Benedictine priory in Monmouth with the church of St. Mary was founded in 1075 by Gwethenoc, Lord of Monmouth, who held the local castle by William the Conqueror. He brought monks from the French St Florent de Samur, bestowed with privileges and donated a castle’s chapel, used by the brothers until the proper monastery was built. William I confirmed this foundation, and as he died in 1087, it must have happened before that date.
The construction of the new monastery church was carried out at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries. It was consecrated in 1101 by Bishop Hervey of Bangor, accompanied by another Lord of Monmouth, William Fitz Baderon, and Lord of Abergavenny, Hamelin de Ballon. It must have been a large celebration, for it was also graced by William, Abbot of Saumur with seven of his monks, Abbot Serlo of Gloucester and Theodoric, a monk who may have come from a branch of the Chepstow monastery.
Like most convents in the Welsh – English border, Monmouth Priory was often affected by the wars. In 1234 it was a conflict between Richard Marshall and King Henry III, during which the nearby church of St. Thomas, property of the Benedictine monks was burned. The king later donated 13 oaks from the Dean Forest to the monks for repairs, but sources from the 13th century indicated financial difficulties of the convent. In 1264, a monk Geoffrey Moreteau was sent from St Florent to Monmouth, who was to improve the management of the monastery after the former prior Walter, but he did not have any special successes and in 1279 the bishop of Hereford granted an indulgence to everyone who visited and supported the monastery and church of St. Mary. The situation apparently improved soon, largely thanks to income from the eight churches it owned and 10 more subordinates.
In 1309, the craftsman John Carpenter sought shelter in the priory church, chased by a band of Welsh led by Griffin Goht, who broke into the temple, dragged the chased man out and killed him in the adjacent cemetery. Due to bloodshed in the church, services could not be held for several years, and the convent again ran into problems, so great that there were even problems with finding someone willing for the position of prior. The economy of the monastery was improved only by pilgrims, after in 1398 Abbot Thomas obtained an alleged piece from the cross of Christ and a fragment of his clothing. The situation could also be improved by the independence of the convent from the superiors in France in 1415, thanks to which it was possible to carry out late Gothic construction works in the area of the claustrum buildings.
From the 12th century, the priory church began to function as a parish church, and it retained this function even after the convent was dissolved in 1537. From that moment on, the building began to fall into disrepair, which forced the complete reconstruction of the nave in 1736-1737 and the erection of the tall spire of the tower in 1743. At the end of the 19th century, the church was completely rebuilt again by George Edmund Street.
The priory was situated within the town walls of Monmouth, east of the castle, in the northern part of the town, close to the Monnow River. It occupied a separate area surrounded by a wall with a gate on the south. It consisted of a church and claustrum building located on its northern side. They were rebuilt in the late Gothic style in the 15th century, when the abbot’s residence was erected, or a guest wing with a decorative bay window on the north side. At a certain distance on the eastern side there was a monastic infirmary.
Priory church of St. Mary at the end of the Middle Ages, judging by the old engravings, probably consisted of an elongated nave on a rectangular plan, a shorter aisle attached to it from the south, a quadrilateral chancel extended from the east of the main nave, and a four-sided tower at the west facade. It was reinforced in the corners with high buttresses, and from the south-east side it received a small communication turret with a staircase. The west side was decorated with a large ogival window with tracery and an entrance portal, the facades were also pierced with smaller window openings topped with trefoils and large, two-light ogival windows on the top floor, where the bells were hung.
Currently, the only medieval element of the church is the tower from the 14th century. It is topped with an 18th-century spire and four pinnacles that match the tower’s style. The nave was replaced by a new building in the 18th century, and the chancel was thoroughly rebuilt. There are also not many traces of the monastery buildings, only on Priory Street there is a group of rebuilt buildings of medieval origin, currently occupied by the local community hall, one of which has a late-Gothic window bay.
Burton J., Stöber K., Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, Chippenham 2015.
Salter M., Abbeys, priories and cathedrals od Wales, Malvern 2012.
Salter M., The old parish churches of Gwent, Glamorgan & Gower, Malvern 2002.