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The History of Ewenny Priory
Ewenny Priory Church
“the best preserved example of a Norman priory church in South Wales” - Malcolmn Thurlby Romanesque Architecture & Sculpture in Wales 2006.
“the most complete & impressive Norman building in Glamorgan” - John Newman The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan 1995.
“a remarkable example of pure Norman work throughout” - Geoffrey Orrin Medieval Churches of the Vale of Glamorgan 1988.
Fortifications, only surviving Romanesque wall-painting in Wales & the 21st century Pulpitum Screen by Alexander Beleschenko.
As well as its historical/architectural significance the worship of God has taken place continually in this building for nearly 900 years. The Priory Church is very much a place of worship, prayer & witness to faith in the living God to this day.
Ewenny Priory, Ewenny Church & its association with Kenfig
Celtic Christian Origins
The Christian Faith came to South Wales with the Roman Occupation in the 4th century and in the 5th century with Irish missionaries possibly sailing up the Bristol Channel or following the old Roman roads from west Wales - missionaries also came into south east Wales from England at this time.
Around 500AD a monastic community or 'LLan' had been founded by St Illtud at Llantwit Major and by St Cadoc at Llancarfan - from these 2 monastries monks went out into the Vale of Glamorgan & wider afield to establish new 'Llanau' or 'Communities'.
There is no firm evidence of a pre-Norman church and community at Ewenny but there are many clues as to the possibility of there having been so.
Ewenny is close to the great military road, Via Julia Maritima which ran from Gloucester to St Davids and Roman remains have been found in the village of Ewenny itself. The 12th century 'Book of Lladaff' mentions an 'Ecclesia de Euenhi' dating back to Celtic Christian times (Possibly this is how it derived its modern name?). There are also a number of fragments of crosses in the Priory Church, some with typical Celtic design of the 10th century which are built into the walls.
The Priory Church is dedicated to St Michael the Archangel (devotion to St Michael spread from Brittany to Wales in the 8th century).
A list of monastries & churches in the Vale of Glamorgan at the time of the Norman conquest mentions an 'abbey of St Michael' ruled over by Marchi, the son of Catgen but there's no evidence as to where this abbey was situated.
Founding of Ewenny Priory
Tomb of Maurice de Londres
ICI GIST MORICE DE LUNDRES'LE FUNDUR DEU LI RENDE SUN LABUR AM (Here lies Maurice de Londres, the Founder. God reward him for his work)
Kenfig's association with Ewenny Priory
1141-47AD: A confirmatory charter of gifts made to Ewenny Priory by Robert Consul, Earl of Gloucester. He held the Lordship of Glamorgan until his death in 1147. It records that the Earl gave the Priory 21 acres of arable land ajoining the town of Kenfig & also a burgage lying on the Black River outside the gate of the said town.
Source: Evans/SK AL - The Story of Kenfig 1960
Kenfig History Timeline c.1147-1886
Maurice de Londres
Maurice wasn't necessarily altrustic in his gifts to the Abbey Church of Gloucester.
They may have been made to atone for his murder of Gwenllian, wife of the Welsh Prince of Deheubarth in the courtyard of Kidwelli Castle.
Other Misdeads: He was denounced in a Bill of Pope Honorius II (1128AD) for robbing & defrauding the Cathedral Church of Llandaff and for plundering & killing itinerant merchants at Llandaff.
Maurice was threatened with excommunication if he didn't restore & make good whatever lands, tithes, oblations or other valuables he had appropriated from his mother church.
In 1093AD King William II granted lands in Glamorgan to his courtier, Robert Fitzhamon based at Gloucester. Robert moved westward to Cardiff and parcelled the land among his followers as sub-tenants to secure it through as series of castles & to settle and farm the fertile Vale of Glamorgan.
William de Londres had built as castle at Ogmore by 1107 to defend the western approaches to the Vale & guard the fords across the rivers Ogmore and Ewenny. There are 3 documents that provide evidence for the foundation of a Priory at Ewenny. These are...
- A letter written c.1145AD by Gilbert Foliot, the abbot of St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester says that a church was built at Ewenny by William de Londres & dedicated in the presence of Urban, Bishop of Llandaff. (William was dead by 1126 & Urban died in 1134)
- A Charter of confirmation granted by King Stephen in 1138 lists the church at Ewenny among the possessions of Gloucester Abbey.
- The List of Donations in the Gloucester Chronicles states that in 1141, Maurice de Londres, son of William de Londres, gave to the church of St Peter at Gloucester the church of St Michael at Ewenny, the church of St Bridget (St Brides Major) with the chapel of Ogmore & the church of St Michael of Colwinston...with all the lands, meadows & all other things belonging to them...in order that a convent of monks might be formed. Maurice's tombstone in the Priary describes him as 'the founder'.
The historical & architectural evidence points to William de Londres building Ewenny Priory Church (possibly on the site of a Celtic Christian monastry) between 1116 & 1126AD for a group of Benedictine monks; the foundation of the Priory as a daughter house of St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester (now Gloucester Cathedral) was confirmed in 1141AD by Maurice de Londres.
Life at Ewenny Priory
The Annals of Margam Abbey state that the new Priory was to have a complement of 12 monks & a prior which would have come from the mother house at Gloucester.
Gloucester Abbey became a Benedictine monastery in 1017AD with a new abbey church built c.1100 - some architectural details of Ewenny Priory Church reflect those at Gloucester. As Benedictines, the monks at Ewenny followed the rule of life drawn up by the Italian monk Benedict in the 6th century - this rule required poverty, chastity and obedience to the abbot and the rule.
