Monday, October 12, 2009

Autumn Colours, rushing stream and Mounton, Grange of Chepstow


I have begun to blog about the great Augustinian foundations and am soon continuing with St Kynemark, near Chepstow and also the Austin (Augustinian) Friars Minor at Newport.Last Friday, however, I was fortunate to be taken by Anthony Utting and the Vicar of the parish Revd Julian White, in whose parish Mounton lies. I had already visited Mathern some time ago when mentioning it as the church which houses the (still existing) relics of St Tewdrig, who died from wounds whilst defnding th Christian faith against the paganSaxons in the sixth century and is buried in the church. His son was the 'Meurig' of Pwll-Meyrick(-Meurigs pool or well)who buried his father in the holy Tatheus' Church in the old Roman town. So I thought, asMountain was a Grange of Chepstow, I would post this now whilst preparing the next post. Hope you enjoy the visit!

History of the Norman Abbey Foundation & St Pierre of Cormeilles

Between 1035 and 1066 the new Norman aristocracy had founded many abbeys in Normandy. Countess Lescaline and her son Robert , Count of Eu, was responsible for the abbey of St Pierre sur Dives. Count Robert set up the abbey at St Michel de Treport. Herluin, Vicomte de Conteville ,his wife Herleve and his son Robert, Count of Mortain founded the abbey of Grestain.

FitzOsbern was the favoured Son of a Steward,ennobled by William the Conqueror by doing his bidding

William Fitz Osbern, son of Duke Robert’s steward, in the same way and around the same time, established the monastery at Lyre and then followed this up with a similar foundation at Cormeilles. In Upper Normandy, the House of St Victor en Caux was set up by Roger Mortimer as a Priory of Saint Ouen. William FitzOsbern made substantial and lavish gifts to the Abbey of St Ouen as well as supporting his own abbies (Lyre and St Pierre at Cormeilles)Most of these houses were in central Normandy and also encompassed Holy Herluin’s House at Le Bec (to whom the Priory at Goldcliff was given)

The Monks School and Theological College and Scriptorium at Chepstow (now under the car park opposite Priory church)

It was significant, therefore, that many of these Norman priories were built close to land which was to be colonised. The Benedictine Priory at Chepstow also had a small school, where it taught boys and the young monks theology, singing, writing and copying, philosophy and rhetoric. This school or college did its work so well that gradually local boys became monks and these becoming Welsh or ‘denizen’ gradually became less susceptible to closure during the various French Wars during the later Middle Ages.

It would be wrong to suggest that the monks of the Norman monasteries were not devout. The reforming spirit of the monks of Cluny was already spreading up towards Normandy. The Houses built at this time probably owed most to the Abbey of St Ouen at Rouen (R-ouen)The first five abbots of Holy Trinity ,Rouen came from St Ouen and Holy Trinity passed on the succession by supplying the first abbots for William FitzOsbern’s monastery of St Pierre at Cormeilles

St Adoenus (Saint Ouen of Rouen)Dedication of this Church

So who was ‘St Adoenus?’ (Lit ‘To Owen’ad Oenus) This was the most beloved saint of the Benedictine Normans. St. Owen was bishop of Rouen, France in the 7th century. He was born in Sancy, near Soissons, about 600 AD of a Frankish family. While he was still a child, his family housed and entertained the exiled St. Columban, who greatly influenced his early education. In his youth Owen was sent to the court of St. Clotaire II where he became an outstanding student. He gained the favour of the King and his son, who appointed him chancellor. While in office, Owen steadily opposed the then prevalent practice of simony (paying for holy relics or offices-something abhorred by Pope Leo IX who declared it a mortal sin).

Owen, a nobleman, at a corrupt court, began to see the size and shape of the struggle to keep the light of Christianity burning. He became a monk and priest and a monastery builder in 636AD. He was made bishop of Rouen in Normandy in 641, and built monastery after monastery, for he clearly saw that only through these centres of Catholic living and learning could Europe be saved from darkness. He kept up his court connections, advising the weak Merovingian kings. A sort of French Dubricius, he laid the foundation for all the Norman abbey building in later times.

As a layman, St. Owen, with his zeal, piety and learning, was considered equal to any of the bishops. He gained a reputation for assisting the poor and homeless and did the Will of God generally, caring for widows and orphans throughout Armorica (Celtic Gaul-Brittany and Normandy)

He died on August 24, 684, and is buried near the main altar of St. Owen Church in Rouen.

May we rejoice and be inspired by the great qualities of the Patron. We ask for his blessings and pray for his guidance in the years ahead for the Community of St. Owen in this Valley in Monmouthshire.

