Abergavenny – Benedictine priory

History

   Benedictine monastery with the church of St. Mary was built in the 90s of the 11th century, as a foundation of the first Norman lord of Abergavenny, Hamelin de Ballon, who received lordship in northern Gwent along with Abergavenny castle from William II. The priory was probably built on the site of an earlier Roman-Celtic place of worship, but from the very beginning it was closely associated with the Norman lords.
   Originally a small convent, subordinate to the mother monastery of St. Vincent in Le Mans in France, grew to thirteen monks in the second half of the 12th century thanks to donations from Lord of Abergavenny, William de Braose. At the end of the 12th century, the prior of the monastery was Henry of Abergavenny, who was elected Bishop of Llandaff and then elected to assist in the coronation of King John I in 1199. Successive local lords were also benefactors of the church. However, already at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the convent, staffed by only five brothers accused of various misdemeanors (leaving the enclosure, gambling, failure to fast, meeting with women), was in a state of decline, as were its buildings. The situation was so serious that prior Fulk Gastard, accused of perjury, stole the monastery valuables upon hearing of the episcopal visitation and fled. Richard of Bromwich, a monk from Worcester, was appointed the new superior, and the monastery and the church were rebuilt from the foundation of John, Lord of Hastings, who after 1319 renovated and reformed the convent, placing the prior and 12 monks in it. From that moment on, Abergavenny Priory was more independent from its mother monastery of St. Vincent in Le Mans and the brothers were free to choose their prior.
   In 1403, the monastery was burnt down during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, losing all its books and documents. Several brothers then returned to Le Mans, and the situation in the following years was so bad that in 1411 the prior had to ask the French convent, with the consent of Henry IV, for three additional monks, to be able to celebrate the mass. During the Reformation, there were only four monks and the prior in the monastery. Due to the close ties between the rulers of Abergavenny and the Tudor dynasty, and due to the functioning of the school at the monastery, its church was spared and became a parish temple. In the years 1881-1896 it underwent a neo-Gothic renovation and partial expansion.

Architecture

   The priory church from the fourteenth century was built on a Latin cross plan with an aisleless nave about 52 meters long and a rectangular chancel of the same width as the nave and with two transept arms of relatively short length (at least the southern wall of the nave and transept used the older walls from the 13th century). At the crossing a four-sided tower was erected, narrower than the transept arms, equipped with a slender corner communication turret. Two chapels were attached to the sides of the presbytery in the Middle Ages: St. Joseph on the north side and St. Herbert in the south, both open by two arcades to the interior of the choir.
   The priory buildings were on the south side of the church, located in such a way that the eastern range was adjacent to the southern arm of the transept, and the cloister’s garth was to the south of the nave. The layout of individual rooms remains unknown, and it is also uncertain whether the full, three-winged complex of buildings, as provided for by the monastic rule, was built. It can only be assumed that traditionally in the eastern wing there was a chapter house in the ground floor, and a dormitory on the first floor, connected directly with the church transept. To the west of the church and enclosure, there were farm buildings of the monastery, including a barn.

Current state

   The church, preserved to this day, represents the style of English decorative and perpendicular Gothic. Unfortunately, few elements from the Norman period have survived, and the church underwent significant changes in the early modern period, which influenced its appearance. The northern aisle was added, which involved the dismantling of the northern wall of the nave and the insertion of inter-nave arcades in its place, the medieval west facade was also removed, which was built from scratch and preceded by a wide porch. Many window openings have been transformed, especially in the nave. The windows in the eastern wall of the chancel and chapels are from the 15th century or are contemporary copies of them, as is the five-light window in the northern wall of the transept.
   Of the priory buildings, the eastern wing with the eastern lancet window at the height of the dormitory and the original entrance portal has survived. Other, bricked up today windows come mainly from the 16th and early 17th centuries. To the west of the church, the former monastery barn has also survived, though rebuilt.
   From the original furnishings of the church, the 14th-century, oak, carved stalls, the 12th-century baptismal font, the 15th-century wooden sculpture of the Jesse Tree and one of the largest in Wales collection of valuable medieval tombstones have survived, the oldest of which is Eve de Braose from the end of the 13th century and John of Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny who died in 1324.

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bibliography:
Burton J., Stöber K., Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, Chippenham 2015.
Salter M., Abbeys, priories and cathedrals od Wales, Wolverhampton 2012.
Salter M., The old parish churches of Gwent, Glamorgan & Gower, Wolverhampton 2002.
Wooding J., Yates N., A Guide to the churches and chapels of Wales, Cardiff 2011.