Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Priory of St Mary Magdalene and St Radegunde, USK

This priory of Benedictine nuns was founded in the early twelfth century, certainly before the death of the founder, Richard (Strongbow) de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Lord of Usk, in 1135. (His family crest appears in some of the floor tiles recovered from the chancel). His son, Gilbert (d.1152), continued the development of the establishment, and Richard Strongbow, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (d. 1176) granted an important charter to the priory, which was confirmed in 1330 by Elizabeth de Burgh.

Saxon Church at Usk (and Llan) before foundation of the Nunnery

The earliest part of the church is earlier than the foundation and the church is mentioned in the foundation charter. The nuns thus took over an existing church and it is possible (by analogy with better-documented communities in England) that there may have been an informal community at Usk before the formal endowment of the priory.
The community was founded by 5 nuns and grew to the usual 13. According to Bruce Venarde, the community was founded by Richard de Clare and his son, Gilbert, according to a document confirming the properties in 1236. Nothing is known of the first century of the nunnery's history; the first documentary mention of the community appears in 1246 when there was an inter-regnum and the community received licence to elect a new prioress. In the following year, 1247, the prioress obtained letters of protection. The only known prioresses are: Joan Lewis, 1491-7; Agnes, 1500-01; Joan Haryman, 1518-29; and Ellen or Eleanor Williams, from a local gentry family, prioress 1529-36.Eleanor Williams’ effigy lies gathering outside the door of the church.There were supposed to have been five Benedictine Nuns, but at certain taimes there were more, sometimes up to fifteen nuns.At the time of the Dissolution there were five.The house was independent with no help from other convents and in 1404, Adam of Usk petitioned the Pope asking for indulgences for alms to support theproperty.

After the Glyndwr risings and the burning of Usk in 1405, there was much rebuilding. The large perpendicular windows were inserted and two porches built and later in the 15th century, the screens were added .The Magnificat was inscribed in gold blacklettering all along the length of it/

1284 Nuns in Financial trouble

Archbishop Peckham visited in 1284 and found the nunnery in a "most desolate state," for primarily economic reasons. Archbishop Peckham visited the community in 1284 and found the nunnery in a "most desolate state," for primarily economic reasons. He recommended better accounting procedures and a senior priest to supervise financial affairs One of his complaints was that the nuns of Usk were wandering outside the confines of the nunnery and staying with layfolk. He ordered that the nuns should not go out of their precinct without suitable companions, nor stay in the houses of layfolk for more than 3 or 4 days. Other criticisms dealt with economic affairs. He suggested the appointment of 2 "provident and discreet" nuns as treasuresses; they were to receive all monies and make all disbursements, and render account of their stewardship to the Prioress and 5 or 6 of the senior nuns at Lent, at Whitsun, and at Michaelmas. The nuns were also to have a "senior priest, circumspect in temporal and spiritual affairs, to be master of all their goods"

Apart from Richard de Clare and his son Gilbert (d. 1152) other patrons were Richard Strongbow, 2nd Earl of Pembroke; Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of the Marches; Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March (d. 1424); and his nephew, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (d. 1460). The latter two served as Lords of Usk. All of these patrons/benefactors were prayed for as founders and alms were given for their memory on Shrove Tuesday

Richard Strongbow's Charter

Richard Strongbow granted an important charter to the priory which was confirmed in 1330 by Elizabeth de Burgh. The lawyer and writer, Adam of Usk (c.1360-1440) was also remembered as a protector of the convent. A recovered floor tile with the Mortimer arms on it seems to indicate that the first dateable repair work to S. Mary's Usk was done at the expense of the Mortimer family between either 1368-1381 or 1398-1402.

