Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Trials of Llanthony

Judith Arnopp

“In the deep vale of Ewyas, which is about an arrow-shot broad, encircled on all sides by lofty mountains, stands the church of Saint John the Baptist, covered with lead, and built of wrought stone; and, considering the nature of the place, not unhandsomely constructed, on the very spot where the humble chapel of David, the archbishop, had formerly stood decorated only with moss and ivy. A situation truly calculated for religion, and more adapted to canonical discipline, than all the monasteries of the British isle. It was founded by two hermits, in honour of the retired life, far removed from the bustle of mankind, in a solitary vale watered by the river Hodeni. From Hodeni it was called Lanhodeni, for Lan signifies an ecclesiastical place. This derivation may appear far-fetched, for the name of the place, in Welsh, is Nanthodeni. Nant signifies a running stream, from whence this place is still called by the inhabitants Landewi Nanthodeni, or the church of Saint David upon the river Hodeni. The English therefore corruptly call it Lanthoni, whereas it should either be called Nanthodeni, that is, the brook of the Hodeni, or Lanhodeni, the church upon the Hodeni.”

These are the words of Geraldus Cambrensis, describing Llanthony as it was in his day. A remote idyll set apart from the rest of the world; a place where the contemplation of God came easily.
It is still peaceful today and idyllic indeed. Yet it was the priory’s position in the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, as Geraldus describes, ‘fixed amongst a barbarous people’ that was its undoing, leaving it vulnerable to attack during the border warfare that raged between Wales and England in the 1130’s.

 The story of Llanthony is told through three chroniclers; the first an early prior named William de Wycombe; another by Gerald of Wales, archdeacon of Brecon, who crossed the Black Mountains near Llanthony in 1188; and the third by an unnamed monk of Llanthony who accounts for the years up to 1203.

It is said that while he was hunting one day the knight, William de Lacy, chanced upon a ruined chapel in a valley and, struck by its remote humility, he decided to forsake the world, and his life as a soldier and dedicate his future life to God.
Shortly afterward he was joined by Ernisius who was a chaplain to Matilda, Queen of Henry I, and together they established an Augustinian monastery. The Augustinian role was a pastoral one, taking church services and preaching locally but it was those locals that it tried to serve who began the trouble.


 In the 1130’s the Priory was engulfed by the border wars between England and Wales and due to the constant attacks, shortage of supplies and the threat of starvation, it was soon on the brink of foundering. Most of the community, at the invitation of Bishop Robert de Betun, took refuge in Hereford where they remained for two years until 1136 when a daughter house was opened in Gloucester. This foundation was known as Llanthony Secunda and soon the original monastery, now referred to as Llanthony Prima, became a retreat house and was demoted from an abbey to a priory.

Llanthony was given a new lease of life by the powerful marcher lord, Hugh de Lacy II who endowed the priory with more lands and revenues and began a lavish phase of building, the remains of which work can be seen today. Hugh’s son, another Walter de Lacy, continued the patronage and it was under his care that the church building was finally completed, becoming ‘one of the largest and finest in Wales.’

 The building of the priory church which began around 1180 and continued until 1230 became one of the great medieval buildings of Wales.  It was built in standard cruciform shape with a massive crossing tower and two smaller towers at the west end.
The east door with Norman style arch.
The earlier phase of  building in the east end is comprised of Norman style arches while the later work toward the west end, is in the taller, Gothic style. In its day the crossing tower was considerably taller than we see it today and archaeological excavation has suggested that during the late 14th century, it held a primitive type of clock to mark the hours.

The church ruins are still elegantly awe-inspiring, and even allowing for the later addition of a house and farm buildings and modern day tourists, a certain tranquillity remains.  With a little imagination it is easy to picture the priory as it once was.

And then you begin to realise that, as with most British ecclesiastical ruins, for much of the time Llanthony would have been far from tranquil. For most of its working life it would have been either a building site or under attack from locals, leaving little time for religious contemplation.

The priory’s fortunes were never stable and while local conflict continued, slowly the numbers of the brotherhood dwindled. After the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in 1399 the Priory fell into enemy hands, entrenched in Welsh controlled lands and it continued to suffer in this manner during the wars of Henry IV in Wales.

By 1504 there were just four remaining canons in residence and, after the dissolution in the 16th century, those canons were paid off with pensions of £8 each and the site was sold and left to deteriorate.
Henry VIII granted the priory building and much of the land belonging to Llanthony to Nicholas Arnolde for the sum of £160 and it was later sold to the Harley family. In the 18th century it was bought by Colonel Wood of Brecon and the west range converted into a house.  In 1807 it was purchased by the poet, Walter Savage Landor, who landscaped the valley.

By this time the church was a ruin. The east window fell in 1800, the west window in 1803 and four piers in the south nave arcade collapsed in 1837. It was then that efforts were made to strengthen the remainder with buttresses and iron ties. The central tower was strengthened in 1936-7 and in 1951 the Ministry of Works assumed responsibility for conservation.

A visit to a once great, ruined building is always a little tinged with sadness. But a visit to a fallen religious house is sadder still, failed human aspiration is always hard to take. I prefer to go alone, not in a crowd, for in the shadows of that former world something remains of the medieval mindset.  The forgotten past echoes around the towering stone edifice, and there is nowhere better to sit for a while to contemplate, as the canons intended, the whys and wherefores of human existence.

The priory is now managed by Cadw and is free to visitors.

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Photographs property of Judith Arnopp 2012