The first small monastery in Ewenny was founded in the 30s of the 12th century by William de Londres, lord of Ogmore Castle, and in 1141 his son, Maurice de Londres, awarded the Norman church of St. Michael with the nearby lands to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester. At that time, a seat for twelve monks and the prior was established in Ewenny, around which the settlement of Ewenny grew soon after. Its population treated the priory church as a parish, only the chancel and transept were reserved for monks. The monastic foundation was fortified early enough to protect against Welsh armed raids. The fortifications were staffed by a permanent garrison, and at the beginning of the fourteenth century they were rebuilt and reinforced. Edward I used the man at arms from Ewenny in his attack on Wales in 1284, and Henry IV used Ewenny as a base to attack Coity Castle during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr in 1405.
In 1284, Archbishop Pecham paid a visit to the monastery. The audit revealed poor management and poor financial condition in Ewenny. He ordered more stringent controls and entrust the functions of treasurer to three monks. He also admonished the monks for using food properly, that they did not consume. He stated that it should be given to the poor and not to family members or dogs. He reminded monks that they should not eat meat and should keep silence according to the rule as well as keep in mind their obligation to give alms to the poor.
The valuation of the priory seven years later amounted to just over £ 56 of annual income, supplied mainly from appropriated churches (Ewenny, St Bride’s Major, Colwinston, Oystermouth, Pembrey, and St Ishmael). Still more difficult times came in the fourteenth century due to the onset of the plague and the end of the family of founders and patrons, the de Londres. At the beginning of the 15th century, the monastery’s property suffered considerable damages during the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr, probably because the prior helped organize a defense against the Welsh.
The convent was dissolved in 1536 and, in the same year, rented to Sir Edward Carne. In 1545, he bought monastic buildings along with its belongings and transformed them into a residence, although the temple still served as a parish church. At the end of the 17th century, the estate passed into the hands of the Turbervill family, and in the nineteenth century, the estate was taken over by Colonel Thomas Picton-Warlow and then his heirs. In 1803, the northern transept and side chapels of the church were destroyed.
The priory was surrounded by a defensive wall on a square plan of 173×118 meters and a length of about 550 meters, reinforced with four towers and two four-sided gatehouses, located on the north and south sides. The defensive wall was distinguished by a battered, oblique plinth and battlement with arrowslits pierced in melons, access to which was possible from the defensive wall-walk created at the wall offset.
The Romanesque priory church in its final form had the shape of a building on a Latin cross plan. It consisted of a single, five-bay nave, the northern and southern transept, a four-sided tower at the crossing and a rectangular chancel with chapels adjacent to the north and south. On each side, there were two chapels of different lengths, so that the whole had a stepped layout. At the end of the 12th century, the northern wall of the nave was pierced with arcades based on massive cylindrical columns, opening onto the northern aisle.
The main nave was illuminated in the longitudinal walls with narrow, semicircular windows (from the south they had to be above the roofs of the cloister). Similar ones were in the gable walls of the transept (three from the south and two from the north), while on the eastern part of the chancel with the main altar, the sun light through single windows from the north and south and a triad of windows in the eastern wall. This part, the last bay of the presbytery, was distinguished by a cross-rib vault, while the remaining ones were covered with a barrel vault with arch bands. At the height of the window sills, all the presbytery facades were surrounded by a characteristic decorative cornice formed in a chevron pattern, also used partially in the transept. The transept opened with semicircular, stepped arcades to the side chapels, above which there was a room, accessible by a straight four-sided passage. The internal chapels were also connected with the chancel with semicircular openings in the western bay and an unusual diagonal passage through the northern wall.
The southern side of the nave was adjoined to a patio surrounded by cloisters and monastery buildings with all the rooms required by the rule: a dormitory, refectory, chapter house, and economic buildings. Their exact layout is not known, it can only be assumed that, according to the Cistercian rule, the refectory was located in the southern range, the chapter house on the ground floor of the east wing, and the dormitory on its first floor.
The monastery church has survived until now without the northern transept, the western bay of the nave and the chapels that once surrounded the chancel. The northern aisle of the nave does exist, but it is the result of works from the 19th century. The monastery buildings have not survived or have been drastically rebuilt, losing their original stylistic features. The most interesting element are the fortifications visible on the west side of the church, unique in Wales. A large fragment of the defensive wall and five towers and gatehouses have been preserved.
The priory church is an excellent example of Norman romanesque architecture. Inside the magnificent chancel you can see a rood screen from the fourteenth / sixteenth century. Only the church is open to visitors, as the remaining buildings remain in private hands and are inhabited. Of course, you can view the monastery’s fortifications from the outside.
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, Ewenny Priory Church.