Adam of Usk's Petition to the Pope 1404

I, the writer of this history, delivered to the pope the
following petition :
Holy father, in the town or borough of Usk, in the diocese of Llandaff, is a certain most honourable monastery of a prioress and convent of nuns, under the profession of the order of Saint Benedict, who serve God with the greatest devoutness, which was of old sufficiently endowed with possessions, rents, and other profits ; and in this monastery none but virgins of noble birth were and are wont to be received. But now, owing to the burnings, spoilings, and other misfortunes which have been caused by the wars which raged in those parts, or otherwise, this same monastery hath come to such want that, unless ready help be forthwith found by your Holiness, the sisterhood will be forced to beg for food and clothing, straying through the country, or to stay in the private houses of friends ; whereby it is feared that scandals may belike arise. And, seeing that within the walls of the same monastery there is built a certain chapel in honour of Saint Radegunde, virgin nun, once queen of France, where that they are baptized with water, these three marks are made, partly as a token of gentility, and partly as the completion of their baptism. There are also Jews in the country, and these bear two marks, one on either cheek ; and the Saracens have but one, to wit, on the forehead, extending halfway down the nose." Colonel Yule, in his learned note upon the passage, refers to the early mention by Matthew Paris, under the year 1237, of the practice among the Jacobite Christians of branding their children on the forehead before baptism. It appears also to have been the custom in Abyssinia and other parts of Africa to cauterize the temples of children, to inure them against colds. Ariosto, referring to the emperor of Ethiopia, has :
"Gli e, s'io non piglio errore, in questo loco
Ove al battesmo loro usano il fuoco."

Salt, the traveller, mentions that most of the people of Dixan had a cross branded on the breast, right arm, or forehead ; which he explains as a mark of attachment to the ancient metropolitan church of Axum. And in Marino Sanudo it is stated that "some of the Jacobites and Syrians who had crosses branded on them said this was done for the destruction of the pagans, and out of reverence to the Holy Rood unto the men of that country bear great reverence, and which they ofttimes, and specially at the feasts of Easter and Whitsuntide, are wont to visit ; now therefore, prayeth your Holiness your faithful chaplain and auditor of causes of the sacred palace apostolic, who first drew breath in the same town or borough, and of whose blood are some of the same sisterhood, that, having pity with fatherly compassion on that monastery and prioress and nuns, you will deign graciously to grant to all Christian people who, so often as,
on the second days of the said festivals, for all time to come, they shall visit the same chapel, shall stretch forth the hand of help thereto, some indulgence, as your holiness
shall think fit, with necessary and proper clauses, as inform." And the pope signed it thus " So be it, as it is asked," for five years and as many periods of forty days,
as appeareth in the same chapel.

Monastery is destroyed

The house durig Henry VIII’s period was valued at 69 pounds, 9 shillings, 8 and a halfpenny gross, 55 pounds, 4 shillings, 5d and a halfpenny net in Valor .The only record of the community's possessions come from the period of the Dissolution. The estate at that date consisted of: land in Usk and adjoining parishes; land in Badgworth, Uphatherley and Downhatherley (Glos); the rectories of Usk, Cilgoegan [Llanfihangel Pontymoel], Llanbadoc, Llandenni, Llangyfiw, and Trostrey (Monmouthshire). The community also received tithes in Raglan, Estavarney (Monmouthshire) and had an interest in the rectory of Badgworth (Glos). When the nunnery dissolved, the lead on the roofs was valued at 52 pounds 4 pence; a not very considerable sum .

 Adam of Usk

Adam of Usk made a petition to the Pope on behalf of the community in 1404 and he described the priory as devastated by the after-effects of fighting during the Glyndwr uprising, but no blame could attach to the nuns for this. According to Adam of Usk, the monastery was in such want that unless some remedy was found, the nuns would be "forced to beg for food and clothing by wandering about the country, or to stay in the private houses of their friends; whereby scandal might arise" The chantry chapels in the priory church at Usk belonged to the local community, which shared the church, but the nuns had chapels dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene and St. Radegund of Poitiers within the priory precinct.

