Notes on Llanthony Priory
1108 - 1951
Notes on Llanthony Priory
Llanthony Priory in the Honddu valley, founded in 1108, lay within land belonging to the Lordship of Ewyas Lacy at that time. As one of the earliest Norman monasteries to be planted in Wales, its origin was closely associated with the de Lacy family. Three accounts of its early history, with much pious embellishment, were recorded in the 12th century. One is by an early prior, William de Wycombe, writing a biography of his predecessor Robert de Betun who later became bishop of Hereford in 1131; another by Gerald of Wales, archdeacon of Brecon, who crossed the Black Mountains near Llanthony in 1188 while travelling through Wales to recruit for the Third Crusade; and the third by an unnamed monk of Llanthony who took the account up to about 1203.
The story is that the knight William de Lacy happened upon a ruined chapel in the Honddu valley while out hunting. Deeply affected by the remoteness and peace of this place – where St David was said to have lived as a hermit – he determined then to forsake the world and his life as a soldier to become a hermit there himself. 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. They chose the Augustinian order whose members were canons, as distinct from monks, with a pastoral role in taking services and preaching in local churches. At its peak, the monastery numbered forty canons.
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.
Despite the setbacks, Llanthony Prima was given a new lease of life by Hugh II de Lacy, Lord of Ewyas Lacy and a powerful Marcher baron. Hugh endowed the monastery 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. After Hugh’s death in 1186, his son Walter II de Lacy continued the patronage. With funding from Walter, the church – ‘one of the largest and finest in Wales’ – was completed between 1200-1230. In 1205 Llanthony Prima became independent of its daughter house in Gloucester. Walter also confirmed income granted by his father from churches in Ireland, where the de Lacy’s held the Lordship of Meath, and seems to have extended the local endowment of land to Llanthony, reaching ‘to the bounds of Talgarth’ and including Cwmyoy, Oldcastle, Walterstone and Newton. Some 16 churches in Ireland provided income which was collected there by visiting canon representatives.
Local conflict marked the 14th century, culminating in the decline of Llanthony Prima in the 15th century, initially from the rebellion of Owen Glendower in 1399, when for some four years it lay in land controlled by the Welsh, and later from the wars of Henry IV in Wales. By 1481 there were only four canons, and its independence ended with merger of the priory with Llanthony Secunda. At the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII, in 1538 the prior and four canons received pensions of £8.
In the subsequent history of Llanthony, the priory building and much of its land was granted by Henry VIII to a courtier, Nicholas Arnolde, for £160; a later sale brought it into the hands of the Harley family; in the 18th century it was bought by a Colonel Wood of Brecon who converted the west range into a house; in 1807 it was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor who carried out considerable landscaping in the valley. By this time, the church was in ruins: following the fall of east window in 1800, the west window in 1803 and collapse of four piers in the south nave arcade in 1837, efforts were made to strengthen the remainder with buttresses and iron ties. The central tower was strengthened in 1936-37, and in 1951 the Ministry of Works took responsibility for conservation. The ruins are now under state guardianship, managed by Cadw.
Craster, OE (1965) Llanthony Priory . Official Guide Book, HMSO
Roberts, George (1846) ‘Some Account of Llanthony Priory, Monmouthshire’, Archaeologia Cambrensis , Vol 3: 201-245
Lovegrove, EW (1938) ‘Llanthony Priory’, Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol 97: 213-229
For the Possessions of Llanthony Priory