Chepstow – Benedictine Priory

History

      The priory with the church of St. Mary was built in Chepstow before 1071, as the Benedictine convent seat, founded by William FitzOsbern and his son Roger de Breteuil, second Earl of Hereford. The monastery was subordinate to the monks of Cormeillies Abbey in Normandy, from where the first monks were brought, but as Chepstow grew as a market and harbor settlement around the castle, the nave of the temple also began to be used as a parish church.
   The priory developed successfully throughout the Middle Ages, with the exception of the end of the 14th century, when due to epidemic disasters and financial difficulties, it remained empty from 1394 to 1398. New monks were brought from Bermondsey, and the convent rose from decay in the 15th century. The prosperity ended only in the dissolution of the order in 1536. Most of the monastery buildings, as well as the church choir and cloisters were demolished at that time.

   In
1701 Another disaster came, when the central tower collapsed during the storm, destroying the transepts. During reconstruction, instead of recreating the original appearance, it was decided to build a low tower on the west side of the nave. Even larger changes in the medieval building took place in the 19th century. The aisles were then removed and the eastern part and the transepts were rebuilt. Further work, partly aimed at restoring the Norman character of the nave, began in 1890, but it was discontinued and abandoned in 1913.

Architecture

The original priory church was built of local yellow sandstone. It had a fairly long, six-bay nave with three aisles in the form of a basilica, to which from the west led a richly decorated Romanesque entrance portal from the beginning of the 12th century. It received a stepped form with five semi-columns and two blind arcades on both sides and a semicircular archivolt decorated, inter alia, with a chevron. Above the portal there were three large, semicircular Romanesque windows. Inside, the central nave was divided into three storeys: the lowest with semicircular arcades on massive four-sided pillars, the middle one with semicircular triforium openings, two in each bay, and the highest with semicircular clerestory windows. The interior of the nave was originally vaulted. From the east, it was adjacent to the two arms of the transept and a centrally placed four-sided tower at the crossing, and further there was presbytery of an unknown appearance.
   The enclosure buildings were on the south side of the church, but they were very unusual, at an awkward angle in relation to the axis of the temple. It consisted of three monastery wings and a four-sided inner patio. The eastern range probably housed a chapter house on the ground floor and a dormitory on the first floor. The southern range was occupied by a refectory erected in 1240, built on an elongated rectangular plan, while the western range had most likely the rooms of a priory cellar and lay brothers. At a slightly greater distance, on the south-west side, there were economic buildings (including a barn).
 
Current state
 
   The former priory church of St. Mary, although it has survived only in a small part, today it is a valuable example of Romanesque architecture in Wales. The western facade and the central nave, shortened by one bay, have survived from this period. The side aisles and wault of the central nave were demolished, and the rest of the church, including the west tower, is the result of early modern construction works. The buildings of the monastery’s enclosure are known only from archaeological excavations.
 

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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.