Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny

Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny

The Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny is a church in the centre of the market town of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire in south east Wales in the United Kingdom.

St. Marys has been called 'the Westminster Abbey of Wales' because of its large size [] and the number of high status church monument tombs and the rare medieval effigies surviving within it [] .


It was originally the church of the Benedictine Priory established under Hamelin de Balun the first Norman holder of the title Lord Abergavenny or later Baron Bergavenny in the 1090s. At this time it was a cell of the Abbey of Saint Vincent at Le Mans in France. Recent archaeological surveys have revealed significant finds of Roman Samian ware pottery, suggesting that the Church may have been on the site of a previous site of Romano-British and possibly Celtic worship.

Henry de Abergavenny was a Prior here and later at Llandaff in the late 12th century and was chosen to assist at the Coronation of King John I of England in 1199.

Successive Lords of Abergavenny were by necessity also benefactors, including the pious and ruthless William de Braose, 7th Baron Abergavenny.

In 1320 John Hastings, 2nd Baron Hastings, called on the Pope to set up an investigation into the Priory, in which the monks were accused of failing to maintain the Benedictine Rule and the Prior, Fulk Gaston, absconded to the mother Abbey with the church silver!

Later History

By the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Priory had only the Prior and four monks. Due to the close connections between the Lords of Abergavenny and the Tudor dynasty the priory was spared and became the parish church.


The church is cruciform in layout and impressively large with a chancel and nave 172 feet long or 52 metres in length.

The central tower has Ten bells.

The church is mainly in the Decorated and Perpendicular Period architectural styles and was like many churches subjected to Victorian period refurbishment in the 19th century with sadly little trace of the original Norman architecture surviving. The Norman Baptismal font was rediscovered in the churchyard in the 19th century; it had been removed from the church in the 17th century by a local Baptist minister, John Abbot, on the grounds that he did not believe in infant baptism.

However the oaken choir stalls with carved misericords and carved lattice work backs are 15th century survivals. They bear the name of the Prior at that time named 'Wynchestre' and his own stall remains, slightly raised and surmounted by a mitre.


The chief claims to fame for the church today lie in its collection of effigies. The effigies are in wood, alabaster and marble and range in date from the 13th century to the 17th century. One effigy is that of John de Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny (died 1324) and shows him as a young knight, wearing a long surcoat over a hauberk and hood of fine chainmail.

The Lewis Chapel

In the Lewis Chapel within the priory church are two female effigies, one holding a heart in her palm, a device used to signify a possible 'heart only' burial and dates from the end of the 13th century. Her identity is unsure but she is certainly a high status individual as she bears a shield bearing a coat of arms, which is rare for a female effigy. Her neighbour, a second female effigy, dated from the 14th century, is likely to be Eva de Braose who died while pursuing her pet Red squirrel when its escaped and ran along the castle walls at Abergavenny Castle, causing Eva to fall to her death while attempting to recapture it. The effigy has a light chain around her waist and was documented once as having been attached to a small squirell which formed part of the effigy. It has since been knocked off or defaced. This act of vandalism most likely dates from the Commonwealth of England period (1649 - 1660) under Oliver Cromwell.

The Herbert Chapel

The Herbert Chapel contains recumbent monuments and effigies in both alabaster and marble associated with the ap Thomas and Herbert families. Sir Richard Herbert was brought up with the young Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, at Raglan Castle. In 1485 Herbert supported Henry's claim to the throne, fighting with him as he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. It is this support that ultimately saw St Mary's spared the worst of the despoliation of monasteries in the dissolution.

Within the chapel are also brasses dating from the 16th century and 17th century.

The Jesse

The Jesse [] is an elaborate, very large 15th century wooden carving which would have once been part of an even larger carving forming a Jesse Tree telling the lineage of Jesus Christ based on that in the Bible. It is unique in Britain and described by Tate Britain as one of the finest medieval sculptures in the world.

The Priory Church of St Mary Today

The church also contains a large 24 foot tapestry depicting the history of Abergavenny and constructed to mark the Millennium in 2000. This is shortly to he hung on public display in the adjacent tithe barn which has recently been restored as the Priory's Heritage Centre.

External links

* [ St Mary's Priory website]
* [ Local History website info]
* [ History UK website]
* [ The Choir website]
* [ The Tapestry info]
* [ A review of the church from a mystery shopper / worshipper]

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