Llanthony Priory

 After our visit to Hay on Wye last weeekend we decided to drive back along the mountain road and down into Cwm Ewyas. This a narrow glacial valley hidden away between two steep ridges, with the Afon Honddu running along the valley floor. It is right on the border between Wales and England which runs along the Hatterall Ridge to the east. The valley is named after the Cantref of Ewias, which may have originally been a small Welsh kingdom following the Roman withdrawal from Britain. After the conquest of England by the Nromans and consequent invasion and expansion into Wales it became an autonomous lordship within the Welsh Marches. In 1536, the Vale became part of the new county of Monmouthshire while other parts of Ewyas to the east became incorporated into Herefordshire

While we had been in Hay the Beacons had received a Ishtar dusting of snow transforming Gospel Pass at the head of the valley. The name reputedly derives from 1188 when Gerald Cambrensis passed through the valley with the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching for the 2nd Crusade. I’m not sure why the local serfs and farmers would care about a war in a strange and distant land, but who knows. The narrow road winds slowly down into the valley, and it takes some concentration then the road is hemmed in by the hedgerows. There is only room for one car at a time and it’s common that when you meet another car coming in the opposite direction one of you has to reverse to the nearest passing place.

 As the road levels out lower down the valley are the ruins of Llanthoney Priory. This is one of the earliest Augustinian houses in the UK, and one of only a handful in Wales. The ruins seen today were raised originally between 1180 and 1230. However, the presence of a major religious presence n the valley go much further back. Tradition has it that St David created a hermitage here in the 6th century living on only water and wild leeks. Not the most appealing of log term menus. The leek became the national symbol of Wales before the Victorians replaced it with the daffodil. The Prioiry name is derived from these early beginnings. Llanthoney is a corruption of Llanddewi nant Honddu – The Chrurch of St David on the River Honddu.

600 years later William de Lacy, a knight in the service of Hugh de Lacy, sheltered in the small St David’s church here when out hunting. He was so overcome with the experience of such a remote place that he chose to give up the life of a soldier and become a hermit. He was soon joined by one Ernisius, former chaplain to Queen Matilda wife of Henry I, and together they were persuaded to set up a monastery. There were 40 canons in residence at it’s height. Border wars with the Welsh in the 1130’s brought the monastery to the brink of catastrophe, when cut off from supplies and starving most of the community took refuge in Hereford at the invitation of Bishop Robert de Betun. They stayed for two years until a daughter house in safer country was opened in Gloucester in 1136; known as Llanthony Secunda it soon eclipsed its forerunner. The original monastery, Llanthony Prima, then took on the role of a retreat house and was demoted from an abbey to a priory. 

Hugh II de Lacy, Lord of Ewyas Lacy and a powerful Marcher baron, later came to the rescue of the monastery  endowing it with lands in Ewyas including the Honddu valley, Walterstone, Llancillo and Rowlestone (though his generosity may reflect the marginal value of a frontier prone to trouble), and began a lavish rebuilding project. When Gerald Cambrensis came through through the valley on his “crusade promotion tour” the new Llanthony Priory was under construction. Gerald considered it “truly fitted for contemplation, a happy and delightful spot, established to supply all its own wants”. He contrasted it with the “extravagance, luxury, pride, sumptuousness, intemperance, ingratitude and negligence” of its sister house at Gloucester, whose support was reducing Llanthony to penury. Gerald was an early Welsh nationalist. The order (also known as Black Canons) came to England in 1106, and spread rapidly – at their height the Augustinians had over 200 priories/houses in England and Wales. The monastic rule followed by the Augustinians was not particularly austere. Each of the Canons was a priest and as such not bound to his house, but was fre to have outside responsibilities, such as to a parish, running schools, hospitals and almhouses. However the lived the same type of communal life as monks and their priories shared the same basic components of those of the monastic orders. 

The Priory flourished for a number of years. At one time 16 churches in Ireland provided income which was collected there by visiting canon representatives. However, the good times did not last long. Following Owain Glyndŵr’s  rebellion in the early 15th century, the Priory seems to have been barely functioning. In 1481 it was formally merged with its daughter cell in Gloucester. By 1504 there were only 4 canons left, and after 1538 both houses were suppressed by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was sold for about £160 andleft to fall into ruin and decay.

In 1799 the estate was bought by Colonel Sir Mark Wood,  who converted some of the buildings into a domestic house and shooting box. He then sold the estate in 1807 to the poet Walter Landor, who spend a considerable amount of time an d money landscaping the valley, but eventually left after a number of disputes with local landowners.

This is a beautiful and remote valley, and the old Priory only adds to its other worldly presence. I always like visiting, but it is a place you have to want to visit as its off the beaten track. The narrow roads are not for the faint hearted. And if you do go, please learn the case when driving on narrow country roads. Remember that if you meet another car coming in the opposite direction don’t close your eyes and keep on driving hoping that they will miraculosly disappear. Stop, and think here you saw the las t passing place. If it just behind you, reverse! Don’t expect the other person to reverse a mile instead! There – rant over. For now maybe until I meet the next fool on a narrow road.

One thought on “Llanthony Priory

  1. Interesting history. I’ve driven some of those roads. Not easy. When I was at school in the 60/70s we had 4 ‘houses’ one of which was de Lacy. I never knew who de Lacy was!

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