Endowments and offerings at these chapels were valued at 4 shillings, 7 pence in Valor Ecclesiasticus but may have included other tithes which were accounted for under the general tithes of Usk. There is also some evidence for pilgrimages to the statue of Mary Magdalene at Usk.
The priory church still has its rood screen, embellished with a carving of the Virgin Mary, and there was another image of Mary in the church before which Adam of Usk wanted to be buried (Bradney 1921, 59). [The present location of the wooden screen extending right across the nave and north aisle may not be its original position.] The rood screed also bears a commemorative brass lauding Adam of Usk in Welsh



Last Prioress: Mother Eleanor Williams

In the years immediately before the Dissolution, the then prioress, Eleanor Williams, had some remarkable panelling installed in the conventual buildings, possibly in her own apartments. The cornice is embellished with a frieze of shields decorated with the IHS monogram, the Five Wounds and the Instruments of the Passion, with royal and other armorial bearings including Catherine of Aragon's pomegranates (a brave statement of support in the 1530s). The frieze and the panelling were incorporated into the Priory House but much of the carving was removed in about 1860 to a local mansion, Cefn Tilla (Rickards 1904 has drawings of the frieze).

Catholic Priests the Nuns would have known

1387 Fr John A Philip (resigned 1387)
1387 Fr John Shirfield
1397 Fr Robert Alkebarrow, Chaplain to the Nuns
1429 Fr John Vickers
1512 Fr William Pryce -1535

Chancel Floor

The floor of the chancel was probably laid with stone slabs and embellished in places with decorative tiles, four of which have been recovered. The four tiles depict motifs of a fleur-de-lys, the arms of the Mortimer family (a shield within a shield), a white rosette, and the arms of the de Clare family . Two other tiles, one depicting a curly-tailed, up-winged dragon, are believed to have come from Usk as well and probably date from 1430-1450. According to Mein, the "subsidence effects on what was no doubt designed to be an impressive floor must have been both distressing and dangerous for the Sisters in their daily offices." The floor, at least the part with the tiles, was relaid twice .In addition, wall paintings within the claustral complex were of sufficient note to be referred to in a will.

Image and Shrine of St Mary Magdalene

The image of St. Mary Magdalene was a prime attraction of the community. In 1514 William Baker willed to be buried before an image of "Blessed Mary of the Priory." Sir Hugh David ap John gave rents to maintain the lamp burning day and night before the Blessed Sacrament, and Richard Plantagenet and Lady Elizabeth de Clare provided for the wax and oil necessary for the church's illumination.

Here, even at the very time of terrible turmoil to Catholics in 1536, a man came to make a petition to implore the help of the Saint.Around the time of the Destruction of the Monasteries, a pilgrim from Gwent left this poem to implore the help of St Mary Magdalene with money problems. This is still a common request from pilgrims, for help with bills etc.

Mair fadlen mawr yw d' wrthie [~ wyrthiau]
moes dy gyngor i mine
beth a na [~ wna] tylawd am yscidie [~ esgidiau]
ag am ddillad a 'i kvddie

O Mary Magdalen, mighty are your miracles,
lend your counsel unto me!
What's a pauper to do about shoes,
and about clothes and coverings?

Y kreiriwr mae vt gydnabod
drvd yleni bwyd a diod
ag anodd kael y geiniog
mae 'n dda kyfarch i 'r drindod

The pilgrim is well aware
that food and drink are dear this year,
and it's hard to make a penny;
it's good to render greeting to the Holy Trinity.

Mair fadlen priod ifan
myddyges [~ meddyges] duw i hvnan
ti a wddost f 'ymddiddan
oes dim kyngor am arian

Mary Magdalen, young bride of John
physician to God himself,
thou knowest what I have to say:
Do you have any counsel about money?

Know how he feels!


