St Mary’s Priory, Abergavenny

posted in: South Wales, Wales | 1
From front to back, Sir Richard Herbert of Coldbrook and Margaret, William ap Thomas and Lady Gwladys, and Sir William de Hastings
From front to back, Sir Richard Herbert of Coldbrook and Margaret, William ap Thomas and Lady Gwladys, and Sir William de Hastings

I’ve been meaning to have a go at the Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge for ages so I finally promised myself this would be the week. I’ve even written it in my diary and, in my world, if something’s written down it generally happens.

Having just returned from four fantastic days’ walking in the Black Mountains (it’s work, I swear!), I’d hoped the theme would be something like nature or trees… sheep perhaps (giving me a chance to use my ever-growing collection or sheep pics) … high, or even low (giving me the chance to focus on lush valleys like the beautiful, peaceful Olchen).  It was none of these; my heart sank when I read the word ‘inside’.

Inside! That’s a pretty difficult challenge for someone whose passion is being outdoors and who feels like a caged animal when bad weather or other commitments force her to remain within four walls. I blog almost exclusively about hiking and have always hoped that in my own small way I’m encouraging indoors types to get outdoors more,

It’s not that I don’t enjoy certain ‘inside’ places: historic country pubs, the Brew House at Tredegar House after my weekly parkrun. I even ventured into the enormous St David’s Shopping Mall in Cardiff last Thursday (carefully guided by my teenage daughter so I didn’t get lost!).  It’s just that I don’t tend to think about inside places as subjects for photographs. Clearly then, this week’s theme was going to more challenging than I’d envisaged.

And so I put my thinking cap on and I realised the most extreme experience of being inside is to be in a tomb (not that you’d have much awareness of your surroundings… I hope!).

Call me macabre, but I absolutely love wandering around graveyards, reading the oldest gravestones and imagining the lives of those long gone. Nowhere do you get a greater sense of history and the passage of time than in a graveyard and we often enjoy our picnic lunch in these peaceful, atmospheric surroundings. If they ever decide to do a remake of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I’d be out there lobbying for it to be set in Wales. True we don’t have the elaborate crypts of many European countries but we can boast some remarkable tombs and monuments, including those marked with incredibly detailed effigies.

 

The carved wooden effigy (c.1325) of Sir John de Hastings
The carved wooden effigy (c.1325) of Sir John de Hastings

We recently popped into St Mary’s Priory Church in Abergavenny for a look around. Amazingly, despite working for the local council and travelling to Abergavenny many, many times, I’d never actually gone inside the church before.  In fact, if Harri hadn’t treated himself to a copy of John Davies’ wonderful book Wales: 100 Places to see before you die, we’d have remained completely oblivious to Abergavenny’s amazing treasures. (Unfortunately, Harri bought the Welsh language version so I can’t actually read it, but Marian Delyth’s photographs are superb.)

As we walked down the church aisle, we were greeted by an astonishing sight: rows of life-size effigies lay on top of the tombs, several carved in marble, others in stone.

St Mary’s was founded in 1087 as a Benedictine Priory and its display of effigies must surely be among the best-preserved in the UK. It’s kind of weird to wander around looking at these life-sized figures, frozen forever in time, knowing  that they were once living, breathing human beings.

I was particularly fascinated by one monument: a man and woman lie alongside one another, their hands raised in prayer, yet on closer inspection, you can see the man’s head is resting on the torso of a female child. His young daughter, perhaps?

 

William ap Thomas (d.1446), his head resting on the figure of a small child
William ap Thomas (d.1446), his head resting on the figure of a small child

The oldest monument in the church is the tomb of Eva de Braose, who died in 1246; however, the most revered is the larger-than-life figure of Jesse, which was carved from one solid piece of oak and once formed the base of an intricate construction depicting the lineage of Jesus Christ from Jesse, the father of King David. Apparently, so-called Jesse figures are not uncommon in stone and stained glass but the sculpture at St Mary’s is the only one in wood to be found in the UK – and probably the world.

Unfortunately, its vast size and positioning in the church, (there are stained windows behind it) makes it difficult to photograph but it’s definitely worth visiting to see for yourself.

 

A unique fifteenth-century representation of King David's father Jesse carved from oak
A unique fifteenth-century representation of King David’s father Jesse carved from oak

There are also small scale effigies hanging on the church walls and St Mary’s helpfully provides visitors with a free leaflet with which to identify individual historic figures (incidentally, admission to St Mary’s is free but there is a suggested donation of £2 per person).

 

The tomb of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas, backed by a plaque depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary
The tomb of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas, backed by a plaque depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary

St Mary’s Priory Church believes that the fact these monuments survived the worst ravages of Reformation might ‘well have something to do with the politics of a region with close ties to the House of Tudor. It might also have seemed unwise to antagonise the powerful  Herbert Dynasty by severely damaging the figures of its ancestors.’

Well survive the centuries these effigies most certainly did, and they are definitely well worth stepping inside to look at, even for we outdoors types.

 

A section of the Abergavenny Tapestry depicting the oak-carved Jesse Tree
A section of the Abergavenny Tapestry depicting the oak-carved Jesse Tree

 

  1. Valkrye Brumby

    Hello, Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post~ I mentioned in an earlier comment on your blog that I love exploring ancient churches and find monuments and headstones fascinating~ although I love being outside in the natural world,human history also interests me so loved this post . Super photos too! Thanks

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