My Visit 9.10.09

It may now be seen why the little church at Mounton(Monks’ Town), and the small chapel at St Pierre, were named after the foundations at home. The dedication of the monks’ town being to St Ouen (Ando-enus) and St Pierre the dedicatee of almost all the Norman Abbies. William FitzOsbern, builder of The Priory Church of Our Lady at Chepstow also first built the castle, as the most important priority in this strategic marcher area. He also granted money later to help the Cistercian monks at Tintern with stone and materials for building that abbey. In turn various churches and chapels were given to the French monks and Mounton, a grange, had its own accommodation (now known as ‘Monks’ Rest’-now a private house), a beautiful running stream and also its mediaeval track road, down which Farmer Bob travels at speed with his huge tractor! The south door looks to the track and then to the great wooded cliff face opposite, beautiful in the autumn sun. the small brook gurgles down the valley under a tiny bridge, where you could almost 'imagine' a monk with his fishing rod or even reading his office.

On the other side of the brook, more mountains loom and isolated farm houses appear between them, perhaps the descendents of the early farm, which provided food for monks and for sale to the castle and others. The air is still apart from Farmer Bob’s tractor and his accompanying dog, barking excitedly chasing it. On the other side of the road is a small churchyard.

Accompanied by the Vicar Julian and Churchwarden Anthony Utting, I walked into the little church, which has had a Victorian restoration. The rood is removed of course, but the piscina is still there, although on the other side of the chancel/sanctuary area. The priest’s door has also disappeared in the renovation. Yet the spirit of the place remains, the holiness and veneration. The early relic of St Ouen seems to have disappeared during the ecclesiastical upheaval in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the altar is replaced with a beautifully carved wooden table. The church is, in reality a small chapel and its restoration has left the walls sparkling white .

There are a number of beautiful stained glass windows of modern date. The window on the East side depicts the earthly death of Christ in the tomb and then the Resurrection. The South Wall has windows depicting Our Lady, the Child Jesus and the Baptist in striking mediaeval ochre tones and there is a wonderful window dedicated to a parishioner (perhaps the player of the small electric organ in the church in praise of God’s gift to music.

The West door has its font(19th century?) in situ currently colourfully decorated for the Harvest Festival . There are also windows in the North Wall ,one depicting St Francis of Assissi, one of the most loved saints and in the same window, the Blessed Mother. We remarked now that the monks’ church would have been a great deal darker than the present church. There would have also been wall paintings lit with candles. Candles were still everywhere on the window sills of the ancient thick walled church.


ST OUEN, Bishop of R-ouen . Patron of Mounton Church

There was also , next to the altar a citation for a soldier commended for bravery and awarded a VC during the second world war. I do not have permission to publish his name here, but his bravery was attested to by the men under his command who made him a cross on the field of battle, which they brought back to Mounton.He is buried in the churchyard. There are some ancient tombstones-one dated 1680 by the vestry door and another nearby of the same age. Monks and laity were usually buried under the floor of the church, but often in a separate graveyard near the church after the plague era. The Churchyard was often kept for mirth, holidays, even Eisteddfods, Christmas dancing and fairs as well as processions on Festival Days. The great hymn ‘Festa Dies’-‘Hail thee Festival day’ in plainsong was sung by all in the churchyard on the great feast days of the church, before a large procession would enter the sacred space for the great battle against evil that is the Mass.

Life at Mounton during Benedictine Times

Mounton remains a pretty church, simple and stark and will no doubt have buried many parishioners under its flagstones, those who were once baptised in the font.The French monks would have had no problems communicating in Church, since the language was still Latin from Celtic times.

The monks would have kept the Opus Dei, the Angel’s Prayer or Angelus Bell would have rung at 6 to wake people up and and 12 lunchtime and at 6 at night and probably once at the Hours of Lauds ( Mattins,(7am) prime(9am), terce,(12 noon), nones, (3pm) vespers(6pm) compline(9pm)which closes with the haunting ‘Salve Regina’ and mattins (2am) The hours would vary according to the time of year. These are the same hours as being sung today. Mass would be at nine.

Mediaeval People understood what the Mass was and what was being said and sung as they were taught for their first Communion and Confirmation, and there was always an element of catechesis or teaching during the sermon or homily in English. The pathway outside the front of the little church is an ancient trackway leading to Chepstow and to Tintern, st Kynemark’s and Trellech and Trellech Grange.

Roger Shrewsbury, Last Prior of Striguil

It is about 40 minutes walk to Trellech or Chepstow from Mountain. The stillness , the birdsong and the marvels of God’s creation were with me as I left. I could almost hear the voice of Father Roger Shrewsbury, the last prior calling me back!Monkstown had a stipend or donation of £10 a year for the church, which reverted to Henry VIII after he had taken the abbies and priories and their churches. The little chapel became a parish church after the disturbances of the sixteenth century, when its furnishings, rood screen, altar, relics everything ripped out and destroyed and the whole became much plainer in obedience to the new King Edward’s orders and later those of Elizabeth.