St Radegunde was Princess of Thuringia. Queen of France. She was born in 518 in Erfurt, Saxony, daughter of the pagan king Berthachar of Thuringia She was given at age 12 to Clotaire I as a hostage after he conquered her father's army in 531. The girl converted to Christianity
during her captivity, and 540 she was married against her will to Clotaire who then badly mistreated her, partly for being childless. In 555 she finally left him and took the veil from Saint Medard. Deaconess at Noyon, France.

She founded the convent of the Holy Cross, Poiters, France; among the many relics in its chapel was a piece of the True Cross. She placed the house under the Rule of Saint Caesarius of Arles, and lived there her remaining 30 years; it became a center of scholarship. Spiritual student of Saint John of Chinon. Friend of Saint Fortunatus, who composed his hymn Vexilla Regis in her honour. She was very active in the affairs of the Church and civil politics, and gained a reputation as a peacemaker.
Jesus College in Cambridge was originally dedicated to her. She died on the 13th August 587 in Poitiers, France of natural causes; Her relics were burned by Calvinists in 1562 .




St. Mary Magdelene is called "the Penitent". St. Mary was given the name 'Magdalen' because, though a Jewish girl, she lived in a Gentile town called Magdale, in northern Galilee, and her culture and manners were those of a Gentile. St. Luke records that she was a notorious sinner, and had seven devils removed from her. She was present at Our Lords' Crucifixion, and with Joanna and Mary, the mother of James and Salome, at Jesus' empty tomb. Fourteen years after Our Lord's death, St. Mary was put in a boat by the Jews without sails or oars - along with Sts. Lazarus and Martha, St. Maximin (who baptized her), St. Sidonius ("the man born blind"), her maid Sera, and the body of St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin. They were sent drifting out to sea and landed on the shores of Southern France, where St. Mary spent the rest of her life as a contemplative in a cave known as Sainte-Baume. She was given the Holy Eucharist daily by angels as her only food, and died when she was 72. St. Mary was transported miraculously, just before she died, to the chapel of St. Maximin, where she received the last sacraments. Her Fest is celebrated on July 22nd.

She was reputedly beautiful and very proud, but after she met Jesus, she felt great sorrow for her sad life. When Jesus went to supper at the home of a rich man named Simon, Mary Magdalene came to weep at His feet. Then with her long beautiful hair, she wiped His feet dry and anointed them with expensive perfume. Some people were surprised that Jesus let such a sinner touch Him, but Our Lord could see into Mary's heart, and He said: "Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved very much." Then to Mary He said kindly, "Your faith has made you safe; go in peace." From then on, with the other holy women, Mary humbly served Jesus and His Apostles. When Our Lord was crucified, she was there at the foot of His cross, unafraid for herself, and thinking only of His sufferings. No wonder Jesus said of her: "She has loved much." After Jesus' body had been placed in the tomb, Mary went to anoint it with spices early Easter Sunday morning. Not finding the Sacred Body, she began to weep, and seeing someone whom she thought was the gardener, she asked him if he knew where the Body of her beloved Master had been taken. But then the person spoke in a voice she knew so well: "Mary!" It was Jesus, risen from the dead! He had chosen to show Himself first to Mary Magdalen, the repentent sinner.

The present window east of the high altar incorporates an accurate representation of the common seal of the nunnery. The seal, an oval in red wax, depicts the Virgin Mary enthroned and holding the Infant Jesus on her left knee. The Lombardic Capital script used in the legend shows that the seal was engraved prior to the mid-14th century. The legend reads: S: SCE: MARIE: ET: CONVENTUS: DE: VSKA (The seal of Saint Mary and the Convent of Usk, (More information from Dr Madeleine Gray, University of Newport)

An Usk 'Ghost Story'....

Ghostly Nuns of Usk Priory

In 1970 a woman visiting Monmouthshire's Usk Priory, one winter saw five ghostly nuns walking from the far end of the house, by the library, towards the church. The original convent at Usk was for five nuns of the Benedictine order. At the suppression of the monasteries the five nuns were pensioned off, having given their allegiance to the king, thereby saving their lives and the probable destruction of the priory.

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