Church of St. John was built on the initiative of Bernard de Neufmarché, a Norman knight who conquered the Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog in 1093. According to tradition he gave the church to one of his supporters, Roger, a monk from the Battle Abbey, who founded a monastery near it. It is more likely, however, that Bernard founded the monastery himself, modeling on William the Conqueror and his monument of victory at Hastings Battle, which was the Battle Abbey. The priory at Brecon would strengthen Bernard’s position as conqueror of Wales.
The first prior in Brecon was Walter, a monk from the Battle Abbey. Bernard de Neufmarché also gave the monastery land, rights and tithing from the area, a mill on the Usk River and two more mills on Honddu. After his death, patronage passed on to the Hereford earls, contributing to the further development of the temple. The priory church was rebuilt and expanded in the Gothic style around 1215, during the reign of king John. The next works on enlarging the buildings were carried out at the end of the 13th and 14th centuries. The roofs, timber ceilings and the top of the church tower were erected in the sixteenth century.
In the Middle Ages, the priory church was famous, because it had an impressive, gilded rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel, which was the object of pilgrimage and worship, until it was destroyed during the Reformation. In 1538, the Benedictine priory was dissolved, the prior was released, and the monastery church became a parish church. Some of the surrounding buildings were adapted for secular use, while others, such as cloisters, were demolished.
In the nineteenth century, the church was in bad condition and only the nave was in use. Minor repairs were carried out in 1836, but a major renovation of the church began only in the 1860s. The tower was strengthened in 1914 due to the occurrence of cracks. In 1923, the church was given the rank of a cathedral.
The priory church in its mature, late medieval form had the shape of a basilica on a Latin cross plan with two arms of the transept and a massive tower at the crossing of the aisles. The presbytery, transept and the tower, raised around 1510-1520, date back to the beginning of the 13th century. The three-aisle nave with five bays in the style of English decorated Gothic was erected a little later, at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries.
The southern aisle was a bay shorter, which made the western facade asymmetrical. The entrance to the nave was placed in the walls fault created in this way. The second entrance, leading to the northern aisle, was placed in the 14th-century porch, at the height of the second bay from the west. Both side aisles and the central nave were illuminated with large pointed windows with three-light tracery. The interior was not vaulted, it was topped with a wooden, open roof truss.
In the 14th century, the impressive Havard chapel was added to the northern wall of the chancel. In the Middle Ages, the church had more chapels, which were located in the aisles separated from the central nave, inside their eastern bays. To this day, the only preserved of them is the north Keyns Chapel, originally the shoemakers’ guild chapel.
There are no precise descriptions of the construction of the gilded rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel. About its scale and dimensions, the preserved traces of the gate at the end of the nave, above the pulpit and on the opposite wall, give only the view. The gate gave access to the upper part of the rood screen. Also the stone corbels used to support screen’s structure are visible. Among the original equipment a beautiful, carved stone font from the 12th century and the largest stone in Wales, hollow to store the oil needed to ignite the fire, has preserved.
Burton J., Stöber K., Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, Chippenham 2015.
Salter M., Abbeys, priories and cathedrals od Wales, Wolverhampton 2012.
Wooding J., Yates N., A Guide to the churches and chapels of Wales, Cardiff 2011.
Website britishlistedbuildings.co.uk, Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist. A Grade I Listed Building in Brecon, Powys.