Catholics from this time for two hundre years, met in secret places to carry on their faith and perhaps even in places like this. Luckily we are in a time of healing and respect now and almost all will recoil at the level of destruction of beautiful works of art that are irreplaceable, although in many cases church furniture was hidden and then restored in more clement times.£4 4s 6d was what the priory fetched for Henry VIII and often the shells of the buildings when everything had been stripped out, were given to the very people who had carried out the destruction, so he did not need to pay them for the ‘work’.It is also wrong to say all the monks had pensions. Most of them and all the nuns did not and either made for familes, for France or starved or died of cold if they could find no shelter.This was the time when the Catholic nobles of Wales, like the lord of Raglan Castle, and Herberts and Morgans at Llantarnam began to receive covert priests and hold masses in their homes, trying to potect the Faithful and see to their interests.

Monks’ Rest

We walked up to the accommodation for the monks – a small cottage now much improved and extended , known as the ‘Monks Rest’. There are remnants of the original stonework on the South wall. The garden is very pretty and beautifully kept.

Paper Mills

Anthony Utting also told me about the paper mills which once provided employment for the area (100 at one time in the nineteenth and twentieth century) Luckily the numbers have grown again in the area not far away, where a new estate of houses has been built, which has given the pretty church a new lease of life.

Hando's MountonFred Hando' Sketch from 1944 shows a large house opposite the church, which no longer seems to be there, unless Iam looking from the wrong angle...
Hando wrote of Mounton in 1944 in his own wonderful poetic wayin his wonderul book 'The Peasant Land of Gwent' published by Johns of Newport.Oten for sale onEbay.

When you step over the stile at the New Inn at Pwllmeryic you take a field path that runs close to the mountain brook. The water in the brook is crystal clear. The country is open. But as you walk onward, the wooded hills close in on both sides. You are now in Mounton Valley.Great trees rise ahead.

Between two of these trees you get your first view of the village. Thrown into high relief by the trees and the brown cliff are a little church and a cottage with dormer windows. A poplar, superbly placed rises like grey smoke into the heavens;a pretty footbridge crosses the brook. Cows stand deep in the water .All sounds, except for water and the bird song are hushed.

You walk between cottages set between gardens overflowing with colour. Even the walls grow flowers in Mounton. High hills soar ahead and on both sides, and the scented air is warm and still. Beyond the village the stream flows though flat meadows and the valley widens . On the banks are ruins of buildings of unusual form.

Mounton, the ancient Monkstown , for the land was owned by the Priory at Chepstow-knew industrial prosperity a century ago (19th century-MM) . Its three mills, with names as beautiful as the brook –Lady Mill,Lark Mill and Linnet Mill –produced carpets and paper, and for some time the paper used for the Bank of England notes was made here.

Now the mills are picturesque ruins and the wheels of industry are stilled. From the ancient markstone near the church to the house at the far end of the village,the eye rests with pleasure on the works of nature and of man.

Where the road forks above the village,the road to the right leads you to a narrow valley (accessible by car-MM-)The brook rushes swiftly along .You pass a couple of cottages, one approached by a bridge over the brook and then the road ends.

The valley now widens. Great trees stand above you on the sun lit hillside; others lie recumbent on the slopes and the valley bed; and the wooded hill on the left rises in mysterious shadow. The only sound now is the allegretto dance rhythm of the brook. Here , many years ago, were laid several of the scenes in the film version of ‘Ivanhoe’. In my opinion Puck and Ariel are more to be found here than the spirit of any Plantagenet.

Mounton has been a well kept secret. Cars scream past Bankhead the head of the Valley; unceasing traffic roars through Pwllmeyric at the other end.No tourist dreams of turning northward (Left from Newport Right fro Chepstow) from Pwllmeyrick, for Mounton is no show place, but for us, at any season of the year is a home of peace and beauty.

We love it best at the height of Autumn. We choose the time of our visit so that the trees, still heavy with leaf, shall glow at their brightest. ON our last visit in early November , many flowers still bloomed in the gardens, and at the church we stayed a while and looked upwards. Never shall we forget the pattern of gold and daffodil, of peach and berry red, of leaf green and bronze, flaked by the leaves against a pale sapphire sky. Nor shall we forget a recess, carved like a little shrine in the hillside opposite, in which a young fir tree stood ensconced’

Travels at home are cheap and safe. Salvation
Comes mounted on the wings of meditation
He that doth live at home, and learns to know
God and himself, needeth no further go’.

(Excerpt from Anglican George Herbert’s ‘Travels at Home’ (1633)

So nothing much has changed here since 1944 or probably from the times of the Monks, who are probably still looing down on thislittle acre of paradise....

1 comment:

Sue said...

I lived my childhood at The Glen otherwise known as Lady Mill it was more than wonderful 1952-1964