The first timber priory in Penmon was founded in the sixth century by Saint Seiriol, but in 971 it was destroyed by the Viking’s raid. Reconstruction and transformation into a stone building took place in the 12th century under the rule of Gruffudd ap Cynan and Owain Gwynedd. The oldest part of the priory church, that is the nave, was completed around 1140, the transept and tower were built in 1160-1170, and the chancel was added in the years 1220-1240. This happened at a time when the Welsh king Llywelyn ap Iorwerth ordered north Wales convents to be reorganized according to the Augustinian rule.
Penom was closely associated with the Welsh dynasty of the Gwynedd rulers, among others in 1258 the prior witnessed Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s document in connection with the money lent to him by Maredudd ap Rhys. These relationship, as well as the location of the monastery, caused damages done by King Edward I’s army in 1282 during the anti-Llywelyn campaign. After the war and the English conquest of Wales ended, the brothers received compensation in the amount of £ 46, but the devastated priory was still in debt. Perhaps this was the reason for the legal dispute in which the convent entered with royal officials regarding an unknown stone building.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, written sources rarely mentioned Penmon. The lack of major construction activity suggests that its situation was not very good at the time. To some extent, this is confirmed by charges made to Penmon priors during the audit of Canterbury archbishops from 1504 and 1509. In addition to criticism of finance, priors were accused of maintaining a concubine and not participating in the assemblies of the Augustinian General Chapter.
The priory was dissolved in 1537, during the reign of Henry VIII. Its lands became the property of local landowners, the Bulkeley family, and were used as a deer park. However, the church remained in use, and a significant part of it was rebuilt in 1855.
The priory church from the 12th century was a Romanesque building that was wanted to be erected on a cross plan. At that time, it consisted of a rectangular nave, northern and southern transept arms and a square tower above them. In the next century, a rectangular chancel was built on the eastern side. What is unusual, it received larger dimensions than the nave.
The nave of the church was set on a chamfered plinth and reinforced from the outside with pilaster – buttresses. Its lighting was provided only by very small openings with semicircular closures, one from the north, west and south. The original entrance, embedded in a Romanesque portal with a tympanum depicting an animal or a beast biting its own tail, was on the south side. The portal was flanked with columns and equipped with a semicircular, profiled archivolt decorated with a tooth frieze. In the 13th century, an additional entrance portal was created in the north wall. The early-Gothic chancel was already equipped with larger two-light windows with openings topped with trefoils. In particular, the eastern window illuminating the altar stood out, it was large, pointed, filled with a three-light tracery.
To the south of the church chancel, there was a square patio surrounded by cloisters, the sides of which were about 14 meters long. Its eastern, western and southern sides were occupied by priory buildings. The south wing consisted of a thirteenth-century rectangular, two-story building, containing utility rooms in the ground floor, a refectory on the first floor and a dormitory in the attic. From the east, a square extension from the 16th century adjoined it, containing a room heated by a fireplace and a kitchen above. It is not known what rooms were located in the eastern and western wings.
The monastery at Penmon is currently the only one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in North Wales. The priory church has been preserved in excellent condition, although the northern arm of its transept and the eastern wall of the southern arm required reconstruction in the 19th century. The southern wing of the enclosure buildings is today in a state of a ruin. Unfortunately, the west range has been rebuilt into a modern house, and there are no visible traces of the eastern range or cloister. The priory is open to visitors for free.
Burton J., Stöber K., Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, Chippenham 2015.
Salter M., Abbeys, priories and cathedrals od Wales, Malvern 2012.
Wooding J., Yates N., A Guide to the churches and chapels of Wales, Cardiff 2011.