A large contingent from Llanelli joined members from Carmarthen on their way to Abergavenny for the May event, hosted by the Abergavenny Local History Society. They were entertained to coffee at the Priory Centre before being addressed by Sir Trefor Morris, CBE, QPM, formerly Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Chairman of the Police Information Technology Organisation. An authority on the history of St. Mary's Priory Church, his talk was followed by a tour of the church, established by 1087 as a Benedictine priory attached to the abbey of St Vincent near Le Mans. It has been added to and rebuilt over the centuries and the tithe barn and small sections of the monastic buildings survive outside. The oldest part is the Romanesque arch of the east window.


Sir Trefor; part of the Romanesque arch in the background

 

There is an extraordinary collection of medieval tombs, mostly those of the Hastings and the de Braose families, descended from the Normans who came over with the Conqueror and members of the Herbert family and their predecessors William ap Thomas and his wife Gwladys. The Hastings family was responsible for rebuilding parts of the church in 1320 as well as for rebuilding the castle and town walls in stone.



In the background is the painted wooden effigy of John de Hastings, who died about 1324


Tombs in the Herbert Chapel

The greatest of the treasures is the 15th century wooden carving of Jesse, King David's father, which formed the centrepiece of an exhibition of medieval sculpture at the Tate a few years ago. Once the base of a magnificent reredos (altar piece), it would have depicted all the descendants of Jesse on the various branches winding their way towards statues of the Virgin and Child and Christ in Glory.

 


Head of the Jesse carving

 

The afternoon session started at the town museum in the Victorian hunting lodge built on the motte of the Norman castle. The highlight is a reredos mural which had been found in the sealed-off attic of Gunter House at the southern end of the town, used as a secret chapel when it was illegal to practise Catholicism.

The history and archaeology of the castle was described by Rachael Rogers, curator of the museum. The charter granted by Hamelin de Ballon, who founded the priory and the borough, shows that that the castle predates them slightly. In 1175 the Great Hall was the scene of the Christmas massacre when the Welsh lord Seisyll and many other nobles were killed at a feast given by the Norman lord William de Braose. Despite years of animosity between the two sides this was regarded as gross treachery as it violated the rules of hospitality. In 1291 Edward I and his court were in residence for three weeks. The castle was held for the Royalists in the Civil War but in 1645 the habitable part was burned to make it unavailable for the approaching Parliamentarians.


A town walk, led by Richard Davies, took in the site of the town gates and the layout of the medieval streets. West Gate, through which drovers brought animals from the west, led into the market place. The ancient church of St. John became King Henry VIII's Grammar School in 1542 when St Mary's priory became the parish church at the Reformation.


The town's prosperity grew from agriculture and related industries and this is reflected in some of the older houses. The town house of the Vaughans of Tretower became the Cow Inn and is now the Coffee House. It has cow's heads and a colourful frieze around the windows. Tan House stands where the tannery occupied the low ground below the castle near the mills outside the town walls. The market hall replaces John Nash's hall which itself replaced the 17th century market.

The final session was a talk by Father Thomas Regan on the history of Catholicism in an area where the faith has always been very strong. David Lewis, a priest who was sheltered in Gunter House, served in the area for 30 years before being betrayed and executed in Usk in 1678. He was canonised in 1970.