The primary task was the 'opus Dei', the Work of God, a routine of 8-fixed periods of worship in church. The 1st, 'Matins' was at midnight, 'Lauds' at daybreak, 'Prime' at 6am, 'Terce' at 9am, 'Sext' at mid-day, 'None' at 3pm, 'Vespers' at 6pm and 'Compline' at 9pm.
These 'Offices' were centred on the chanting of the Psalms, readings from the Scriptures and prayers. Mass would have been celebrated at the High Altar following Terce with great ceremonial for festival days.
The monks would have lived in a dormitory on the south side of the church, entering worship through a staircase & doorway in the corner of the south transept.
The monastic buildings including the chapter house (where monks met to discuss business), the cloisters, refectory, guest house, and infirmary would have been situated where the present-day mansion now stands. The monks would be assigned tasks within the Priory, eg. maintaining the fabric, copying books of worship & cultivating the grounds; they would provide hospitality for the travellerand help the poor, aged & sick.
The Priory was given land by the de Londres & Turberville families, established granges or farms at Monknash, Wick and Corntown, had fishing and fuel rights and built cells at Wick & Llangeinor for monks to spend time on their own.
The nave of the Priory Church provided for the parishioners of the parish while the presbytery & transepts were reserved for the monks. The 2 parts seperated by a wall, the pulpitum screen - this screen was so called because it would have provided the support for a platform or pulpit for the reading of the Gospel in the Mass to the congregation in the monastic end, not the nave. For the Parish church, the screen served as a reredos to the altar.
During medieval times, the space between the pulpitum screen & the arch was possibly in-filled with timber on which a picture of the 'Doom' or 'Last Judgement' would have been painted. It was custom in monastic churches to have a seperate rood-screen supporting a carving of the Crucifixion westward of the pulpitum screen.
At Ewenny Priory Church, 2 small niches are cut into nave pillar to the left of the present organ; these might have supported a light wooden rood-screen with the crucifixion scene above. The worshipper in the nave would have seen the Cross silhouetted before the painting of the Last Judgement, thus illustrating the medieval prayer...'Set thy cross and thy passion between thy judgement and our souls, now and at the hour of our death.'
Effectively Ewenny was 2 churches in 1 with the priest celebrating Mass for the parishioners on Sundays entering the nave from the monastic end through the door in the wall.
The fortifcations were 1st erected in the 12th century and extended into the 13th providing protection for the monks from the repeated raids of the Welsh from the north and also to house a garrison as part of the defensive ring around the Ogmore area which included Ogmore, Newcastle & Coity castles. The church tower acted as a look-out post.
King Edward I during his conquest of Wales came to Ewenny for reinforcements in 1284AD. King Henry IV is said to have come to Ewenny in September 1405AD to make his final assault on Coity Castle to relieve it from the rebellious supporters of Owain Glyn Dwr; because of bad weather his efforts ended in total failure.
Little else is known of the medieval history of Ewenny Priory as the Annals are now lost. Giraldus Cambrensis, accompanying Archbishop Baldwin on his journey through Wales in 1188 to preach the 3rd Crusade mentions the party passing by the 'little cell of Ewenny' and the Priory was regarded since as no more than that.
Dissolution of Monastries
By the time of the dissolution of the monastries in 1536 the number of monks at Ewenny had dwindled to 3. The Priory was leased to Sir Edward Carne who retained a priest in charge. In 1545 Sir Edward purchased the Priory along with its possessions & those of Gloucester Abbey within the lordship of Ogmore for the sum of £727 6s 4 d. The nave continued as the parish church and a mansion for the Carne family built on the site of the monastic buildings.
The Priory passed by marriage in the 18th century to the Picton-Turbervill family who still own the monastic end though in the guardianship of CADW, Welsh Historical Monuments. The nave is in the possession of the Church in Wales and is still used as the parish church of Ewenny.
More Modern Times
J.M.W.Turner's water colour painting of the interior of the Priory Church (painted in 1797) gives the impression that its was then being used as a farm shed. By 1803 the north trancept, north aisle & west end of the church had collapsed; repairs were made with much of the Priory Church restored between 1869 and 1886.
The north aisle and porch were reconstructed in 1895.
The most recent restoration took place between 1998 and 2004 which included the insertion of a vestry, kitchen & toilet in the ruined west end, ramped access to the monastic end and a glass screen above the wall separating the nave & presbytery.
A service of Holy Eucharist is held every Sunday in the Priory Church at 9.30am - Concerts also take place as part of the Ewenny Arts Festival.
Repair & Conservation Works
The Priory Church of St Michael at Ewenny is a Norman church dating from the early 12th century.
After the dissolution of the Monastries the nave became the Parish Church & the remainder ruinous - After being restored in the late 19th & 20th centuries, the eastern arm is now under the guardianship of CADW.
Caroe & Partners Architects has been responsible for the repair & conservation of the Parish Church, including conservation of lime plaster surfaces, repaving the floors & reodrering of the nave and the restoration of the ruinous western bay.
In recent times, working for CADW, Caroe & Partners Architects have extended the conservation of the fabric into the crossing & transept including conservation of wall paintings & plasters, the provision of heating and new lighting and repaving the floors in like manner to the nave.
Source: Bridgend County Borough Council Library & Information Services, Text by Philip Morris, Ewenny Priory Church 2006, Caroe & Partners Architects.
Photos: Philip Morris, Michael Komor, Rob Bowen.
Webpage Author: Rob Bowen, Kenfig.org Local Community Group, 2012.
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