sides of the parallelogram thus formed: a Pulpit and reading desk placed at the West End, the pews facing westwards, and the Arch leading eastward into the Chancel filled with drapery.’

This arrangement effectually separated the Choir and the Chancel from the Nave. Somewhere about this period the former, together with the Chapels, appear to have been used as a School; to this may possibly be attributed the wanton disfigurement of tombs and Choir Stalls by thoughtless youths carving their initials and names upon them.


In 1882, it suffered another Victorian restoration. In 1896, the Chancel, which had remained closed, was re-opened, the Vestry in the South Transept removed, the Transepts and the Chapels partly renovated, and the whole of the East End of the Church brought into use .

Modern Restoration

It contains some superb monuments and sculptures, said to be among the most important collections of any parish church in Britain.

Mediaeval Choir Stalls and Lady Chapel (Herbert Chapel): The monastic choir stall, and the medieval monuments and effigies in the Herbert Chapel have undergone a restoration programme. .The recent completion of the monuments' restoration programme has been hailed as a magnificent success.

Other restoration work still continues. The Lewis Chapel has been restored and an appeal has been launched to rebuild the organ.
The Priory Church has also bought back the neighbouring medieval Tithe Barn which the St Mary's Priory Development Trust, whose patron is the Prince of Wales.has redeveloped as a Resource for the town, a museum, Coffee Bar and Parish hall.(Open most days)


One of the Priory Church's main treasures is the huge 15th century wooden figure of Jesse, left, which originally depicted the lineage of Jesus Christ from Jesse, the father of King David. Only the base remains of the elaborate family tree. The whole figure probably formed the reredos - the ornament placed behind the altar. This is the only wooden figure of Jesse to be found in Britain. Carved from one piece of oak it was originally highly coloured and traces of this can still be seen in the folds.
The Jesse figure was transported to London in autumn 2001 where it was the centrepiece in the Tate Britain exhibition Image and Idol which ended in March 2002. It was also featured on the front of the commemorative brochure.

Tate Britain described it as "...the extraordinary Tree of Jesse, the largest and most impressive example of wooden sculpture surviving from the fifteenth century.
"This carved oak figure has been acclaimed as one of the finest medieval sculptures in the world but before now has never been seen outside its home, St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny."

The Abergavenny Tapestry is back on display

The Abergavenny Tapestry has been taken out of storage and is back on show at the Lewis Chapel in St Mary's Priory Church from
Mondays to Saturdays between 10.00am and 4.00pm and is to be exhibited in the newly restored Tithe Barn.

Abbaye S Vincent et S Laurance, Le Mans France The Mother House

The Abbey was originally built by Hamelin in a very devout area of France, with a wide range of good and devout priests. Gregory of Tours praised it in his time. It was showing signs of real decay in 1636, when it received its first rebuilding.
. Nothing remains of the first abbey founded before 572AD by Saint Domnolus, Bishop of Mans. The beautiful Gothic church also disappeared. Only the porch and abbey house remain of the first building, with a remarkable collection of parchments about economic and social history

In 1636, Benedictine Masons themselves decided to build a new abbey, but restored the cloisters in a mediaeval style.Ever since then they have continued.
Inside, the very beautiful refectory, blessed in 1733, there are two plaques by JW Parrocel, (The Miracle of the loaves and fish and the 'Miraculous catch of fish') which have adapted well, to the architecture and the function of the room . They tastefully restored the other western front with light clerestory windows, white marble. At the time of the French revolution, there was no time to finish the work. The very beautiful library, rich with some27.000 volumes in 1789 was destroyed by the mob. The Cloister and chapter room were destroyed, but have been rebuilt in recent times. A brilliant restoration has made it possible to rediscover a building which is one of most interesting traditional Benedictine buildings in France. It is a mostly nineteenth century restoration.1997-1998 the gardens were restored. It is now a boarding school.Before the Revolution, the arms of the Abbey showed the Fleur de Lys crossed, and so designated as a royal Abbey.

Next we will talk about the particular history of Abergavenny at the time of the Priory and Castle and a dreadful massacre!______________________________________

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